Book: The Pacific High
Grant Fjermedal. The Pacific High
Excerpts from a journal washed ashore on an Oregon beach:
Went up the mast in a bosun's chair to check the rigging. Took plenty of duct tape with me. At the top I opened a can of Hamm's and enjoyed drinking it as I looked down upon the other boats moored in Victoria Harbor. There will be just thirteen boats in this year's race to Maui, but considering the distance (2,300 miles) and the time it takes (two weeks in a fast year, four weeks in a slow year) it isn't surprising that so few go.
Besides, sailing on the ocean, especially at night, can scare the hell out of you.
Well, we're under way. We won the start but were soon passed by other boats as we worked our way out to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and then into the Pacific Ocean.
This isn't the boat we had planned on chartering for the race – by any stretch of the imagination. But the price was right. Rather than pooling our funds and chartering a racing machine like a Frers 50 for $30,000, we ended up with our low-tech wooden sloop for free.
The boat is gorgeous to look at. It is forty-eight feet long, all mahogany and teak, with a graceful overhanging transom and a bow that carries the sheer line up nicely. She seems to have emerged from another era.
Unfortunately we found out something about that era yesterday when seven members of a Jewish organization came down with signs and a banner to protest the participation of our boat in the race. They claim she was built for a German officer in the SS during World War II, and that a lot of slave laborers died during the course of its meticulous construction.
It was a chilling way to begin the race. Matthew, our skipper, tried to laugh it off, but some pretty eerie things were said. I guess all of this means her name must be German; we thought it was Hawaiian. She's called Cthulhu Maiden, but we've been calling her Hulu Girl. I don't know what we will call her now.
Counting Matthew, there are six of us on board. For these long ocean races, we leave it to Matthew to find a boat, divide the costs for charter, insurance, and supplies and tell us what we owe.
So we thought he was kidding when he said some old man had come up to him at the Sloop Tavern and offered him the use of a boat for free.
The Cthulhu Maiden really cranks! We have the spinnaker up, with the wind well aft. She has a nice beam to her, plenty of waterline, and with such powerful waves to ride; I'm nearly intoxicated with how good the boat feels.
My earlier entries might have made the beginning of the trip sound too negative. Now we joke about the protestors. And since none of us can really figure out the correct pronunciation of Cthulhu, and because we're tired of calling her Hulu, we have taken on one of the curses that were shouted at her as we left the dock: The Cutthroat Maiden.
It's nice to have no land in sight, just the waves, the clouds, and the horizon. You never see the other boats on this race. The ocean is so vast that a different tract swallows each of us.
Edward, our navigator, has been giving Matthew a good-naturedly hard time about the bulky old "tubetronics" that came with the boat. The ship-to-shore radio is gorgeous to look at – beautifully encased within intricately carved cabinetry of some strange wood that has a most unusual grain, and color similar to mahogany – yet so very red!
Matthew could have brought his Loran and Satellite Navigation units from his own boat, but the old man who offered us the Cutthroat had three quaint but unyielding stipulations:
One: We have to use his, and only his, navigational and electronic equipment.
Two: We have to use the boat's original sails. (This has us somewhat worried because while everyone else is using mylar, kevlar, or at least dacron, we are using Egyptian cotton that looks like something you would wrap a mummy in. The sails are nearly covered with strange writings which must be in Egyptian. We call them Egyptian Death Shrouds – because they'll kill our chances of winning.)
Three: We have to sail the rhumbline course to Hawaii, which means going through the Pacific High.
This is the shortest way of getting to Hawaii, but this perpetual area of unusually high atmospheric pressure means that there can be very little wind. We are assuming all the other boats will hug the West Coast until they hit the Trade Winds off San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Navigator Edward doesn't like the idea of somebody else telling him which course to choose. But Edward, who is a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, concedes that this might be one of those rare years for sailing through the High. For the past month the atmospheric pressure in the High hasn't been high. So we might be able to ride the wind right through it.
Before the race we got together to talk about the boat and about the three stipulations. Not even Matthew knows much about the boat's owner. We figure he's some rich bastard who has paid moorage and insurance on this boat for decades and now that he finally has the time to use it, he's too old to do the race himself.
But he doesn't realize how old his sails are, how horribly outdated his electronics are, or how risky his course across the Pacific High can be. He does know how to inspire, though. He somehow sneaked aboard the night before the race and left a note written in a beautiful hand: "You six are a gift to my world."
