Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 15: A distinguished visitor

After dropping Ishmael off, and stowing my newly-filled gas can, I took off about 10 am to cross the Gulf of Maine:

This sounds awfully bold; but it wasn't really. The day was warm, the sun was bright, the wind was encouraging but not too exciting, and the weather radio bore nothing but good auguries.

The weather radio proved to be right. About noon I was able to peg the tiller and adjust the sheets -- half an inch makes a difference -- and once I got it right, the Scapegrace sailed herself, on a course ever so slightly east of the ideal but certainly close enough. I took a long-overdue shower on the foredeck with lukewarm water from my solar shower, a funky little plastic bag that heats up a gallon or so of water when the sun is shining, and then I went below to potter and, well, to be honest, I took a nap.

Sailboats, in their own quiet way, are rather noisy, and you don't always know where the noise is coming from. Pocketaqueek -- pocketaqueek -- the 'pocket' you know is the rigging, and the 'a' is the rudder post thumping in its poorly-bushed tube; but what the hell is queek?

You never find out, but even queek you get used to. What you are not expecting is an immense unprecedented noise like God clearing his throat: a-HEMMMM!

Just such a noise jarred me like an electric shock out of my nap and sent me scrambling, faster than I would have thought I could move, up into the cockpit. What in the name of all that's holy...?!

Nothing. Nothing unusual on the boat, nothing on the horizon, nothing nearby -- no boats, no change in the weather. Nothing. Sun still shining, wind where it was, Scapegrace sailing herself as sweet as you could wish.

I was starting to think I had dreamed it. But then, just off the starboard rail, the water surged and boiled, like I remember water doing below hydroelectric dams in Kentucky, where I grew up, and a vast dark something broke the surface.

"Vast dark something" is a little melodramatic. Oh, it's accurate enough. But the odd fact is, I never had a microsecond's doubt what it was. I didn't think it was an uncharted sandbar or a log or a submarine. I knew instantly, the way I would have known my best friend's face, that it was a whale -- five, six feet away; I could have touched him with the boat pole, if I had had the boat pole, and if I were ill-bred enough to do such a thing.

Funny how an animal knows an animal instantly. We must be wired for it, on some subcortical level. Not only did I know immediately that this was another animal -- somehow I also knew he meant me no harm.

I suppose, in retrospect, that he must have been surprised to see a sailboat scudding along with nobody on deck, and he came over to check it out.

He -- or she; who knows? -- was a beautiful animal, the deep deep brown that might as well be black, smooth, glossy in the bright sun, with an absurdly tiny sickle-shaped dorsal fin.

I could only see his or her back; his head and tail were submerged -- but what I could see, above water, was quite a bit longer than my little boat.

He or she swam idly along next to me for a few seconds, then exhaled again -- whoosh!

That was the sound I had heard, the sound that bounced me out of my bunk and sent me on deck with pulses pounding.

This second exhalation seemed to have a slightly humorous character -- a hint of a Leviathan laugh. Not an unkind laugh, but a laugh expressing the unfathomable mirth of a mighty creature at a joke you and I could never share.

And then he dove -- or I guess "sounded" is the right word -- and I saw him no more. But I will see him in my dreams until the day I die.

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