Waves deviates from the novel’s traditional form in a manner analogous to how life at sea differs from the urban norm. Superficially, it is a travelogue; one based on a combination of true stories and literary embellishment, but it adheres subtly to a classic theme and is intended, at least in the abstract, as a novel.
Whether for an afternoon or a decade, for a jaunt across the lake or to make an ocean passage, it is the object of the sailor to disengage from those scripts he might otherwise write actively or passively to govern the course of his life. The sailor embarks on his journey with a compass and a watch not to submit to some predetermined overriding plan, but rather, to experience what some larger and more indeterminate collaboration between happenstance and fate holds in store for him. Each day brings a new plot, a new cast of characters, a new set of challenges or, perhaps, one of the most poignant of human callings; a challenge to resist the enticements of sirens who sing of treasures hidden among reefs and shoals to humbly stand his watch under the stars in a fair wind with the deck purring beneath his feet and his tiller in hand, ready to turn the very earth at his whim.
A sailing vessel travels in two worlds balanced on that thinnest of edges between ocean and sky. The mariner is a creature of terra firma who ventures across an aqueous landscape beneath which he cannot survive but for the briefest of intervals. He must learn to hear the subtlest of clues whispered by waves and clouds, trust his compass and above all, place his faith at times in convictions based on not the slightest empirical foundation. The discovery of faith in self is an ages-old theme; its traditional protagonist faces his stormy seas and ultimately casts his anchor on the far shore having proven himself through his journey; or perhaps, poetically, he may be driven back by winds and seas only to discover to his surprise he has bettered himself by attempting his journey at all.
Certainly, this accessible formula offers the comfortable clarity of a series of symbolic obstacles and some manner of redemption that qualifies the turning of a book’s final leaf, but the terminus of our own life’s adventure is rarely so characterized by goals accomplished, debts paid, oceans traversed and dragons slain. Life is but a series of journeys undertaken, and in the case of the mariner, most often by men and women who have already cultivated sufficient mettle to warrant exclusion from that classic writer’s formula.
Beyond his struggle to survive as an animal in a natural world, the sailor must survive as a man in a world of men. He has a vessel to maintain and must develop the requisite skills and acquire the necessary funds to keep his course.
For the financial élite, the option to hire captains, navigators and laborers to bend sails and scrape barnacles from the keel presents itself, and perhaps then, there is room for elements of the classic stories after all? There is that oft-written parable of the King who cannot exchange his gold for his predicament and must depend on the good character of the peasant hero…but real life looms larger than that. The purpose of the true cruising sailor is to simply and unpretentiously go sailing, possibly without any specific destination in mind, any significant quantity of cash on hand, or any great personal challenge to meet.
The mariner navigates his craft, offers his services as a laborer when he can, and day by day, mile by mile, he accumulates a journal of experiences and a scattered network of coconspirators who collectively form the tapestry of a life lived richly, deeply and unusually. His sole redemption for wresting his hull from the grip of a reef may be the humble gift of survival to limp, broken, into the next port, yet, given the character of his quest, the chance to make such a colorful entry in his logbook is a grand opportunity.
The mariner must occasionally tie his painter to the shore and navigate the corals and currents of civilization. When he returns to his tiller, if he is true to his purpose, he returns to confront challenges which, though severe at times, are unburdened by human folly. A reef or a stormy sea may destroy his vessel and take his life, yet such hazards are not acts of sapient malice or sabotage.
There is some comfort in this, but where there is wind, there are waves and where there is land, there are dangerous shallows. It is, ironically, in the lee of a protecting shore where the sailor finds shelter from turbulent seas. Even in the middle of great oceans, he is a creature bound ultimately to the soil from whence he came. When he voyages forth upon the swells, he carries his humanity with him in all of its greatness and contradiction, and in tropical paradises, in congress with his fellows, his struggle remains ultimately to pursue the grandest and oldest of all classic themes; the search for meaning.
With good characters and colorful places left so often behind in the wake of this story’s progress, the reader may wonder where, on this stage where tranquil anchorages, ocean swells, and hazardous reefs mix with scattered expressions of humanity, is this all going? What is the great challenge? What is the final reward? But life is rarely so neatly packaged. The story of our protagonist’s journey is like our own; a series of successive storms, calms, crossings and harbors that under the best of circumstances, culminates humbly with preparations for another voyage. The reader is advised therefore not to anticipate a final step from deck to dock, but rather, to keep a weather eye out and mind the wind he races before. Like the best of sailing voyages, the importance of the destination is far secondary to figuring out, by wit or by wisdom, exactly where in the world one happens to be at any given moment.
Waves is an account of life at sea based as much on my own years as a boat handler as on a legacy of recollections handed me by a dear friend and fellow sailor. For philosophers and students of the human condition, the story offers its share of metaphorical brain candy. For admirers of the written word, it offers a quirky mix of the great Victorian sea novels with an ample portion of post-modernist irreverence and a measure of that curious but authentic jargon which is the lingua franca of the mariner, even in the twenty-first century.
But lo, the glass rises.
The gale freshens.
Poseidon favors our passage.