Into My Father’s Wake

Book Excerpt

Editor’s Note – Eric Best and I were colleagues at the Stockton (CA) Record newspaper from the mid seventies through the early eighties, he a reporter and I a photographer. Through covering many stories together we became good friends, often socializing over a determinedly competitive ping pong table. “Into My Father’s Wake” is both an introspective journey of a complicated relationship and a story of solo-sailing the vast Pacific Ocean. The latter offering much time to think, along with periods of harrowing danger where his survival depends, certainly in part, on sailing skills taught him by his often-angry father. It’s never too late to learn to forgive. I highly recommend this engrossing book.
—Rich Turner 
Excerpt –

My father listened as I worked the phone for several days from the house in Maine where I had come for two weeks, my first vacation since my divorce. I was going to buy this boat with no money — except a down payment that Michel agreed to loan me, and the rest from a bank, or so I thought. My father considered this creative financing and was curious to see how it would work. He had begun his career as a utility analyst at the Chase bank in New York in the 1920s and spent his last 30 years as a treasurer of a small-city natural gas company. It must have been obvious to him that no American bank was likely to lend $60,000 to a journalist on a 15-year-old French-built steel boat. Still, any boat loan in the post-Carter economy was worth about 11.5 percent a year, which my father considered an attractive rate.

I said I didn’t want his help but preferred to do it on my own.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself. You won’t find a bank with much taste for this. Besides, I know what you make and where to find you. I don’t think you’re going anywhere.”

He was right about that, or most of it. There was no bank to be found willing to take the same risk on me that my father was, so after the fifteenth or twentieth fruitless phone call I grudgingly let him finance Feo. Michel and I concluded our negotiations by phone, and when I came down to her two weeks later as my own vessel — the first time I had owned anything significant without someone else involved — I discovered what it meant to feel proud and afraid.

A night breeze moaned from the northwest with the unique thrumming that wind can make through metal shrouds. Feo rose and fell on the harbor’s movement like a large creature aware something much smaller had climbed onto her back. Standing in the cockpit with a sense of her mass under me, I stared up at the mast spreaders, stacked one above the other like twin crosses in the night sky, and tried to imagine Michel bidding her good-bye.

I pictured his angular figure someplace up the dock looking back at her, remembering all that had gone on between them across stretches of ocean and through remote islands that most could not even imagine. His “for sale” sign said 85,000 ocean miles, which was about two-and-a-half times around the world, but what had he seen? A hundred miles off the coast of Costa Rica, Angelica had been eight months pregnant when she developed appendicitis and they had to make a grueling, day-anda-half sail upwind to medical help. Their daughter, Moemma, was born safely and by the time she came ashore with them as a wraith of a child in San Francisco seven years later she could trace all the major constellations in the stars, land big tuna on hand lines and imitate numerous South Sea dialects.

I tried to imagine his feelings as he approached the end of the pier, barely able to make out Feo’s stout lines and heavy spars in the complex of distant rigging before finally losing sight of her.

“Welcome,” said his note, penciled crudely onto a shipping tag. “I wish you fair winds.”

A bouquet of dried flowers stood on the salon table. A tattered straw hat from some Pacific atoll shaded the overhead light. On a small inflatable globe of the world someone had drawn Michel’s solo track in blue ink — down from Marseille and out the mouth of the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and Pacific and South Pacific, doubling back around the Horn. From Rio the line turned red and made its way up and across through the Caribbean, through Panama to Baja, southwest to the Marquesas and New Caledonia. It meandered back through Vanua Levu and Christmas Island, touched Hawaii, and arced north through the world’s largest expanse of open water before turning east to San Francisco.

I felt an intestinal rush as the idea leapt out into the cabin, a silent figure that contemplated me as I contemplated it. I did not estimate distance or try to imagine the difficulties. If I acknowledged too soon or too openly that I would attempt it, I might stumble over the fear of failure. I would prepare like someone keeping a secret from himself. There were things I had to learn: the basics of ocean navigation, the nature of Feo yet concealed.

Pillows cluttering the cabin released tiny feathers when touched. A carton of navigational charts dominated one of the forward berths. Moemma had abandoned a series of Mickey Mouse books in French and a stuffed chipmunk.

Now I saw her flaws. The gold cushions frayed along every edge. Screw-holes drilled here and there into the woodwork. Barometer glass cracked across its face, mended with tattered scotch tape. Electrical cords protruding like entrails from beneath the small refrigerator, which hummed and ticked like something about to expire. Sea water gurgled and stank in the forward head. In one storage bin after another lay odd tools, cables, shackles and sail-mending gear.

I opened up the envelope that stood beside the dried flowers and read Michel’s cramped handwriting:

“Both heads, valves under sink must be closed if you use toilets. Pump hard and fast and it works like every other boat toilet, not well. Kitchen — left pump is soft water, right pump is salt water. It smell bad in harbor but use it at sea.

“Engine: Before to start, take off 1 oz. of fuel from the day tank to clean off rust and water; open water valve completely. Switch battery on (in the engine room). Start engine.

“When sailing, put a cork from wine bottle in hole where hand pump exhausts to avoid a return of water when beating against the wind with Feo heeled to port.” He concluded:

“Be nice with Feo. I wish you the same beautiful time I had with her.”

Waves of self-doubt rushed out like frightened live things into the confines of this steel shell. Gone was the world sailor who had cast a magic spell on me. How could I have bought my first boat without sailing her first? How could this tiny space become habitable? I knew nothing about boat electrics or old diesel engines.

Foghorns bleated in the distance. Music wafted down from the pier through the open porthole as the weight of permanence began to settle. She was mine now, for better or worse.

“Your second wife,” my father had said, with a hint of sarcasm.

I had to expect these fears. I sat in the aft cabin, its double bunk like a beaver’s lair in the rounded stern, and removed the lace curtains from the portholes.

Nothing had ever seemed more vast and irrevocable to me than to be in the ocean at night, alone with her sounds and concealed intentions. Some ancient balance of flesh and water and electricity, deep legacies of evolution, would absorb signals unknown to science. To sail across vast ocean reaches would be to rearrange myself from the inside and realign to the universe.

I clicked off the cabin light and listened to hull sounds in the water, faint lickings beneath.

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