The Last Great Adventure
...for people too rich to get into heaven...
“Soon, I would be
comfortably tucked up in bed, my drowsy brain packed with dazzling
impressions of this adventure, trying in vains to sort them out.”
— Lawrence Durrell, 'In Praise of Fanatics'
by Paul VanDevelder
Star Flyer’s two week voyage from
Cannes, France to Palma, Gran Canaria, via Ibiza, Gibraltar, and
the Portuguese miracle of Funchal, Madeira, was adventure enough
for most mortals, a passage bookmarked by a blur of bare breasts,
Ferraris, and flaming deserts. They got their money’s worth.
The Force 10 gale off Bonifacio, Corsica, was a bonus. Thirty foot
waves crashed off the backs of monstrous swells. The tempests screamed
a high E in the rigging throughout the night. Flyer’s main
deck shot eighty feet out of the troughs before plunging into a
howling blackness, Neptune’s way of telling us life is not
a movie. Most neophytes who started the voyage in Cannes had jumped
ship well before the Cannarys, fully cured of their prairie bred
romance with tall ships going down to the sea. Safely ashore, our
ersatz Billy Budds are last seen piling head first into taxis bound
for the nearest airport. Fists full of cash. They never look back.
To get from her summer cruising grounds in the Agean
to her wintering in the Caribbean, Flyer, a four masted clipper
ship launched a decade ago in Antwerp, Belgium, makes a trip across
the pond twice a year. For the first time since the Black Ball
Line got knocked out of the sailing business by steamers, in 1870,
a sailing ship books passage on a regularly scheduled transatlantic
run. For the hard boiled sailors among us the real challenge lay
ahead. Navigating thousands of miles of open ‘blue water,’ under
sail, has been known to sailors since Columbus’ day as simply
The Crossing, a term mumbled by dockside salts in tones reserved
for the memory of their first bad storm and virgins wearing halos.
As Spanish longshoremen topped off our tanks the ubiquitous customs
officials made a final tour of the decks. Their necks craned skyward
to appraise Flyer’s masts, raked sticks rising two
hundred and thirty feet off the main deck. Shortly after midnight,
five centuries after the great navigator sailed from this very
harbor, (after spending a month ashore servicing the Queen’s
plumbing), we slipped docklines from bollards and shoved off. A
gaggle of wistful señoritas waved hankies from the dock
as the jibs snapped taut and gave us helm out of the harbor. One-hundred
and eleven of us gathered on Flyer’s foredeck and
gazed into the inscrutable void. Was this the mother of all metaphors?
The long dreaded karmic reward? Witless before the unknown, chastened
by mortal pettiness and the innumerable silences of stars, no trace
of doubt could have unhinged my conviction that before we glimpsed
the other side we would fall off the earth.
Log entry - Friday, October 14th
1 am to noon - 81 nautical miles (nm) made good
Splash! The Big Pond. Celebration elation. It seems
that Lord Snowden, the tiny finch that stowed away in Cannes, has
taken a pass on Africa and opted for retirement in the Caribbean
Isles. By resuming his vigil at the end of the bowsprit he shows
greater faith in us than we have shown in ourselves.
When I awoke at dawn we were crashing along under
full sail. The cabin floor heaves underfoot, a strange comfort,
as the blue Atlantic spins eddies in my cabin porthole. My inner
ear is so accustomed by now to the motion of the open sea that
I’m struck by mal de mer the minute I step ashore. This is
Flyer’s element, where the legendary trade winds blow in
a furious cyclonic belt encircling ten million square miles of
Atlantic ocean, winds that will lift us westward under 36,000 square
feet of dacron. That’s enough warp and woof to cover every
square foot of living space in eighteen average-sized American
houses: all hoisted and furled by hand, sailing by block, tackle,
What a terrible paradox, to fall in love with the
sea, the beginning of everything, the great petri dish of planet
Earth, that most hostile of all environs to corpus humanus. With
a bone in her mouth, oblivious to such boundaries, Flyer seems
grateful for the open ocean, the endless sky, the romp.
The mood on deck is decidedly festive. The fact that
there is no going back has produced a reciprocal sense of freedom,
a kind of surrender to the plunge. It will take a few days for
everyone to make peace with this bargain, to bend to the underlying
rhythm of the unseen forces at work out here. Those of us who sailed
through the gale off Corsica have well-found sea legs. Those newly
arrived in Gran Canaria lurch about the decks like Soho drunks,
bleary from jet lag, warily eyeing at all that water and thinking,
no doubt, ‘God, get me through this!’
