The third day. Dead tired, no sleep, dehydrated, seasick, feeling sorry for myself, hating the boat, fearing the mindless ocean. One wrong move, and I could wind up overboard. The boat would sail on with the automatic pilot engaged, and I would be dragged by the life harness—like shark bait—not unlike a husband tethered to a bad marriage, bait for a feeding frenzy of lawyers.
In The Gulf of Mexico, my imagination bullied me— as my wife would, I’m ashamed to say— until I found the courage to change my own mind. That was all it took, all it ever takes to change everything.
A mindless ocean is something to fear, but not a bully. The ocean obeys the autopilots of wind and current, the heat of the sun and the cool of the night; its potential for violence has no power to diminish your courage. Bullies have teeth and so do you.
Three days hungry in the Gulf of Mexico, I looked in the icebox for something attractive to chew.
A fried pork chop, near frozen, leftover from lunch two days before I set sail, made my mouth water for some reason. No logic to that, the pork chop looked like a charred pancake, dappled with near-frozen grease.
I sniffed it two or three times. The voice in my ear, the same one that had illogically directed me to maintain course and speed when a monster freight ship threatened to run me down, said, “Take a bite.”
So I did.
The flavor of the grease was exquisite. The cold crunch of the charred pork, the meat giving way to my teeth, kept me chewing with pleasure for quite a while.
I stared at the greasy pork chop, kind of amazed.
A while later, I went back to it, took another small bite.
Drank lots of water, satisfied as if I’d eaten a full meal.
I rewrapped the chop and saved it for next time.
Then I sat on the helm seat, behind the wheel of Mysterion, disengaged the autopilot and steered manually. I spent the rest of the day working the boat in a kind of trance. Moving very carefully, I set the staysail and prevented it, going wing and wing with the big genoa making better time toward Key West. The adrenaline made lack of sleep feel luxurious.
Later, letting the autopilot do the work, I was in a state where everything inside my mind seemed crystal clear, but as I opened my eyes and stared at the ocean, all was a blur, as if I were swimming underwater. An image of myself falling overboard kept popping up on the backs of my eyelids. I saw myself struggling and failing to haul my own weight back up the knotted tether, unable to get back on deck. I would be discovered off the coast of Cuba drowned and still being dragged. The image wouldn’t leave me alone.
I went back to steering the boat, not letting go of the wheel. I got hungry again, and left the wheel to the autopilot, carefully creeping below to the icebox, I retrieved the cold pork chop. Again, it tasted delicious, amazingly relieved the lingering seasickness, and revived my energy. I drank a lot of water after the greasy pork chop and felt clean inside.
Relaxing after the meal, gazing at something between me and the ocean, I calculated I was about a hundred miles seaward of Tampa-St. Petersburg. I could be in sheltered water by this time tomorrow.
If I quit the ocean, I could take the Inland Waterway from Tampa across the Everglades to the East Coast; there were no fixed bridges too low for the boat south of Tampa Bay. If I stayed offshore, it would take another two or three days to reach Key West.
I thought about falling overboard. The fear was becoming familiar the longer I entertained it, the less likely it seemed. Yet it seemed there was no distance at all between me and the end of my life, no matter where I was. Life was the same in shallow water as it was where the ocean was a mile deep. The end was near everywhere you looked. It did not seem ironic that the sun was shining. The warmth of the light on my face brought tears to my eyes.
The wind was fresh and drove the boat. The following seas gradually mounted the longer the wind blew, all headed in the direction I wanted to go. After three days, I was adjusting to the constant motion.
I stood up and yawned, letting the motion of the boat work my legs. I went below and a look at the radar and the electronic navigation. Everything for the boat was as it should be.
I stripped down and took a sponge bath. After that I was wide awake.