Chapter One: Bumper Boats
There’s a reason why people say they are “at sea” when they are lost or confused or don’t know what’s going on. It’s not because life on a boat is inherently baffling — although I felt that way often enough. It’s because being in the middle of the ocean, with nothing to look at but your own ship and the horizon, is like being in limbo. It’s neither here nor there, you have no frame of reference other than a GPS-generated blip on a screen. What was like before there was even that? How many ancient sailors had gone mad from the sheer unknowableness of their place in the world?
We were safe in the harbour of Pago Pago in American Samoa as I ruminated on these thoughts. I could see the town ashore, the lights of other boats at anchor. I knew where I was, literally at least. But I still felt at sea in many ways.
I’d been aboard the Byte Bucket for half of a nine-month term, minding the servers carefully housed in the hold of the ship that were run by my employer, Really Remote Desktop. They ran the boat and paid for the crew to sail it around the world, keeping the location of their clients’ data safe from the prying eyes of hackers, competitors and governments. It was a strange gig, one that my professors at university told me was a coup for a co-op student to be offered, so I’d taken the job against my own better judgment. Most of the time, my profs had been right.
Today, though, I wished I’d turned it down. I couldn’t stop thinking about my family back in Canada, preparing for my grandmother’s funeral without me. Not only was I not there, helping them, grieving with them, I hadn’t even known she’d died until days after it happened. I hadn’t known because I was out sailing, having fun on a boat in the tropics with my friends.
At least, that’s how it felt.
“It’s your job, Devi.” Everyone kept telling me this — my dad, my other crew members. Even Mat, the captain of the Bucket, who had agreed to stick around in Pago Pago longer than she’d planned so I could talk to my family on the phone, told me not to feel guilty.
“It’s part of the boat life,” she’d said. “Hell, missing one thing so you can do another thing is part of everyone’s life.” I knew she was right, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the joy I’d felt in finally literally learning the ropes as we’d gone out for a fun sail and the crew had helped me learn the basics of sailing. I wondered what I’d been doing when Grandma passed away. Had I been laughing?
I was lying in my narrow bunk, wallowing in what I knew was self-pity, hoping for sleep to finally descend. My parents and brother had finally told me that it was time to stop calling them, that there was nothing for me to do and I should just get on with it. It hurt to hear, but I knew they were right, so I told Mat that I was done here. She hadn’t said anything, but I was sure I saw the relief on her face. She hated being in one place too long and we’d been here for nearly a week. The crew had spent the afternoon making sure the boat was ready for the short passage to Apia in nearby Samoa and we planned to leave in the morning.
I rolled over in my bunk, turning to face the bulkhead, and tried to clear my mind when I was jolted into awareness by a very unnatural bang nearby.
The crew shared the bunk space, except for the mate, Isaac, and Mat who both had their own separate staterooms, and Jimmy, the ship’s cook, who slept in a small room off the galley. I heard the unmistakable sound of everyone sliding out of their berths.
“What’s going on?” That was Martin. He was my best friend on board, and the most junior sailor among us. I didn’t count, since I wasn’t technically on board as a sailor.
“I bet it’s bumper boats,” said Christine, her dark eyes narrowed. I followed her up the ladder to the deck level.
“Did someone hit us?” I had visions of a bowsprit through our hull, seawater pouring in and our imminent sinking, but I saw her shaking her head no in the bright deck lights which had just come on.
“I didn’t feel anything, so I don’t think it was us.” We all went to the aft deck to look around at the anchorage. The shock of the bright lights made it hard for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but soon it became apparent that things were not as they had been when I’d gone down to bed.
The anchorage was crowded and when we’d first arrived Mat had said that the holding was poor. The wind had come up earlier in the day and I overheard Mat and Isaac sharing concerns about the other boats nearby. I stood so my body blocked out some of our light and saw that two of the boats which had been closest to us were now touching. The one that was more or less stationary had lights on and its crew were scrambling about on deck with fenders, trying to keep the other boat off.
