The hardiest sailors have sea legs for storms. They walk, not exactly easily along the deck, but like spiders with sticky legs that hold fast to whatever surface they can find. They scurry. But they do so only when they are sure they will make it to the place they are aiming for.
It was stormy and gray. The wind was loud and turned our ears red. We couldn’t hear each other, only the sound of the howling wind. The ship pitched up to the sky then crashed violently down to the sea. It seemed a miracle that the hull didn’t explode into splinters from the reunion.
Bea and I were not ancient mariners and had limited experience with storms such as these. Most of our days and nights were upon a pacific ocean. So smooth and glassy and blue that there were times we thought we could jump right over the side and walk upon it companionably with our shipmates. Them in the ship, us on the water.
It calls to you, the water. Perhaps you have heard of the siren song of the sea. It is not words. It is not sound. It is a mesmerizing hypnosis. You find yourself staring down into the wet, blue-green water. The water splashes up, just droplets, just spray, and you find yourself reaching down along the ship’s side to become even more immersed in that friendly, light spray. A little closer, a little closer the water seems to say. You’re almost here, right where you belong. Come in. If you aren’t careful, you’ll topple easily, swiftly over the side. Not even a splash as the water has been waiting for you and swallows you up without a sound. One minute you’re on the deck, another you are gone and your shipmates don’t think to look for you until it is too late and the ship has gone too far to ever find you. So you sink, down, down, down with the water’s icy fingers passing lovingly, softly over your skin as you go even further down to the deep sea. The water your companion and your executioner, making your death silent, uneventful. You become forgotten even as you rest peacefully on the bottom of the sea floor, no longer able to even remember how you got there.
So we were always careful of the side of the ship. Nervous and cautious as we dangled from ropes along the side, scraping off barnacles, swaying along the wood with the water down below, beckoning.
On this stormy, violent day, we’d stayed clear of the side. Daring not to risk it. The water is a slippery trickster, able to slide you about, after all. Instead, with my watch behind me and Bea’s not yet started, we cocooned ourselves in our hammocks, and rode the waves in the air until there was an all hand’s bell. Three piercing rings and we climbed out of our hammocks, emerging as strange, unformed butterflies that were more green than human.
Up we went to the deck and saw our shipmates pointing to something in the water. We thought it must be one of our shipmates — that somehow, someone heard the siren song of the sea in this storm.
The men kept hollering and pointing but the captain performed no actions. No ropes were cast over, no order of “Come about.” Confused, we moved closer to the mass of men and followed their fingers out to the water, certain that we’d see our fallen shipmate, arms outreached to us as we sailed by.
From the railing we could see a group of whales, a pod. Their shiny gray, barnacled backs rose up over the waves and then dove down, disappearing, another taking its place. Up and down, up and down, the water was chopped and whirled with their fins and tails. I have never seen a finer sight in all my life. There must have been twenty or thirty of them keeping a calm and steady pace with our stomach-tossing and pitching ship. The doctor took me by my shoulders and pointed lower down so that I would see the dolphins rising up out of the sea, too. Such happy, delighted companions they were, smiling as they sprang from the ocean, as if the whole storm was simply a merry adventure.
The sky darkened further, the rain fell like pellets from the sky, and while the storm abated a bit, we could no longer see our sea creature companions. The men dispersed and went back to their duties, and we slipped quietly below decks once again to rest in our berths. As we lay there, we both thought about the mighty gray whales and I confess how happy I was that we had not set aboard a whaler after all, as I would have been too sad and melancholy to ever see such magnificent creatures killed.