12 Days Before The Mast: A landlover sets sail and confronts the ocean
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories to ever run in the magazine. Today's selection is "12 Days Before The Mast," which appeared in the Sept. 25, 1961 issue. The author was Gil Rogin, who would go on to become both the managing editor of Sports Illustrated and an acclaimed writer of both short stories and novels, as well as a frequent contributor of fiction pieces for The New Yorker. Rogin's lyrical feature writing, often about boxing, graced the pages of SI for many years. This piece, however, is an essay that finds the young writer out of his element yet near the peak of his talents.
The ruts and tracks of life are made early, and mine never led to sea, so I don't know what others lose and find there. The oceans—Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and so forth—which call others like Roland passionately blowing on his horn are, to me, as oppressive as dark rooms full of old, heavy furniture. What can you say about the sea? "High interiors and kelpy bottoms"? Chekhov said that you can say nothing significant about the sea except that it is big. But the sea is also—out of sight of land and off maps—perfectly round. Sailors call it the round locker. Traveling, one remains in its center as though fixed with a pin.
Several weeks before crossing from San Pedro, Calif. to Honolulu on the 55-foot yawl Santana, in the Transpacific race, I was swimming at Key Biscayne, Fla. I wore a reed hat in the water that completely covered my face, the hat apparently floating, like an old bird's nest, on the Atlantic. Its brim, my horizon, was three inches from my lips. I moved within that silent shade, unaware of gain or tidal loss, and it was that way on the Santana. Her horizons were 20 miles off, but her sea and illusory progress were the same. Santana had the broad, variable sky for a hat: after sunset, great fires burning beyond the sea's melancholy rim, clouds and apocalyptic shafts and strokes of light, squalls with black manes of rain, a bos'n bird, its tail a knitting needle, fluttering about the masthead, never seen approaching or noticed departing, more omen than bird.
The sea, too, in itself is quiet. Even in the most remote part of the land you can hear something—an insect's minor progress, a dislodged stone. At sea the noise is from the boat, the junction of the boat with wind and water, sea or rain.
And, to a sailor's purposes, the ocean is empty. This is a catalog of all the living things we saw during our 12 days' passage. One whale blowing dispiritedly, its spout a feeble, windy fountain in its old, soft gray head. Flying fish. One came aboard; it was only an inch long but perfectly formed, its back as blue and shining as the sea it flew wildly out of, its eyes immense, round, blind in its dying, its wings, when we spread them, no larger than a bee's. A narrow, silver fish that washed into the cockpit at night; we shone the flashlight on it, held It speculatively and then threw it back, but it was already dead. A squid. It came in over the weather rail. I fished with it from the stern when the sun rose, but it was quickly torn from the hook. Three bugs; one on the underside of a hatch cover, another vanishing down a cockpit drain, the last in the fo'c'sle. Albatrosses with white faces like clowns. Shearwaters. Little petrellike birds. Bos'n birds. Spots of phosphorescence in the wake betraying anatomies. And one white bird searching like prudent Noah's dove. Many days we saw nothing.
I now sit in a hotel in Waikiki, with green mountains and the roar of air conditioners at my back. The sea is the other way, beyond the wall, but I feel its tug at night; I dream about boats, which I have never dreamed of before, and the bed and carpeted floor tilt like Santana's, decks. It is as if some fundamental remnant of the Pacific still washed in my bilges and responded like the tide. I am back, huddled in the cockpit in the dark with the starboard watch. We sit about it like old men with pale feet in a bathtub, past reflection and communication: all has been said and all seen; they stare at their toes because toes have no meaning. We have said nothing and won't; we are like preserves in ajar. It is an intimacy only of bodies. What have we in common but the heaving boat, a thermos of coffee and dreams of the islands? Of course, I speak for myself here, as always. We were four strangers meeting by convention like a Geneva commission, polite on account of manners or the unbearable consequences of violating, by honesty or rudeness, the equanimity of our confinement, desperately telling jokes one after another as though we were lost and blowing on our last fire, laughing uproariously, giggling, listening to cheap night music, when we could find it, on Babe's radio and, for hours in the cloudy nights, silent.
Babe said it was sometimes just as well not to talk too much. He told of a screwy kid who drove everyone below with his endless, inane chatter, except the old man who hung on grimly at the wheel. Finally the kid was quiet until he saw two sea gulls flying off in opposite directions. "Look at those gulls," he told the old man. "I wonder if they'll ever see each other again." The old man swore, abandoned the wheel and went below.