It was slowly but steadily moving backwards, downwind. Closer to us.
“Why does this shit always happen in the middle of the night?” Issac looked like he’d been sound asleep and his t-shirt was on inside out. “All right, who’s coming with me to rescue that boat?” He didn’t wait for responses before climbing down into the dinghy which was tied up at our stern. Christine and Martin followed him into the inflatable and when they were aboard he cast off and fired up the outboard. They sped over to the troublesome boat, which had now passed the vessel it had hit and was moving toward us.
“You guys grab some fenders and get ready to fend off if it gets close.” Mat handed out the tubular bumpers and the rest of us stationed ourselves along the side of the Bucket where it looked like the other boat might make contact.
“Just hang the fender over the side,” Tulia said, showing me what to do. “Whatever you do, keep your hands and arms from getting between the boats. Better to lose some paint than a finger, okay?”
“Okay.” I readjusted my grip on the line attached to the fender and stared at the slow-moving boat approaching us. I saw Isaac tie the dinghy to its stern and the three of them climbed aboard. It felt wrong to board another boat without permission, but there didn’t seem to be any signs of life aboard and something had to be done. If it kept going it would bump off of us, but worse still, it could end up on the rocks that loomed astern of us if they didn’t get it re-anchored.
There wasn’t anything I could do as I watched, but my whole body was tense, waiting for something to happen. Time slowed to a crawl as I saw the shadowy figures of Isaac, Christine and Martin struggling with the other boat’s anchor and chain, finally getting it redeployed and halting the boat’s slide downwind toward us.
“Jeez, that’s close,” Tulia said, her voice snapping me out of my tunnel vision.
“Yeah,” Mat said. “Let’s get these fenders tied on just on case.” I fumbled with the line, tying the knot several times before I finally got it right. “Good job,” Mat said quietly as she passed her hand over my knot. “Thanks for the help.”
“What’s going to happen now?”
She shrugged. “I’m probably not going to get back to sleep tonight, so I might as well keep an anchor watch. I trust those guys got the anchor hooked, but the wind could change and that boat’s a lot closer than I’d like it to be. I’m sure we’ll all be moving around in the morning.” She stretched and blew out a breath. “You might as well try and get some sleep. The excitement’s over for now.”
Isaac and the others returned with the dinghy and climbed aboard. “Anchor dug in good the last time,” Isaac said to Mat. “Should be fine until morning.”
Mat nodded. “Think you’ll get back to sleep?”
“Oh, yeah. When this adrenaline wears off in a few minutes I’ll be next to dead.”
“Okay, then, go back to bed. I’ll be up anyway, so don’t worry.” Isaac nodded once and then shuffled off down below to the cabin.
“You’re really going to stay up all night?” I asked.
“There isn’t all that much night left,” Mat said. “Besides, I know myself. Something like this is like drinking three espressos for me. I’m wired for hours. It’ll be fine, don’t worry. The only problem is I don’t think any of us will be ready to move on in the morning.” She made a face and a wave of guilt came over me.
I knew enough not to say anything though, and just went back down to the bunk room. Most of the bunks were already buttoned up again. Only Tulia was up, coming back to bed after using the head.
“Never ending excitement, eh?” She grinned ironically and I gave a low chuckle.
“There’s no chance that boat is still going to hit us, is there?”
“There’s always a chance anything could happen, but we’ve done all we can and Mat’s up keeping an eye on things. The only thing left to do is try to get a little sleep.” She slipped into her bunk. “Night, Devi.”
“Will you two shut up?” Martin’s exasperated voice came from the other side of the room.
“Sorry,” I whispered and closed the curtain to my bunk. I knew Martin wasn’t really mad and the crushing weight of tiredness was bearing down on me, too.
I dreamed that a storm blew over a giant tree in the backyard of my grandparents’ house. There were branches and leaves everywhere, a huge mess and my whole family was busy cleaning it up except me, who just sat in the middle of the yard watching.
