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  Myron Arms: Riddle of the Ice

June 25, Saturday midnight. 42/18N, 68/58W.



LOG: Wind: south, 14 knots. Barometer: 30.06 steady. Weather: thin fog, broken overcast, full moon. Position: 55 miles NE of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

A hand touches me on the shoulder and nudges me into consciousness. "Skipper, wake up." Pete's voice. "You're on next. Are you awake?"

I open my eyes and find myself staring at a rectangular porthole above my bunk. The dim glow of moonlight enters through the window--the only light in the cabin. I turn slowly onto my back and feel the rhythm of a long, regular swell lifting and falling underneath the boat. I listen to the hissing of water moving fast along the hull next to my ear.

"Yes, yes...I'm awake. Thanks," I say to Pete. "What time is it?"

"Ten minutes to twelve," Pete says, stepping back into the galley. "It's a beautiful night out there."

I lie still for nearly a minute after Pete has left the cabin. I need to retreat from the image of whatever dream he has just interrupted. I need to let the pieces of my consciousness organize themselves into a coherent whole.

Ten minutes to twelve. The change of watch. Brendan's Isle is sixteen hours out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, somewhere north of George's Bank in the Gulf of Maine. She's sailing northeast with the wind on the quarter, the liquid miles rolling effortlessly under her keel.

I sit up, swing my legs over the edge of the bunk, drop slowly to the floor. I'm already dressed in blue jeans and a turtleneck shirt and sweater--the air is cool tonight and I never bothered to take them off when I left the deck four hours ago. In the darkness I fumble around until I find the black rubber sea boots and the wool cap and the nylon safety harness and tether that I'd left together on the floor at the foot of the bunk.

My eyes have adjusted to the moonlight well enough now that I don't need to use the overhead electric lamp. I know it's better to leave it off and finish dressing in the dark. I'll need my night vision, anyhow, in a few more minutes up on deck.

Pete is standing in the galley next to the stove when I emerge from the aft cabin. "Coffee's in the thermos," he says. "Hot water's almost ready for tea."

The light from a single kerosene lamp flickers against the wall on the far side of the dinette table in the main saloon. Underneath it I can just see the dim outline of my watchmate, Amanda. She pulls a sweater down over her head and shoulders, then looks at me with sleepy eyes.

"Hi," she says, in a hoarse whisper.

"Good morning," I say. "Did you sleep all right?"

She nods, staring at her knees. She is trying to pull a pair of jeans up over her long underwear without standing up. She is obviously still in a half stupor as she struggles in the darkness with her belt and zipper.

"Take your time," I say. "I'm wide awake. Why don't you just stay down here, have a coffee, watch the radar for a while. I'll take the first hour on deck."

She looks at me and nods again. "Okay, sure," she says. "Thanks."

In the cockpit I clip the tether of my safety harness onto one of the two long Dacron jack lines that have been rigged along either side of the deck. I slide aft and duck around Mike as we exchange places at the helm. Our tethers become fouled, and I have to unclip for a few seconds to let him pass.

There is no need for the safety gear tonight. The seas are gentle and the boat is well off the wind. We're wearing the safety gear so that it will become a habit--an unquestioned part of the routine. We're wearing it for all the other nights that are sure to come when the seas won't be so gentle and the wind won't be so kind. Mike and I and the others have accepted this fact. None of us complains about the inconvenience.

After Mike has left the deck, I stand at the steering station, trying to orient myself to the night. The full moon lights the sky in a diffused glow. A thin veil of fog obscures the horizon so that there is no perception of distance, just a cottony film of silver light that envelops the boat. But there are hundreds of miles of open ocean ahead of us, with no weather to worry about, no coastal shipping lanes to cross. I know that with Amanda checking the radar from time to time below, al1 I need to do is steer. So I hunker down in the seat behind the wheel, listening to the sound of water trailing off the stern, thinking about where in the world we've come from, where we are trying to go.

Twelve hours earlier, as we sailed past Race Point at the end of Cape Cod, a strange thing happened--the same thing that always seems to happen when you leave the land in a little sailboat. As we skirted around the Cape, the beach was only a half mile away and the details of hills and towers, buildings and roads, automobiles and clusters of people stood out in vivid relief. Then in a few more minutes Brendan found the south wind again, and as she pulled away from the land, the details began to blur. At two miles off there were no people any longer. At three miles the roads and automobiles were gone. At five miles the buildings and the beaches disappeared. At seven there was only the gray-green silhouette of hills at the rim of the horizon, punctuated by the tops of towers. At ten the last remnant of the North American continent dropped unceremoniously into the sea, and we were alone.

There is an odd feeling that comes at such a moment. As the land disappears, you feel yourself growing less distinct--as if the mirror that you normally see yourself in has suddenly started returning a weaker reflection. You begin to think about scale--about how small the land is and how large the sea. You begin to think about the Earth as a water planet--with over seventy percent of its surface covered with this liquid wilderness and only thirty percent solid and dry enough for human habitation. You begin to think about all the petty strutting and preening that goes on back there, and about how quickly it disappears beneath the horizon. Inevitably, you also begin to think about how small and unimportant you must be and perhaps how small and unimportant the entire human enterprise.

Tonight you are a sailor, moving along with the forces of nature rather than against them. You are a minion of the wind--only partially in control of where you go--just as in a few more weeks you'll be a minion of the ice, forced to do its bidding rather than your own. Maybe this is another reason why you feel so small tonight and so disengaged from the commotion and noise that you've so recently been a part of ashore.

Joseph Conrad once wrote, "The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land." You're not a thousand miles from the land tonight--you're not even a hundred. But the feeling that Conrad was talking about must be the same as the feeling you have here. The feeling of being safely at sea with the land and all its confusions well astern. The feeling of sailing fast, listening to the odd, nighttime chatter of seabirds, watching the moonlight illuminate the tops of waves, moving your body in time with the rhythms of the boat. The feeling of connecting.
 
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    Excerpted from Riddle of the Ice by Myron Arms. Copyright © 1998 by Myron Arms. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.