Before we left Palma we loaded on 180 tons of water,
2,250 heads of lettuce, 700 pounds of pasta, 6,000 pounds of shrimp,
20 lambs, and nobody counted the chickens. We hail from 30 countries
and speak 17 languages. Our bowsprit now points ever southwest
in search of the elusive trade winds. While he was living on Madeira,
Columbus was the first to deduce that these disturbances are created
by the juxtaposition of low pressure at the equator and high pressure
just north of the tropics. Without the countervailing predictability
of those winds the square-rigged ships of the 16th century could
never have ventured far from home, much less across the Atlantic.
My money says this deal will unfold in one of two
ways... into a non-stop carnival or a floating encounter group.
I’m praying carnival. Confronted by all that emptiness at
8 knots, all those shades of blue above and below, the world is
going to look too much like the vacancy of their real lives for
anyone to risk actuality. Both options have staunch advocates,
though neither knows what they’re in for. The lobbying has
begun amidst high-octane drinks made of colors never seen in nature.
I remain cheerfully independent, flattered by subtle appeals, yet
the early warning signs are ominous. I fear I have been cast among
ACTIVITY ANNOUNCEMENT: “The weekly meeting
of the Flat Earth Society will be held at the base of the main
mast, tomorrow a.m. at 0900. Bosun’s chairs and harnesses
are required equipment for the field trip to the top of the main
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Americans are best loved
for their periodic brushes with earnestness.” Roger, an Irish
We sailed 201 miles today, noon to noon. I tossed a bottle letter
off the stern just after lunch. There is no shortage of empty wine
bottles, vodka bottles, scotch bottles, brandy and bourbon bottles.
As passengers piss off the lee rail the great ship rises inch by
inch out of the sea.
I could not have anticipated the eerie sensation
of letting that bottle fly, watching it plop into our wake and
drift out of sight, corresponding with people I’ll never
know in an unseeable future. So much like letters home. I described
where we are and how to contact me if, by some miracle, someone
happens to stumble upon this green bottle on a distant shore.
Slap my face if I ever use the word ‘huge’ again,
in any context other than an ocean or space travel. The scale of
the sea lies beyond the muscle of language to gather it in. Life
aboard ship is a throbbing reminder of Hemingway’s cruel
observation: ‘the only thing that can screw up a nice day
is people.’ When I want a little solitude I climb the ratlines
up to the first crow’s nest, eighty feet above the deck and
helm. Once there I have the ship to myself, the sails and sky,
the endless hypnotic motion of the sea. No one seems quite daring
enough to follow me up.
The night sky is wondrous, an otherness framed by
an inscrutable immensity that grows increasingly unimaginable the
longer you peer into it. The moon rises over our stern, etching
the ships shadow in silver as Flyer leaps through the
blue tumult. Night bends to day bends to night bends to day, endlessly
through uncountable millennia.
Passengers on this voyage range from a 20 year old Italian bartender
to a 92 year old retired gynecologist, three stroke survivors,
and a pint-sized German fellow with a mouthful of silver caps who
sits at the bow for endless hours, just staring at that distant
horizontal line. He has a Mona Lisa aspect, our official enigma
incarnate, and never utters a word to anyone. His mysterious vigil
reminds us that we are born to the slavery of terminal uniqueness,
prisoners of nothing so much as our own stories. I call him Ishmael.
More later. We’re not going anywhere. Fast.
Log entry - Sunday, October 17th, late afternoon
Noon to noon - 202 nm
Position: 23’ 54.4” N., 22’ 47” W
Beautiful day. Lord Snowden, the French finch, met
Dirty Harry, the Panamanian parrot. They set aside their differences
long enough to dine from the same dish this evening. Lord Snowden,
who fancies himself an eagle, has been looking a touch wan of late.
Hailing from Cannes, he’s probably off his brie.
The Saharan sun is intense at midday, as relentless
as a blowtorch on a mirror. Any breeze is an answered prayer. We’re
sailing south west, hunting for the trades, always sweeping the
horizon for that tell-tale signal, the discoloration of the sea
where one tone of blue yields to another, azure to cobalt to navy.
