silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: February 2011

These days that slide.

After one week of one hundred words a day it occurs to me that this may be way more than any blog reader bargained for. And, after this thought has settled, there seems to be no redeeming the energy that once propelled that small project. From the middle of the ocean I can see my friend in Vancouver looking at her inbox on day humber five (she’s a subscriber and the only person other than my parents who I know for certain checks in every week), and as dedicated and enthusiastic a reader as she is, I can hear her say to me, “Stick to what works, Mer. Go for quality, not quantity. Plus, what about Wednesdays?”.
I hear her, loud and clear, and so honour the sentiment by giving her a Wednesday off. This also works as a handy excuse for the fact that I just didn’t get around to writing anything last week.

All of this said, the afore attempted format seems somehow appropriate as a method of recording these short and sliding days, the sparse and silent hours of night.

7. Three a.m. and the wind is tired too. Soon there is not enough to hold the boat over and so with every swell the air is knocked from the sails. I can almost see it spill darkly onto the deck, slither away into the water. The sails bang and groan – the real agony is not the storm but its twin, the calm.
Don’t you know how far I’ve come to be here? it asks me. It’s not your fault, I say as I lower the sails, that when you stop for a rest we think you have died.

8. Of course it seems silly, knitting a hat in all this heat, but it is my resistance, my protest, the flag I hold up to the sun at midday when the burning is brightest. The sun doesn’t hear me or care (I know), but row by row, I pull together memories of cold mornings and breath like smoke and give them to the months ahead (far ahead). Stitch by stitch I weave in threads of this heat as well, pull strands down from the sun here where it comes closest and hottest – someday it will surely be missed.

9. I imagine that I am joining some sort of club. Of course, there are no meetings, no minutes posted somewhere online, but as bizarre as it seems, I know somehow that this thought is not a new one. Heat is the way of this world and it only makes sense to take advantage of the cool early hours, to give it all a chance to dissipate before we are again set alight. And so, with a flourish and a yawn, satisfied members worldwide set out warm cakes, breads, cookies and muffins in the last few moments of the night.

10. After days of wallow and glide, the wind arrives. In the small space of hours our world is a harder place to be – holding on, pulling up, staying put. It’s our joke around here that we are the most despairing of animals; indeed, even thousands of years of constant change cannot seem to sway us from statements of finality and surrender. Once calm, always calm; once wet, never dry; once started, never finished. The memory of drifting fades so fast in the face of such spray that I resign myself to a forever of whatever happens right now.

11. When Steve wakes me up at one, he tells me about how hard it rained. Twice, he says, it just came pouring down – I had a shower – forced myself out into the warm night, cold water, collected a bucket of water off the mainsail.
For the rest of the night I watch squalls avoid me. I doze in the cockpit, jump up at the feeling of a few drops on my face but the dark patch has passed, brushing us with an edge. A few hundred metres away to the west I know it’s coming down hard.

12. I am dismayed when I reach into a bin for a tomato at dinner. I recoil quickly, flapping my hands and swearing. Instead of smooth and firm I have encountered squishy and wet and this can only mean one thing. As I throw rotten tomatoes overboard I try not to feel personally insulted.
First the sweet potatoes (much too early, I must say), the bananas and now YOU? I think, I know it was all my fault – not enough air, too warm and still a space – but THIS, (and now I’m really angry) this was uncalled for.

13. Steve always says that luxury is a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice – right there in front of you, he says – but no, I say. Luxury is a whole day spent with a book. And not some throw away story either – something that takes you in, up and away. It is not a luxury usually affordable in the day to day world but here, these days demand it. The sea around, like an empty stage, invites the stories in from places high and away, not touched by water. No matter, I say, and turn the page.

14. It became clear quite quickly that the oranges Steve bought from the man on the side of the road in La Paz were not the best eaters. With hard leathery skins they swung for days in their own hammock like field hockey balls, withstanding my looks of contempt. Not rotten or dry, they seemed to resist being peeled or sliced.
An idea surely born of resentment, not thirst, Steve holds up a full glass of freshly squeezed juice, sweet and tart and perfect. Two oranges, he tells me, only two – people pay big bucks for juice like this.