* * *
When I woke up the next day I felt like I’d run a marathon — or maybe gone a few rounds with Ronda Rousey. But I wasn’t the only one feeling rough. When I got to the galley, I found Jimmy and Tulia sitting at the table sipping cups of coffee as if their lives depended on it. They probably did.
I got my own cup and joined them. “So, what’s on for today?”
“Recovery,” Tulia said over the rim of her cup.
“Mat said the weather is fine to leave tomorrow, so she suggested we just push through today, get an early night tonight and leave in the morning.”
“How far is it?” I asked, mentally planning for several days at sea.
“Seventy miles, give or take,” Jimmy said. “We should be there in time to get dinner out.”
Math had always been my strong suit but my foggy mind took longer to recalculate my assumptions and it took a moment before I got it. “It’s only a day trip!” Jimmy nodded sleepily.
The now-familiar feeling of guilt grew even more. We’d stayed in Pago Pago so I could contact my family, because I’d assumed that when we left we’d be at sea for days. But they surely had telephones in Samoa — we could have left days before.
I grabbed a slice of toast from the plate in the middle of the table and chewed. The rational part of my brain knew that what was done was done and there was no point in dwelling on it now. The lizard part of my brain couldn’t stop feeling like I’d let everyone down — my family, the crew… I hadn’t even been down to check on the servers in days. I was a total waste of space.
“You guys need me for anything?”
Tulia shook her head and Jimmy just looked confused. Yeah, what would they need me for? From the perspective of actually running the boat, I was entirely superfluous. “Okay, then, see you later.”
I topped off my coffee and carried it out the door of the galley. There was a trapdoor nearby which slid out of the floor and led down to the server room. I walked down the ladder carefully so as not to spill my coffee and set my cup on the workstation while I booted the laptop.
The servers were set up to automatically switch between a local cell network and the satellite communications system we used at sea. We’d had some traffic issues recently, but since headquarters had sent new hardware and software to deal with it, everything had been running smoothly. At least, it had been running smoothly the last time I checked.
I held my breath as I waited for the log files to open. Everything was still fine, and my breath came out in a whoosh. I wasn’t surprised — there was no reason I could think of for things to have deteriorated, but I had an illogical feeling that everything was going wrong. It seemed to go against the run of play that something was working right.
It made me stop and take stock. I knew I was messed up from grief over my grandmother’s death. I was focussing on not being there, on feeling guilty, maybe so I wouldn’t have to really think about the fact that she was gone.
I’d been close to Grandma, much closer to her and Grandpa than to my father’s parents who lived in Trinidad. Grandma and Grandpa lived down the street and I’d spent many days in their house. She was the kind of grandparent who was more like a friend to me. She and Grandpa had left India young and come to Canada with not much more than hopes and dreams. She was a big believer in taking risks and trying out new things, the absolute opposite of my careful and conservative nature.
I remember clearly one afternoon in her backyard, when my brother had climbed up the tree while I sat at its foot, warning him of the dangers. Grandma came over and said, “You know, Devi, as your grandmother I’m very happy that you are such a careful and safety-conscious little girl. It makes my life so much easier. But as your friend I really hope that someday you’ll learn to overcome your worries and take a chance on things that might be scary. After all, everything worth doing is a little scary at first.”
At the time I’d been angry at her for taking Nico’s side in the tree-climbing debate. But she was right, of course. She’d been thrilled when I told her I was going away to live for nine months on a boat travelling around the Pacific. I’d, of course, been terrified and was desperately hoping to find a way to get out of it. But that hadn’t happened and here I was, tears rolling down my face as I sat in the bilge of a boat in American Samoa. I’d crossed an ocean, made new friends, and learned to sail all while doing the work I loved and was good at.
I wished I’d gotten the chance to tell her that she was right all along.
Like what you read? Get the book here.