A False Bottom

Although we are at 26 degrees 50 minutes north latitude—between Miami and Bimini—it’s cold on this January night. The waning gibbous moon that emerged out of the ocean in front of us (and shortly after sunset) is now climbing well above the horizon. There’s already enough moonlight that I could almost read by it. I’m in Hazel James’s cockpit dressed in foul weather gear, sea boots, and a knit watch cap. While the weather isn’t “foul” and there’s not nearly enough wind to throw spray and necessitate the waterproofness of foul weather gear, my bib overalls and jacket keep the wind out and the heat in, as I try to grab a few 20-minute catnaps. We’re slowly making our way east and toward The Bahamas, across the 50 nautical miles that span the Gulf Stream—the most powerful open ocean current in the world. It carries the volume of anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 Mississippi Rivers; however, while the Mississippi meanders south, “The Stream” rockets north.

The “we” that I speak is Hazel and me—just Hazel and me. I’m making the crossing single-handed. Up until the day before our departure, my girlfriend Rhett and her long-haired dachshund Sunny were planning to join us. However, some last minute personal and family matters kept Rhett shore bound. Early this morning as I worked Hazel away from her transient slip in Pompano Beach and headed for the open ocean, Rhett wished us fair winds and following seas, and said she’d hope to fly to The Bahamas and join me in a week or so.

The combination of the weather and sea state, and the fact that I’m sailing single-handed are creating challenges, physically and emotionally. Prior to our departure, it had been blowing hard from the north and northwest against the current for several days. Now that we’re in the midst of The Stream the large swells from that blow persist. This afternoon, as we were leaving the Florida coast in our wake and entering the western wall of the Gulf Stream, the high-rises of Miami off Hazel’s stern disappeared whenever we were in a trough and I found myself looking up at the next wave crest. While the swells themselves weren’t a problem—they were long-period and not breaking—the combination of the swells and too gentle of a breeze was aggravating. With more wind, the wind’s pressure on the sails would have stabilized Hazel and the swells would slide under us while we maintained a constant angle of heel. However, lacking enough wind Hazel protested by pitching and rolling—at times violently.

To make matters worse, with the exception of one short shakedown sail, I hadn’t been sailing on Hazel since late-October (on our passage from Charleston to South Florida). Yes, I’d been on Hazel nearly every day in the ensuing two months but I wasn’t on her to sail. I was with her to fix and upgrade and refinish. Consequently, my sailing muscle memory was off, as I still had my “land head” on. On our shore leave, I had read the book 90% of Everything by Rose George (an excellent treatise of the shipping industry). In it, she profiles a container ship captain and the captain describes having a “sea head” and a “land head.” When he’s been on land for several weeks (with his land head firmly attached) and someone asks him about the sea or his ship or his command, he has a hard time immediately remembering or answering the question. When I read the passage, I instantly empathized with the captain. WIth my uncalibrated muscle memory and my land head still attached, I stumbled around Hazel, my feet bumping into cleats and other rigging that I should have known were there (and would re-remember after a couple days onboard). When we’re together, Rhett and I jokingly call the inevitable stubbed toes, bruised shins and arms, and little cuts on the hands, “boat bites.” Furthermore, my nerves expressed themselves by holding on too tightly to handholds and lines, resulting in cramped hands—something else that always happens on the first day sailing, then seldom happens after.

Those were the physical challenges. Comparatively, they were easy when juxtaposed to the nocturnal emotions. The last time I had made the eastbound crossing of The Stream by myself was two years ago—just five months after my wife Colleen’s death. Tonight, the single-handed solitude of The Stream spawns an oceanic upwelling of memories. Two years previous, I had been so raw, so wounded, like skin that’s become soft and white from constant exposure to saltwater. My vision clouds slightly with tears as I think about all the ways that I’m so much better than I was. On some days, I even think that I’ve found the bottom of the hurt. On other days, I realize it’s a false bottom. Two years ago was “then” and this is “now” and so much is different, yet so much is the same.

Two years ago I was sailing with Colleen’s ashes in a sandalwood box. She and I bought the box when we had lived in India years ago, with no idea of what we’d use it for—we just liked the flowers, trees, and tigers that an ancient Indian street-craftsman, sitting cross-legged had carved into the wood. I’d scattered her ashes on the sea, hundreds of miles east of The Bahamas and just north of the Virgin Islands. Today, I’m again single-handed and there are ashes in the box. However, this time they are my father’s ashes. At some point on this voyage I’ll scatter him on the sea, just like Colleen. While I’m sad about my dad, at the age of 93, his was a death “in-time”—totally different than Colleen’s out-of-time death at the age of 50.

