Creative Nonfiction Magazine

You can read Glenda Reed’s essay “The Good Captain” in issue 58 of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction.

The Good Captain

“When the sea is calm, every ship has a good captain.”
—sailing proverb

I watched the sleeping ocean from a corner of the cockpit. In the deep darkness, waves broke and collapsed in rhythmic, drawn-out hisses, luring me to sleep as they misted me with spray. Even in sleep, the ocean swell rolled forward, constant, like a shark that never stops swimming. I had felt that I could go on forever too, sailing west without stopping across the great expanse of the Pacific.

Then a few hours before sunset, a faint smudge had floated into view amidst the clouds on the horizon. A Marquesan island, hazy through the atmosphere, marked our entry into Polynesian waters. Sighting land awakened in me dormant memories: limitless freshwater, a bed that didn’t move, the quiet pleasure of a walk. Having sailed day and night for three weeks, I’d already spent the time I’d wanted with the open ocean. Having seen land, I was now starved for landfall. But the distant island was not a port of entry, and we could not lawfully stop there. We had to carry on; we still had one more night till our destination. We were headed for Nuku Hiva, a dead volcano thousands of miles from any continent.

I had three hours and twenty-seven minutes before Chet would relieve me from my watch. After dawn, we’d trade places and I’d flop into one of the bunks he and I and Cyrille, the other hitchhiking crew member, all shared, the cushions still warm from his body. In the meantime I stared down the sky.

On night watch, the very real (albeit unlikely) possibility of annihilation is balanced against total boredom. I watched for signs of changing weather or a ship’s light on the horizon. A 900-foot container ship cruises at around thirty nautical miles an hour with minimal crew to keep costs down. On autopilot, the captain literally asleep at the wheel, a container ship could run us down without ever knowing it had hit us.

In the groping dark, inky cumulus clouds were assembling behind us along the eastern horizon. The clouds could have been nothing, an annoying obstacle between me and the sunrise, or they could have been a squall, a localized storm. Without a moon, I couldn’t tell. I could barely see the clouds—gobs of black in an even blacker sky.

A squall could bring strong winds that might tear sails, break rigging. We couldn’t afford breakages so far from help. I turned away from the horizon and closed my eyes to relieve the painful pressure behind them, exhaustion from straining into the night. I just wanted an easy final watch. I didn’t want the hassle of deciding whether the clouds were going to coalesce into a squall. If, in fact, a localized storm was forming behind us on the eastern horizon, the trade winds would blow the squall onto us. Then, I’d need to determine if we could ride it out, or if I would need to wake the captain. And waking the captain was the last thing I wanted to do . . .