Endlessly, we rise and fall at the center of a blue disk. Regardless
of how fast or slow we sail we are condemned to confront ourselves
at the center of this vast blue disk, sitting on a pinpoint directly
beneath a blue dome. Day after day. High noon and midnight always
finds us in the same place. In the middle.
Hannah, the resident Mother Theresa of B deck, organized
a church service on the bridge and conducted a liturgy that lasted
all of five minutes. Momentarily redeemed, everyone headed for
the bar in the tradition of the English Navy known as “thirst
after righteousness.” Despite the gaiety I feel a touch gloomy.
A soul-ar eclipse, of sorts, a darkening of the spirit. Hope it
ACTIVITIES ANNOUNCEMENT: “The French/German
Friendship Committee was scheduled to meet in the library to discuss
the Star Flyer beach chair concession. Nobody attended. It has
been rescheduled for next year.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Are we there yet?!” -
Log entry - Monday, October 18, 1 pm
Noon to noon - Who cares?
Position - Who cares?
Mailed another bottle letter. The note said: “HELP!” They
warned me about this. Stuff getting on my nerves, pole vaulting
over mouse turds, burrs under my blanket, anti-social behavior.
Pathology is beginning to show through civilized veneers. Extended,
close confinement reveals us to be a tawdry species. On our best
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “What time does this place get to St. Bart’s?
- Liz Taylor
By mid-afternoon on Monday, four days out of Palma,
two hours after lunch, the dragon owned me. Madness was slobbering
on my soul, its breath so foul that the act of breathing was a
concession to spiritual defeat, a metaphorical waving of the white
flag. The terror of interminable days ahead loomed as a burden
too great, too insupportable for my meager inventory of psychic
reserves. I know mountains and trees, Roosevelt elk and western
rivers, alluvial benches and prairies, grain silos, all night pizza
joints, enormous and ever changing vistas, glacial lakes and suicidal
cutthroat trout, shelves of books and piles of magazines, morning
newspapers and evening radio, kids laughing and homemade applesauce,
wild lupine and Brenda’s impossibly lovely ankles, quilting
bees, Crow and Cree and Cheyenne powwows, steam driven threshers
and horseshoes and old growth Doug fir, five weight fly line and
size 18 RoyalHumpies. On chalk water. At dusk, when the water boils
with native trout feeding like freshwater sharks in the crimson
light. These things mark the boundaries of my narrow but cheerful
Terminal uniqueness gripped me by the throat. I
threw a cushion into the bow nets and stared helplessly at the
nauseating waves, visualizing my soul as a banjo string strung
between Tokyo and New York, picking up cosmic mail from my dead
ancestors. Lord Snowden remained staunchly oblivious to my human
misery, holding fast to his midday vigil at the tip of the bowsprit,
transfixed by the compelling monotony of the universe, dauntlessly
undiminished. Someone dropped into the nets behind me. Then someone
else. And another.
Did I dare move, risk a glance, a conversation? Bill
and Martha sat down beside me, followed by Ralph, a two star Air
Force general who had just retired after giving birth to something
called the B-2 bomber.
“I have a confession to make,” Bill blurted,
dispensing with introductory remarks. Fifteen feet below us Flyer’s
bow waves murmured with a pitiful hiss. We were creeping along.
Across an ocean. “I’m all ears,” I said.
“You remember this morning how I told you everything
was great, never been happier?” asked Bill.
“If we need to elect an adult I nominate Martha,” I
“I DON’T WANT TO BE THE ADULT!” she
“IT WAS A LIE! I’M NONE OF THOSE THINGS!” Bill
blurted. “I’M A MESS!”
“ME TOO,” said Ralph. “I’m never gonna make it.”
“The smallest quirks give me the heebee jeebees,” said
Martha. “It started two days ago. I can’t take it.”
Martha forced a faux smile, an involuntary survival
reflex hard-wired into the DNA of Daughters of the Confederacy.
“Come to think of it, Paul,” said Bill, “you’ve
been a real jerk for the past two days.”
Flyer rolled lazily. I watched with envy as Lord Snowden took off
to circle the ship for his afternoon aerobics. “The day my
wife filed for divorce,” I heard myself begin, “my
dog was killed by a drunk Junior Leaguer. What was left of my marriage
fit into a small suitcase. That was an up tempo week.”