As I sit in the cockpit and massage my stiff hands and forearms, I think about the past two years and the bottoms and false bottoms of grief. It reminds me of Rhett’s and my sailing this past summer. On a mid-July morning, we had departed Provincetown, Massachusetts bound for Portland, Maine. We were 50 east of Boston sailing over the Stellwagen Bank, some of the richest whale grounds in the Atlantic. All day we had kept a sharp lookout for blows or flukes or breeches but we weren’t rewarded with a sighting. However, we did have an odd occurrence with our electronic depth sounder. It’s normally 100% reliable and reads the bottom depth up to 300 or 400 feet. When sailing offshore, I typically set a shallow water alarm for 30 feet, to help warn us as we approach landfall. On this day we were well offshore with no nearby bottom structure indicated on any of our charts. Given we were on the Stellwagen Bank (a “bank” being a shallower area of water), the digital readout of the sounder, in Hazel’s cockpit just forward of her steering wheel, read anywhere between 90 and 110-feet of water. We were sailing placidly with a gentle breeze. Suddenly and from out of nowhere the shallow water alarm sounded. It was so unexpected it took me a moment to register what it meant, I was below decks and raced up the companionway steps out of Hazel’s saloon and into the cockpit and swung myself behind the wheel. Indeed the sounder read 30-feet (the alarm depth). It then climbed upwards to 25-feet, 20-feet, 15… What could be happening? I barked to a wide-eyed Rhett to get ready for something bad that might happen, and then disappeared below decks to check the charts. Strangely, everything checked out…according to both paper and electronic charts, there should be no bottom this shallow anywhere for miles. No depths even close to the terrifying 8-to-10 feet displayed on the sounder’s screen. The readings were so shallow that we even looked over Hazel’s gunwales down into the water to see if we could see some massive boulder coming to get us—we saw nothing in the slightly murky northern water. After 15 or 20-minutes of the depth sounder’s antics—rising and falling, rising and falling with no sight of bottom or consequences—we chalked the mystery up to the sounder malfunctioning or perhaps a sudden temperature break in the thermocline of the water column causing false readings. No matter, in sailing as with grief, we just kept moving forward.

Back in the cockpit, alone on this crossing, the moon was nearing zenith. It’s illumination helped somewhat with the physical challenges of the sail: I could at least see the swells, gauge their size, and prepare for the more intense rocking and rolling caused by the bigger sets. Still, the pitching, banging, and slapping of Hazel and our gear was irritating. Amidst my aggravation, frightening thoughts occurred to me. Why am I doing this? Why am I here? I could be like I’d been for the past couple months—warm and comfortable on a couch somewhere, consuming vicarious entertainment and adventure via streaming and the internet. That thought was like walking to the edge of a cliff and looking over the abyss, and contemplating taking that one last step.

I had once listened to an interview with Bob Dylan. He said that his greatest fear was waking up one morning and finding that the songs were gone—that his songwriting well was dry. What if sailing was no longer my dream? No longer my passion? What if my “voyaging well” was dry? If I don’t want this, then what do I want? Those thoughts scared me far more than any pooping wave coming over Hazel’s transom and into my lap off Cape Hatteras.

We (Hazel and I) were now two-thirds of the way across the stream. No land in sight anywhere, just the faint glow of Miami on the horizon astern of us and to the west, and the fainter glow of Bimini to the east and off our bow. Yes, Bimini was much closer but with not nearly the population or power consumption or extraneous light output of Miami.

With the moon almost directly overhead, I could now see down into the the water (the much clearer southern water). As I stared into the depths and contemplated my potentially dwindling passions, two white blobs floated by, maybe 20 feet below the surface. I glanced at them quickly and then averted my gaze. I was sure they were white plastic bags—the kind that turtles mistake for squid and eat and die because of it—and I didn’t want to see them. While the two bags were in the corner of my field of vision, I said aloud to them, “Where aren’t you nowadays?” I wanted the ocean’s beauty, unsullied by plastic trash.

The vision of the floating bags sparked the memory of the Robert Frost poem “An Encounter.” Frost was one of my father’s favorite poets (and thus is one of my favorite poets). I keep my father’s hard bound The Poetry of Robert Frost in Hazel’s modest library in her saloon. Whenever I crack it open, the smell of my childhood home wafts upward from its yellowed pages. Frost penned “An Encounter” in 1916 and in it, he is hiking (more bushwhacking) through a dense, and seemingly virgin, swampy woods. He pauses for a rest and happens to look up and sees, amongst all the other trees in the forest, “…a resurrected tree, A tree that had been down and raised again—A barkless specter.” It’s a telephone pole, in what Frost thinks is the middle of nowhere. He says to it, “‘You here?…Where aren’t you nowadays?’” In the cockpit I smiled wryly—oh, if Frost could only see what the ubiquity of mankind and technology have done to the earth and ocean in the ensuing 106 years.