The sailing is wonderful. These old cotton sails seem to be doing all right. The Cutthroat has a nice big steering wheel covered in unusually supple leather.
Brian is starting to spook me a bit. At age nineteen, he's the youngest on the boat and the least experienced. I'm not wild about trying to cross the High. (In an earlier era the price for getting trapped in this windless zone could be death.) But Brian has what I would call a deep foreboding.
Nothing is blacker than the ocean on a stormy night. The clouds block out the moonlight and stars. All movement is done on hands and knees with safety lines. Even then you can be swept across the deck. Waves become vicious and cunning.
The wind is still blowing, but by day the ocean doesn't seem quite so menacing. I'm no longer worried about our course. The Pacific High isn't an absolute. There are times when the high pressure dissipates, the millibars flatten out, and a sailboat can go gliding through it without any problem.
We are nearing the High now and the wind is getting stronger, not lighter. It appears that the old man who owns the boat (no one really knows his name, so we call him The Old One) should get a Nobel Prize for predicting weather.
We've confirmed it by radio. We are the only boat that will try to cross the High. This makes us happy. The Old One chose the perfect year to do it. We should be able to blast out of the High with a huge lead.
Last night our ship-to-shore stopped working. Johnson, who is our resident boat mechanic, is probing its archaic vacuum tubes.
The wind is easing some, which is good news, as it had been building up toward thirty knots and we were getting worn out. We seem to be running into some fog.
The wind is still with us. It's dropped to about twelve knots, but that still gives us plenty of push. I just wish the fog would go away.
It's fun to watch Johnson work on the radio. He's twenty-six years old (most of us are in our early to late thirties) and has been playing with things mechanical all his life. Sailing is nice in that it provides a common ground for people from a wide variety of occupations. Fortunately I'm the only life insurance salesman on board. Matthew is an aeronautical engineer for Boeing when he's not skippering raceboats. We've also got Darrell, a pharmacist. I'm not sure what Brian does.
Johnson is the wildest of us on shore, or at least it would seem that way if you believed all of his stories. He's the most blue-collar of us and has a mean streak that he manages to keep under-control.
He is absolutely captivated by the radio. He claims he has never seen anything like the vacuum tubes it has. All the electronic codings are different. Perhaps the tubes are Egyptian, too. I think his pride is hurt because he can't get it running, so he makes it sound as if the radio had just been beamed down to the boat from another planet.
When I woke up this morning our Egyptian sails had been dropped to the deck. There is no wind. Only fog. We are deep into the High.
I can scarcely believe it. Twelve hours now without a breath of wind.
Matthew and Edward spent most of yesterday going over charts and two-week-old weather maps, trying to conjure wind.
Johnson is becoming a pain. Everybody is kind of edgy. We are in the heart of the High. Edward watches the drift collecting around us and says some things are carried into the High that never escape.
I don't know where in hell it came from, but there seems to be a lot of floating seaweed that has been bunching around the boat. Since seaweed doesn't grow in the middle of the ocean, this stuff must have migrated hundreds of miles from the Pacific Coast, or nearly a thousand miles from the Aleutian Islands. We started the engine today to recharge the batteries. Race rules state the engine must be in neutral, but Brian was nearly frantic to put the engine in gear.
I joined Brian, but Matthew and Edward wanted no part of it and Johnson got belligerent. So we will wait. Wait for the wind. And, through the fog, watch the thick carpet of aged seaweed gather around us.
There's nothing to do. We sit around getting on one another's nerves.
The seaweed stinks of death. It gets thicker and thicker around us. I don't know from where it comes, but I wish it would go back.
I'm really depressed. My life has been a complete waste. There is so much promise, always that tantalizing promise, of how my life could be if I could just be more organized and disciplined and follow through on all that I plan. But I don't follow through; I just stagger along from one self-induced crisis to another. I know I will feel better some day but for now I just feel like such a complete and utter failure that it seems like a bad joke that I'm alive.
Brian and I have been spending a lot of time down below. He's as depressed as I am and that has become something we can share. Outside, in the cockpit, Johnson is being his obnoxious macho self.
Edward is getting as flaky as Johnson. He pours over the celestial navigation tables that the Old One sent us, and claims he is finding entries for planets that don't exist.
Meanwhile our skipper, Matthew, is in a daze. He's burrowed back into our tunnel of a sail locker, and wrapped himself in the Egyptian Death Shrouds. He won't come out.