15. With dinner finished and the fading light I get ready to sleep while Steve tunes up the radio and broadcasts away into the night. From far across then come the small voices of friends once close by but now also traversing these great watery deserts. What is there to say of these days – so easily they are spent and yet so many? We plot each other’s progress, fish caught, masts climbed, cakes baked. Mostly though, it is the sound itself of the voice that has been carried these many miles – waves upon waves of sound and water.

16. In the calm of the afternoon we turn off the engine and, despite the scenes played out in my mind in the darkest windiest moments in the night, we jump overboard. There are two things to be said for this; to be suspended after so many days of clinging and the blue, oh the blue. With brushes and scrapers we get rid of hitchhikers – gooseneck barnacles carpet the underside of the hull. Through the mask I watch as they drift slowly down into the deep – they’re clinging days are over but we climb aboard and carry on.

17. And then it is calm and we motor – one could drift for days out here and many have, to be sure, swept backwards – hard fought miles lost every hour. The world, so used to being filled with wind, seems flat and empty without it. I expect more of the horizon when it is so calm like this; at night, I scan more carefully, sure of lights and ships just out of sight below. With daylight the clouds seem to bring into relief distant mountains cut out below them in the dark shadows they cast on the calm.

18. With not even a ripple of wind this day is the hottest by far. I sit as still as possible, sip cold water and wonder how I ever rode miles under this same sun for hours and hours. For me, this heat is almost like a scar – with a little pressure it brings back the pain that still lives deep down. In the middle hours of the day it threatens to open anew but stops at my word: don’t worry, I say, there is no dust here, no unshaded road ahead, and tonight, tonight the cool will come.

19. There is so little doubt that the islands are there, that they exist, that when they appeared this morning, faint and too smooth to be clouds, I realised that the feeling of wonder is reserved for those to whom islands rose out of empty oceans unbidden. Becalmed and overdue for Peru, Barlanga and his crew were pulled here by the same currents that now hold us off. While I have watched them come for days, advancing across these many small screens, what about the man who first called out from above, eyes straining across the mirror-like sea: land ahoy!

A Different Bird

“We can no longer picture the story of life as slow and almost static …What we must picture instead is an emblem of life in motion. For all species, including our own, the true figure of life is a perching bird, a passerine, alert and nervous in ever part, ready to dart off in an instant. Life is always poised for flight. From a distance it looks still, silhouetted against the bright sky or the dark ground; but up close it is flitting this way and that, as if displaying to the world at every moment its perpetual readiness to take off in any of a thousand directions”.
-Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch (on evolutionary theory as observed in the finches of the Galapagos Islands).

fly on

As the sun melts toward the horizon two frigate birds circle the boat. They are not divers or swimmers; they are prisoners of the sky and land, forced to hound other birds for fish scraps and to find solid footing for rest. To them, we are an island.
Few islands lie so far and alone and so, in a glance up from the page of my book, my eyes still seek to settle on something, a sail, a ship, a distant loom. But the line around the world out here is unbroken and, with night, the birds must fly on.

(no subject)

All around the boat the dolphins paint glowing lines in the night water. Although visibly and chemically present this sort of light can only be looked at sideways, it seems.
An early summer night on the dock we spend shivering minutes trying to capture its erstwhile sparkle only to retreat to the sauna defeated. In the dark heat our arms that were dangled glitter with remnants.
Tonight they stay an hour, longer than I am willing to stand and watch and so even after I sit back the dolphins continue to weave, fragments of light clinging to their every exhale.

when fish fly

I’m brushing my teeth at two in the morning when I hear something hit the roof of the cabin above my head. On deck, the night slides past, the stars obscured by our first clouds in weeks. I sweep the deck with the beam of my headlamp, follow the rustling to the gap between my kayak and the toerail. In the sudden brightness, the flying fish lies perfectly still. Its wings quiver as I reach slowly down and grab hold of its tail and with a quick flick and a wriggle it is over the side and into the water.