My unrehearsed confession elicited reactions of
self-conscious shame. Eyes darted about in search of something
safe, familiar, a refuge. Ralph's’ jaw muscles rippled against
the tension of his unshaven sunburn. Then suddenly, unaccountably,
right on cue, as if Neptune realized that a mutiny was at hand,
THE MIRACLE HAPPENED. I glanced at Ralph’s watch: 3:52 pm.
The wind shifted, fifteen degrees, then thirty. And then it blew.
Flyer lurched and heeled, then surged out of the water.
The bow wave suddenly roared beneath us. I glanced aft and saw
the second mate, Christian, scurrying toward the helm. The sails
snapped like whips, bellying out with a huge audible groan as
the jib sheets jerked taut overhead. Flyer had suddenly awakened,
as if stirred from a coma by memories without discernable origin.
The four of us regarded each other in silent amazement. Slowly,
inexorably, smiles animated our faces...
“WHAT IS IT?” cried Martha.
“It’s the trades,” I whispered. “We
just hit the trades...”
Log entry - Tuesday, October 19th
Noon to noon - 219 nm
Position: 19’ 58” N, 32’ 42” W
O be joyful! The trades! We knew it the moment it
happened, as sweet as a first kiss, the one that would measure
all others and mark the end of one thing, the beginning of another.
Columbus’ ghost is very much with us. I cannot look out upon
this scene without thinking of the unnamed sailors who ventured
before us. This element of our planet, the visible part of this
great ocean, has not changed one iota since the Santa Maria, Pinta
and Nina cleaved these waters. It’s a glorious sensation.
Flyer blasts through the ocean like a freight train on rails, the
bow spray sometimes carrying to the helm, a hundred feet aft of
the sprit. It is exhilarating and constant, a place where time,
as we knew it on land, is an aberration, suspended, meaningless,
pitiful. Day slips into night with a spectacular show of color.
Then night takes over, spinning the sky through a color wheel so
subtle that one color is no sooner named than it yields to another.
The feathery flicker of Lord Snowden reels me back
to the moment. He found his way into the dining room today and
kept flying into the portholes, made desperate by the illusion
of freedom, and nearly broke his determined little neck. Heroic
efforts by the crew (and a butterfly net) saved him from himself;
yet another timeless sea story.
La noche is the great payoff. Ben and Cojo, the Carribean deck
hands, and I, meet on the bridge under a nave of stars, a transcendent
sublimity. We take our tricks at the helm under a sky full of
sail, moonlight, and wind, alone among the deities and spirits.
The spokes of the great wheel fill my hands as Flyer bounds
through the ocean, chasing her shadow down a moon beam. The very
air intoxicates. Sometimes I have to reign myself in to contain
the bouyance, the awe. Cojo peers into the timeless heavens and
calls roll among our mythical menagerie; Arcturus, Ursa Minor,
Andromeda, celestial beacons that have guided sailors across the
great oceans for thousands of years. To think ourselves alone would
be a conceit to shame even arrogance.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “No problem can be solved
in the consciousness which created it.” - Mr. Bill Banks
on Mr. Albert Einstein
Sunday, October 23
We’ve been in the trades almost a week, now, and the sailing
is magnificent. Here, tucked under the tropical belt girdling the
globe, the air is sweet, almost mellifluous. We plunge and roll
across the ocean’s surface on a billowing cloud. The days
unfold in rhythms set
eons before men knew there were rhythms. On this beautiful, enigmatic,
awesome, empty ocean, the only mystery is us. No one talks about
manana or the next day. We ceased discussing land or jobs or schedules
or landfall or the speed-wheel existences we left behind. Our words,
questions, observations, confessions, tremble on the point of the
moment. We are besieged by an epidemic of politeness. Afternoons
on deck are silent. By instinct we repair to our favorite sanctuary
to endure the heat of the day. Ishmael takes his position at the
bow, as reassuring as a statue in a storm. Always facing out. Scanning
the sea. Somehow he is all of us.
We rush to the rail each morning, anxious to see
it once again, to touch it with our eyes and feel its tropical
breath on our skin. What a tonic this must have been for sailors
who had only known the rigors of northern climes. Most mornings
I drink my coffee on the bow with my little friend, Lord Snowden.