It was too much for Brian and I today to take when Johnson started the engine to charge the batteries. Brian went to the helm and pushed us into gear. Johnson freaked and started pounding on him. I tried to stop Johnson and then he pounded on me. What scared the hell out of me – and this is a fear that is staying with me – is that nobody interceded. Nobody stopped the fight! Brian and I were screaming and yelling for help, but it was like nobody else on the boat gave a shit. When Johnson finally stopped, I helped Brian down below and we tried to clean each other up.
Then something odd happened. Johnson went to turn off the engine, and it refused to die. It was as if the engine itself wanted to get out of the High. Brian and I just laid in our bunks listening, hoping that Matthew and Edward or any of the others would take the hint and kick the boat back into gear.
Johnson took it as a personal affront. He tracked down the fuel line cutoff valve to stop the flow of diesel. Even then the engine kept running. Then there came gasps. And there came such terrible chokes and violent shakes that it truly felt as if Johnson were strangling the poor machine with his own hands. It was as though he were murdering something heroic, something that was better than any of us, something that was in its own small way trying to save us all.
The seaweed is getting so thick! Maybe we couldn't have motored through it anyway. Nobody else seems to register on how odd it is to find acres of thickly matted seaweed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but Brian and I agree that it just shouldn't be here.
Every day the sun gets hotter, the seaweed gets thicker, and this boat becomes more like a prison. Johnson is right at home.
Everyone is lethargic, but when Edward and Darrell are up on deck they seem naturally able to engage in the kind of stupid jock talk that keeps them in Johnson's good graces.
I'm hiding my journal now, as I realize it might not be so great if certain people found it.
The idiots out on deck have found a new sport. Walking on water. This isn't quite as miraculous as I make it sound. The seaweed is now so thick that Johnson went out walking – crawling actually – on it. He came back to the boat, took off his shoes and clothes, and then leaped back onto the muck shouting, "Oooh! This feels good!" I watched him from a porthole, as Brian and I haven't been on deck since the altercation.
I crawled into the sail locker and again tried to wake up Matthew. Johnson is taking command.
Every now and then Edward comes in from the seaweed to study the celestial tables. He, too, is naked and dripping with weedy green slime. And he, too, speaks, apparently to himself, about how good it feels. Only the Old One's chart can compete with the lure of the seaweed, for Edward now claims he's trying to figure out where his new planets would be by working backward from the Local Apparent Noon columns.
I slept for quite a while today. The only escape. Woke to much yelling and screaming. Was just more water walking. Brian and Matthew and I are the only ones that haven't gone in. Johnson threw Darrell into the seaweed to make him try it. Once they get into the muck, they don't want to come out. Looking out the porthole now, Darrell, too, has shed his clothes. They are rolling in it, humping the slime, and getting frenzied in a savage way. Must wake up Matthew. We need a skipper.
Finally got Matthew to crawl out of the death shroud, but instead of settling things down, he jumped over the side. Now Johnson is calling for Brian. I've locked the companion way from the inside and fastened the fore and aft hatches.
Brian is out of it. Everyone is pounding on the hull calling his name. Say they will kill him if he doesn't jump in. I've got the flare gun, but if I shoot, I risk burning a hole through the bottom.
The cabin is getting creepy. Over the past several days I've been studying the grotesque carvings that decorate the interior of the boat. None of us even noticed the carvings until we got near the High. Now it seems as if the atmospheric pressure, fog, or something is causing the wood to swell and blister and this stretching of the wood is making the carved characters grow and become uncomfortably three-dimensional. I must be going nuts.
Shit! Johnson just tried to climb on deck but screamed from pain when his feet touched the deck. Their voices are lower now. The others say the boat hurts too touch.
They are swearing at me and telling me that I have to bring out Brian. They say they want to talk to both of us. That nothing will happen.
It's getting dark. Voices are going away. Don't know why they haven't come back on board. If the decks were too hot during the day, they surely must be cool enough by now. Johnson, Edward, Darrell, and Matthew have been over the side for hours now. If it weren't for the seaweed they would all be long dead of hypothermia.
I have to sleep.
They got Brian. I woke up to slapping sounds. They were throwing seaweed into the cockpit and onto the decks. The seaweed has done something to their feet. They had to cover the decks before they could come aboard, but when they did they broke down the hatch cover and jumped inside. Before Johnson and Darrell could reach us they started jumping up and down and screaming until Matthew and Edward threw seaweed inside the cabin for them to stand on.