Adding insult to injury, a second set of bags appeared to float by. As with the previous set, they seemed to be in formation, side-by-side 10 or 15-feet apart. Very strange, I thought, While seeing a plastic bag far out to sea isn’t remarkable (unfortunately), two bags is odd and two sets of two bags has got to be more than a coincidence. I thought about this conundrum and as I thought I realized that the bags were “floating” from north to south, opposite The Stream (anything inanimate would be carried northward). As this realization sunk into my groggy brain, I focused my eyes on the area between the bags just as their two forms disappeared under Hazel’s port side. As I strained to focus my tired eyes, flukes emerged in the moonlit water. I instantly knew it had to be a whale’s tail—the flukes were broad—six feet across—far too broad for a dolphin’s tail. Then, from Hazel’s starboard side, I heard the blow, similar to a dolphin’s blow but an octave lower (Take a breath, hold it, purse your lips inward and start to exhale against your lips. Then, as the pressure starts to build on your lips, release them. That’s the sound—it’s magical.).

I scuttled below decks and found our laminated “Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts” identification card in Hazel’s library. I flipped on a red headlamp (red, to not damage my night vision) and scanned the card. There it was, as clear as day, the Common Minke Whale, 21-29 feet—it has, “…flippers with bright white bands….” (I felt a twinge of shame for confusing whale’s flippers with plastic trash).

Whale identification card and Robert Frost poems in Hazel’s library.
Whale detail (Common Minke Whale second from the top). Note the bright white bands on the flippers.

Back on deck, I marveled at their grace—far slower and far more sublime than dolphins’ antics when swimming with the boat. They were majestic in their size and scale and seemed to take forever for their entire length to pass under Hazel. There were at least two of them and they stayed with us for an hour or so. Minkes are the smallest of the baleen whales and at one point, one raised it’s rostrum (snout) well clear of the water and I could see the pleats below its mouth. The pleats allow its throat to expand as it gulps seawater to then filter the invertebrates and small fishes of its diet.

They established a cyclical pattern of cruising off Hazel’s stern wake (perhaps drafting as race cars and cyclists do) for a couple minutes. They’d then shift to their left and position themselves off Hazel’s port quarter for 15 seconds (the back left hand corner of the boat)—the direction from which the swells were coming—and wait for their “perfect wave.” Then they’d lazily accelerate down the swell and swim under the boat. Hazel draws five feet of water and I imagined their dorsal fins grazing her keel from time to time. Our sonar transducer (the device that sends sound waves to the bottom and interprets the returning signal and calculates the depth) is positioned just forward of the keel and as the whales completed their cycles and were under the boat—just like on Stellwagen Bank last summer—the shallow water alarm sounded as it mistook a whale’s back as a false bottom. As I watched them I cried and thought about my own false bottoms of grief and if there ever really is a bottom—I guess all I can do is keep my boat moving forward and the bottom will do what the bottom does. I have some control of the boat’s speed and direction; I have no control of the bottom.

Eventually, and as we neared Bimini, the wind freshened and the whales departed. As Hazel responded happily to the breeze and stabilized herself, my soul was freshened—or perhaps better said, “re-freshened.” The whales reminded me why I was here, why I was doing what I was doing, and how little time any of us has to do what we need to do.

10 thoughts on “A False Bottom

  1. Grief is a process that heals the soul. As our lives progress, situations arise that allows the grief to bubble up from deep within us. The expression of it is like a healing balm. When a relationship with God is established, the comfort can be received from Him and thus the relationship deepened. Hope is restored, and new horizons come into view. This transformation brings us out from the seeming senseless tragedies that befall us all. Thank you Dan for the way you express your journey, not only with Hazel meandering around the Atlantic Ocean, but also your journey through a very difficult experience in your life. You have a talent in the written word.

  2. Good morning from chili Fort Lauderdale.
    What a fabulous story to wake up to. You are a very talented writer and your descriptions and storyline brought tears to my eyes.🥲
    I’m glad you remembered why you’re doing what you’re doing and those whales were there to refresh your memory.
    Sending love your way

  3. Thank you for the story and perspective. Travel safe. Your dad is looking down in you with pride.

    1. Kathy, I’m right on the New River, just upstream/west of the 7th Avenue Bridge. Text me if you or you and Andy are downtown and have time for a breakfast, lunch or dinner.

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