The jokes; how many did we tell before we ran out—500? All this was when the boat was nearly level, when we were running before the northeast trades, those elusive winds. In the beginning, when we were reaching, the wind blowing on the starboard beam, I sat braced by the weather rail, the seas sluicing under my foul-weather gear, singing, within my hood, all the songs I knew. Babe and Sam sang from time to time, too. Then the Santana was driving, the sea seething like smoke along the lee rail, the bow waves red and green from our running lights, the big genoa, mainsail and little mizzen staysail full and drawing. "Niner. Niner," we cried as the Kenyon, the nautical speed indicator, showed nine knots. I was known as Toots Kenyon, ludicrously got up in flannel pajama bottoms beneath Bermudas as though dressed for a roller derby—all my other clothes were soaked—for my feet were always in front of the Kenyon, that round idol. When we flew—we had five straight days of making more than 200 nautical miles—it brought to mind a photograph of Whirlaway that hangs in New York bars. The caption reads: "FOUR FEET OFF THE GROUND...AND FLYING."
On our fifth day, before the wind turned and squalls overtook us and drove us north, we were fourth in the fleet of 41 boats on corrected time and second in Class B. Then we were stalled in great, slatting flats, listening to the artillery of the sails, wincing at the sudden spasms of gear, jibing, the port watch tumbling out, spreader lights casting wacky shadows on the ocean, the foredeck a hurrah's nest of sail and line as we wallowed, sick with rage, barely making headway. We eventually finished 19th and sixth in our class.
In this discouraging weather Babe, that useful man, was at the wheel above the amphitheater of the binnacle. There the compass rose bloomed, red and strange, floating in glycerine and water. Babe said he expected to see a tiny skin-diver swimming in it some night. When Babe looked up, his cigarette end seemed to be a single fiery eye in the middle of his forehead. Babe, the professional, his full beard the color of beer, strong, knobby fingers shaped like those of one of the great apes, ruins of cheeks caved in curiously like arroyos, eyes the color of his faded jeans, big, soapy teeth, a reliable, proficient and handsome man, quiet—you could hardly hear him on the foredeck—a leader if he chose (but professionals are not permitted to command, and so he patiently endured). By trade a maintainer of boats, he would later sail the Santana home. Painter of marine scenes, reciter of Masefield, singer of Tahitian songs, woodcarver and shoemaker and so forth, he lives with his clever, pretty wife 98 steps up a hill in Tiburon, Calif., raccoons in his attic. People asked him what he did in real life.
Al was watch captain—Alvadore, after Alvadore, an ancestor, after a popular Civil War song, or so he said, Alvadore, My Commodore. Alvadore, Ore. is named after Al. A thick, powerful man with daintily rolled sleeves, he worked for Wally, the Santana's owner and captain, in the oil business. Somehow he resembled the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Al always said, "Oh, very well. Whatever's customary." He told us he learned it from an Aussie. Too, everyone he has met seems to have turned out to be a "hell of a nice guy." Sam, an Oakland obstetrician and gynecologist', was the fourth member of the starboard watch: big and tangle-footed and the most obliging, accommodating, eager man I have ever known.
We saw little of the port watch—indeed, at times, we might as well have been on separate ships—except in the evening during the dog watches and happy hours when it was too early or too late to sleep. There was Bob, who is 17, growing a wistful red beard and entering Cornell in the fall; Lew, Wally's son, who owns the Jet Car Wash in Sacramento and talked of going into the drive-in dairy business. I used his bunk and sleeping bag. His hammock was full of karting magazines. Pat is in marine insurance. He is a daring, confident sailor who grew somewhat bitter at what he, and others, agreed were often indecisive, conservative and dilatory racing tactics. "We are cruising," he said more than once, "under racing sails." Not, I gather, that more radical strategy and authoritarian command would have made a good deal of difference. The Santana, built in 1935 as a schooner by Sparkman & Stephens and owned by several film stars, including Humphrey Bogart (SI, April 30, 1956), is essentially a heavy-weather boat. The light airs of the trades didn't move her.
Glenn, the fourth member of the port watch, was sailing master of the Santana: 68, skin like a Seckel pear's, large, responsive nostrils and notable ears. This was, no doubt, his last ocean race. I can hear him crying, "Make her go, Babe, goddamit. Make her go," as though it were his first race on the Bay. He sings, in a worthy monotone, The Prince of the Sargasso Sea and Abalone Moon. He is a retired agriculturist and was world Star boat champion in 1933. Before the start off Point Fermin, he went below and lay in his bunk; all that morning he had been as restive and fussy as an orchestra conductor. He came up precisely half an hour before the gun to take the wheel, wearing soft gloves and a yachting cap bashed in like a bus driver's. He had us stand by to hand him lit cigarettes, candy, cups of water, and to take his jacket off and put it on. He muttered sour exhortations to himself as we jibed over and over again with the others across the line, like cunning moths circling a bulb. We were away maybe sixth, heading for the West End of Catalina. As we came about so that we could round the island, a large family was sitting along the rail of a pitching powerboat, legs dangling over the side, blowing New Year's Eve horns in farewell.
