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Riding the Waves of a Dark Sea

On a trawler tossed by wild waters, a novice `seaman' gets a look at courage in action

By Hallett Stromholt / March 24, 1992

I WAS keeping the mate and my heart company on the trawler bridge. There was the smooth knocking of the diesels under us, the dark sea cutting, and the luminous depth-finder and compass registering our way. The twin dials floating in front of the dark windows reminded me of a line from a poem, "For love - two lights above the sea." Even though the mate consoled me he had left his family, two weeks on and a week off, my mind kept drifting back. My bride of two weeks was many miles of ocean away. I was try ing to be strong about it.

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Three months earlier I had made the connection with a Canadian fishing company and got a coveted trip ticket as a one-time observer on a trawler. It was a "coup" for my American resource office. I didn't know the date would fall during the period newspapers like to call "at home with my new bride." The telegram came during the wedding. It just added to the glory and bliss of my life. But she frowned, then smiled. She knew I would have to learn to leave home all over again - but so soon?

Now I was adventuring on the lonely dark sea, this adventure not of easy passion, but of brute will: Until now, no matter where my wife was, I had had the opportunity for courtship. When she was ensconced prudently at her mother's, I had knocked on a window on sleepless summer nights. We talked until her neighbors came out at first light to feed their cows. I liked her for leaning out downstairs, with an occasional look inside for a creak or noise inside. Was her father coming?

I liked her enough to brave these "dangers." I felt in love with her for entertaining my acts of courage. We had perfect glee and bliss - the secret of love seemed to dance happily at the center of our desire to be nearby. And we had married on it only a fortnight ago.

With the knocking of the diesels off the coast of Newfoundland, she asleep on the coast of Maine, I was entertaining thoughts of her as I looked out the window. We may have remarked on the moon, its position, the stillness of night, plans for the world we were entering.

On the ship there were only boys and men. In the galley the comradery was so warm, I hesitated to tell anyone my paleness wasn't "seasick"; it would sound too funny to say "lovesick." It was a good, rough crew. I didn't want comments. I didn't want anyone to put out "my two lights above the sea." I'd take the sadness and keep it to myself. I'd act as I thought a man should. I'd stay interested.

I wanted to talk to the captain. But he had been asleep in his bunk behind the wheelhouse since leaving Nova Scotia. The mate informed me, routinely, it was a "shore ailment" he'd sleep off. I had glimpsed him - an Ahab - railing at his crew at castoff, in a French-Canadian accent. Then he disappeared mysteriously from sight. All the crew in the galley nodded at his sleeping presence with strange respect; just having him on board seemed to give them confidence for the deep. I wondered.

"He's the best in the industry. We always get our quota."

I STAYED up late with the mate, as if my worry could assure this "captainless" boat safety of return. I was waiting for the captain to get up so I could go to bed. What I really wanted was to return to the one person in my life who made me feel not alone in the universe. In the meantime, though, I wanted these men who were daring the empty universe to have a "captain." It was out of my hands, except to worry. His absence was routine, they told me, so it must be all right.

I went below. I awoke to a sound more terrible than an iceberg screaming into rivets. The trawler was pitching badly, throwing me against bedrails and wall. I thought both engines must have blown.

When I got out, the stern was lit with floodlights and the trawling cables were getting mangled by the winches. Sparks flew across the heavy foam. I could feel the cables pulling the steel boat down backward. The stern fishing gate was open and heavy seas swept up and out the bay. How men awaiting the catch stood down there, I don't know.