The Centre of Work

How quickly now the world is reduced to a study of angles. Last night (early morning) in the dark I dredged my mind for the technical words that explain our forward motion but the lessons were few and scattered and years ago now and all I can remember is a rough drawing of a boat on a whiteboard, sails full flying through empty space. It is to these principles I answer now (unnamed as they remain) and so I shorten and tighten, angles narrowed and world steadied until soon (too soon, too dark still) the wind retreats behind once again.


Fifty miles from Cabo San Lucas we roll along at six knots under full sail, wing on wing. The lights of the city still tether us to land, give me something fixed to focus on in every scan of the horizon. Soon, though, it will be a horizon without handholds, slowly spinning. These days I dislike the metaphor (even if the moon does bleed through like the light under a closed door). We try too hard to make one thing more like another, less like itself. One thousand six hundred and seventy five to go. Time now for some tea.


[I’m not sure anyone particularly likes to be written about, and writing about people is often easier because not all the words need be one’s own. However, because we are about to spend a long time without other people, and because I have enjoyed knowing them, today’s blog is about a couple of Norwegian friends and I hope they don’t mind].

Nina sits down at the table with us as Steve finishes his breakfast.
I’m sorry I’m late – she is very sorry – I’m always late (she hates that she’s late).
For a few minutes while Henrik showers, we chat about the bounty of the complete National Geographic archives.
But seriously, we shake our heads across the table in disbelief, every article ever written. Accounts of submarine journeys around Cape Horn, early unsure forays deep into wild Southern American mountain ranges.
She talks about the project she is currently working on, how an article from eighteen ninety something dispelled a myth about the name of small place in Alaska. She’s writing about this place and its dense violence, she says, and about a famous Norwegian.
She leaves it there, tells us that Henrik says that you have to not talk it too much. You have to write it. Or you lose the power behind the breath of the story.

Around the table in our boat a few nights earlier, Nina tells a couple from Canada about the winter she and Henrik spent as caretakers of a fly in ice fishing camp. The cell phone worked until November, but the men flying in to stay would bring them a bag of groceries. They painted these remote cabins and spent nights around fires with trappers who would stop to visit and share stories. The Canadian couple is from the same province and are no strangers to winter themselves. I bet you won’t do that again, they laugh, shaking their heads. Modern Canadians are a uneasy northern people, unwilling to embrace the blowing darkness, prone too easily to southerly migration. Nina smiles and nods.
No, I think that was maybe our favourite winter.

A few hours after they first arrived into La Paz I went over in the dinghy full of groceries – tomatoes and bags of rice that will be carried over these many ocean miles – to say hello. It had been a few months since we saw them in San Diego but we plan right away trades of pressure cooker recipes and episodes of This American Life. We know so little about each other, really – a few minutes in Sausalito and a few hours in San Diego – but we have been watching the same geography at the same pace and it gives us a common palette.
I tell them that I think I will stay in Chile when we arrive for the winter, take some time off the boat and among people.
In Sausalito Henrik passed me a book of his poetry in Norwegian, spare words on cream pages. I leafed through the pages, secretly in awe (being obviously in awe doesn’t make for comfortable conversations). I know people who write well, but I’ve never held a cream book full of their words.
Maybe you will write in Chile, Henrik’s question only brings forth weak self-doubting protests from my side of the cabin.
Nothing ever seems worth saying once it’s on the page, I complain. And it never seems like the right time. It’s worth it, he answers.
Of course, I think. The trick is to find sneaky hiding places for the doubts that make me forget that.

Nina comes over the night before we leave La Paz. Steve picks her up in our dinghy with the outboard from their boat only a few hundred metres away.
Henrik had me a on a rope in the dinghy, she tells us, but I could only just stay in one place against the wind and the current.
We plug in two or three hard drives to my little computer and I give her millibytes and gigabytes, tiny unwrapped presents of sound. She gives me a clearly treasured book of sudoku, a pressure cooked spice cake and a small box wrapped in tin foil with a bow. For a rainy day, she tells me.

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