Off, at last, in the evening for Oahu on a starboard tack, the big A boats ahead of us heeled over similarly, so distant in the graying light that their sails looked like nail cuttings. The dun hide of Catalina was the last land we saw until Molokai 12 days and some 2,300 nautical miles later. I was told that when we were halfway to the islands we were farther from any land than at any other point on the globe. When we finally jibed off Molokai, emotionally—"Let's jibe then, goddamit," Glenn shouted after the customary debate—with a brute of a squall bearing down upon us (we had a knockdown when she hit, boom in the water, gear fouled), Glenn stood at the wheel, looking older and more worn than ever, and I read the compass for him. He could not see the numbers. When we saw the dark, formidable headlands of Oahu and boiled up the channel, once making12½ knots, our fastest, Glenn slept obscurely below. He came up for the finish, however, and as Wally took over from Babe to cross the line, his fires flared again, he cheered and kibitzed the skip-per home and went ashore, like the rest of us, burdened with flowers. They say that Glenn laughs and sings in his sleep.
We were 11 altogether: Wally, Gael, the navigator, and Riley, the cook, did not stand watches. Perhaps we were 12 if you count the phantom. He was a character in an elaborate joke Babe told one mild evening in the trades—the evening Gael played the ukulele and sang to us in his high, affecting voice, and we shot Riley's .22 over the taffrail at colored balloons receding on the six-foot swells. The phantom became a member of the crew and left sneaky notes on the bulletin board. Riley, who is in the oil business, too, had misgivings about being cook, but he never complained and remained surprisingly cheerful. It was a thankless job, strapped in his harness, like a telephone lineman, as the boat suddenly slammed over, filling the galley with a storm of deviled eggs. He became adept at tossing garbage out of the open galley skylight and over the lee rail. Gael is a partner in an advertising agency. He had navigated, I believe, during World War II. Wally was in oil and obviously quite wealthy: a yacht, they say, is a hole in the water surrounded by wood into which money is poured. He is a West Point graduate and served as a brigadier general of artillery in the Pacific; World War II was a common, and often dreary, topic of conversation. The guns had made him slightly deaf and, as a result, he speaks with startling volume. The heavier the weather, the more Wally enjoyed it. The rare times he drove the boat you-could see him grinning with delight. He has owned nine boats over the years, five sail and four cruisers. "I never sailed them myself, though," he lamented one night in the main cabin. "I never had the time and there was always someone willing to do it for me." In a sense, Wally served as Gael's assistant. The Santana was abundantly navigated. At noon and at innumerable other times Wally and Gael would emerge, like moles, from the companionway with their sextants, trailed by Riley and Lew with stop watches, while we hummed, rather under our breaths, a martial air. We called it The March of the Navigators. They shot the hell out of the sun. Venus, more elusive, got off easy.
In 1834 Richard Henry Dana wrote in Two Years Before the Mast, "A sailor's life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous." This book was on board. I read it in the cockpit and forward, with a sail bag as a back rest. They tell me that one of the delights of sailing is its tradition or heritage. This may be true, for what Dana wrote then holds now. It was a numbing, embittering and largely useless 12 days. There was no plot, no suspense. Our progress was as lacking in memorable incident as the passage of an hour hand across the face of a clock. We proved only that a curving, erratic line is not the shortest distance between two points. I will not deny, however, some simple pleasures. For instance, having a watchmate douse you with sea water drawn up in a plastic bucket and then lying naked on the warm planking to dry.
I have to remind myself. Things have a way of receding, like balloons astern or punch lines of the best jokes. Just now Wally phoned. He wants me on his starboard watch for the Acapulco race. He knows my sentiments, but he told me I'd think differently in a few weeks. Is this what they mean by sea change? But I have devised a way to remind myself. Next time they want to send me to sea I'll lock myself in the bathroom for 12days with canned goods, Sterno, an electric fan and an alarm clock. I'll sit in the tub for four hours, fully dressed, with the fan blowing across me, taking a cold shower. Then I'll get out, eat, undress and go back to the tub to sleep. Four hours later I'll put on my wet clothes, take another shower and so on.
What did I learn at sea? I know about endurance, but I do not class it as a virtue. What benefit is it to lie a few inches below the overhead in the fo'c'sle as the boat pitches and tosses so you have to hold tightly to the pipes or chains or be thrown; to lie there with a track meet going on overhead when the port watch changes sail; to listen to the seas washing over the foredeck and the ominous gurgling of the bow waves as the boat lifts its heavy head and sets it down? It's like living in a washing machine. Then they call you out, stumbling and cursing, your arm aching from hanging on while you slept, hopping about in a bizarre jig to try to get on your foul-weather gear, a suit notable for drying rapidly on the outside while remaining clammy as a cave's wall in the interior, then climbing up the companionway ladder and changing places, grunting greetings, with the port watch. I've known discomfort—and this discomfort was minor if prolonged—but discomfort is not a virtue, either.
I've known boredom, too, but never so total an apathy, where the bleakness and monotony of the sea seem to invade the mind, drown it, so that you cannot even rescue yourself with reveries, those comforting journeys. But my dreams at night, as though compensating, were extraordinarily vivid. Ask me what I did in real life when I was at sea and I will relate to you my dreams.