I abandoned Brian. I escaped through the forehatch and climbed the mast as high as the first spreaders. Johnson tried to climb after me but his skin stuck to the aluminum. Horrible scream before he jumped back into the seaweed beds.
Poor Brian. They pulled him out of the cabin, ripped off his clothes, and then swinging him by his arms and legs threw him over the side. While Johnson and the others were having their fun with him, I came down, fished out the mop and swabbed the seaweed off the boat. What I've been calling fog now seems more like gases arising out of the seaweed.
I got the bosun's chair, some food and water, and created a nest for myself at the spreaders.
Spent the night in the bosun's chair lashed to the mast, but sleep was impossible. Weird babbling and splashing and thumping all night. But toward dawn it became nearly silent.
Brian is the only one still laying on top of the matted bed. The rest are vertical and mostly submerged. Floating like corks, but very little motion. Johnson is sunk nearly to his chin. Matthew, who, next to Brian, has been in the least amount of time, is floating the highest, with most of his upper torso clear. I call to them but Brian is the only one who answers. He says I have to come in. He says I will like it.
The rest are babbling to themselves, nearly purring. No motion except for their lips, and their eyes, which keep rolling insanely. Matthew is the closest to the boat. Will try to get him back aboard.
What the hell is going on! It's been two hours now and I can hardly think. Something bad has happened. It must be a chemical spill. Or Hell is located at the bottom of the sea.
I've been too sick to write. Also, I've been busy, trying to save someone who must certainly be already dead. I'm now continuing this journal out of a sense of duty. When I'm done I will wrap it in as much plastic and duct tape as I can find and lash it to our man overboard float and flag. Whatever is out there doesn't seem to eat plastic. If I don't make it, perhaps my journal will.
Matthew was the closest to the boat. I could see he was alive, but he didn't respond when I pleaded to him to get back on board. So I broke out the life-sling and fastened it under his arms and around his chest. Attached the shackle to a halyard, ran the halyard to a primary winch, and began to lift him aboard. I anticipated a heavy load and put all my weight against the handle. I watched him and he watched me as I continued to winch. He wouldn't budge. The halyard ran from the top of the mast and the boat heeled over from the pressure. Matthew was smiling. He was purring: "Lalala. Lalalala." I cranked some more and then he was gone.
I screamed when he hit me. And I screamed more and more as he dangled in the air dripping upon me. His feet and his legs were bare of all flesh. Remnants of tendons flailed his bones.
His pelvis was stripped of flesh. His stomach and intestines were gone. The ribs up to the point where he floated were exposed. Only his heart and lungs were still covered by flesh. Yet he was alive.
Half man. Half skeleton. His hands and arms to just above his elbows were bare bones. Yet still he moved them. And he smiled and sang. And from these motions he swung back and forth from the halyard, hanging from the sling, twisting about just above the deck. And I crawled away vomiting and screaming. I sought a place to hide, but there was no place to hide.
I passed out for thirty minutes. When I came to he was still dangling from the sling, with nervous twitches from tattered tendons; his bones clattered with the hollow acoustic sound of a bamboo wind chime. And still he lived.
Just went to the winch, untied the halyard, and began to lower what was left of Matthew. But at the point that the bones of his toes touched the deck, I lost courage and tied the winch off.
I went down below, got a knife, and began to cut long narrow strips from the Egyptian sails. After an hour of this I went back outside to wrap the bones that were so hideously exposed. When Matthew's skeleton kicked out at the touch of its foot, I screamed.
It took two hours to complete the wrapping of Matthew. When I was finished, I went back to the winch and untied the halyard. There he was: somewhere between being a mummy and a skeleton, still hanging in the sling. Only his eyes and mouth moved. His eyes lolled from sky to sea and then to me. From his lips came the same cat-purr of a contented song. I lowered him onto the deck. I recoiled in horror as his limbs began to shake. His legs disabled, he rolled himself over onto what remained of his chest, and like a partially cocooned maggot wiggled himself toward the side of the boat. I was still backing away when he reached his destination and slipped head first into the weeds.
I called to Brian. Tried to explain. Brian said the seaweed was good. He said it was soothing. He wouldn't come out.
Brian is still calling to me. I think it is time to launch my journal. I still don't understand what is happening.