His spirit has taught flight to the most callous of gravity bound
bipeds. As we sit there, sharing the view, forgetting for the moment
that he is a bird and I am a man, our eyes are bracketed by the
inescapable horizon. I assume that we are seeing the same thing.
No matter which way I turn, nor how fast I run, and regardless
of how high or far Lord Snowden flies, we are locked at the center
of this great blue disk. It is a condition beyond appeal, an unbreakable
contract. The sea and us upon it.
*All passengers 80 years and older, wishing to go to the top of
the main mast in a bosun's chair, are reminded by the captain
that you must have the release form signed by BOTH parents.
QUOTE OF THE DAY : “An Englishman is a self-made man who
worships his creator.” Roger (takes one to know one) Dougherty.
Wednesday, February 11th
Noon to noon - 0
Position - 47’ 15” N, 114’ 30 W
The forecast is for more snow, high winds and frigid
temperatures, reason enough to bank another log in the wood stove
and hunker down. I sit at my cabin window watching the snow drape
the silent Montana sentinels in the distance, blurring the high
reaches above snow line in the Bitterroots where we scattered Gerards
ashes and caught golden trout last August. Mule deer graze in the
meadow below the asparagus garden. Daisy curls up in front of the
fire, twitching in canine dreams, her tail forming a punctuation
mark on the braided rug. I find, in the spirit of Mr. Durrell,
that my ‘drowsy brain is packed with dazzling impressions’ of
our watery adventure, trying in vain, as he would lament from a
walk-up on Corfu, to sort them out, a pursuit no less pointless
for its being human.
I have heard from many of my fellow voyagers. Nearly all report
that their lives have changed for the better, evidence of grace
bestowed upon a few people lucky enough to have glimpsed our planet
through new glasses. We sailed across the great Atlantic ocean
from east to west, across thousands of miles of open ocean under
a cloud of sail, at an average of 8 knots. Life goes on. The same.
Bill is selling his 6,000 square foot house in California,
shedding the bric a brac of a lifetime, and moving into a condo.
Tommie has been to London to visit Roger, a budding inter-continental
romance which boosted Delta stock five points. Martha is packing
her bags for language school in Costa Rica. Ralph is holding out
for a trip to the moon, beyond. And one fine day, a year after
that morning when we all gathered in the first rose light of dawn
to watch the Caribbean islands rise out of the watery horizon,
the phone rang in this cabin.
It was lunch time in Bermuda, where a reporter for
the Royal Gazette newspaper was doing a story on a gentleman
from Toronto by the name of Stewart McKeough. It seems Mr. McKeough
went swimming early that morning and saw something in the curl
of a wave as he paddled ashore. Plucking it out, to his astonishment,
it was a bottle with a note in it, the note I had watched drift
out of sight as the African coast slipped beneath the horizon.
As the newspaper account would explain, my letter “... drifted
westerly to the eastern edge of the Caribbean, then north, pushed
by hurricanes and the prevailing trade winds until it got caught
in the northerly current of the Gulf Stream.” Then this,
the kicker, the one that gave me pause: “Isn’t it funny,” said
Mr. Keough, “that today is Columbus Day.”
We gathered one last time in the spectral light of
dawn as St. Bart's, named for Columbus’ younger brother Bartholemew,
gathered itself out of the ocean. There it was, just as the great
navigator and his men saw it five centuries before on a morning
exactly like this one. Those of us who gathered on Flyer’s
bridge stood in little groups, shuffling from one foot to the other
as our murmurs made quiet testimony to the conflict between elation
and regret, yin and yang. And always solitary, ever vigilant, apart
from and enigmatic, Ishmael sat alone at his accustomed spot on
the bow. Finally, he stood up and hurried past me and I’m
sure I saw him brush something from his cheek before he disappeared
Not being in the mood for breakfast, I walked forward and stood
at the rail, alone with my
own jangled thoughts, imagining what those men on the Nina, Pinta,
and Santa Maria were feeling right about now, half a millennium
ago. Then, a winged something flew past my cheek with a glancing
flutter. I’d like to think that delicate, melodious whir
was finch language for: ‘Dug it, man! Catcha later. Be cool.’ Lord
Snowden was soon a feathery speck, skipping gleefully over the
waves, before he disappeared altogether.
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