Hoorah! A lull in the trades has allowed us to claw twenty-five miles south, enough to scrape past Pocklington Reef. If we can next avoid Rossel and Tagula Islands, we’ll have a straight shot to Australia.
I film April as I pedal. She’s sitting wedged across the inside of the cabin, writing her first email.
“Success?” I ask.
“Success.” She sighs heavily, closes the laptop lid, and removes her purple-rimmed glasses. “But now I’m going to have to lie down for just a quick minute.”
She nods as she pries off a sodden white sock. “Looking down seems to be my Achilles heel.” The soles of her feet are beginning to rot, the skin white and flaking like spoiled cheddar cheese. Painful lesions mark the straps of her ill-fitting sandals—the reason for the socks.
“Just tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to throw up… I’m not going to throw up…’”
I make it sound easier than it is. Seasickness is one of the most debilitating conditions known to mankind, the marine equivalent of mad cow disease, lobotomizing its victims and reducing them to the competency of a day-old baby.
April makes a face. “God, will it ever, ever get better?”
“I’m really tired of throwing up, though.”
“I know. Keep in there. You’ll be a salty sea bitch by the end of this, gobbling vindaloos for breakfast with a force ten blowing.”
She looks despairingly out over the lumpy blue, holding a hand to her forehead. “You think?”
Privately, however, I’m starting to wonder. We’ve been out a week. If anything her seasickness seems to be getting worse.
“Okay,” she whispers. “It’s just taking longer than I thought.” She works her way feet first into the Rathole, expels another deep sigh, and lowers her head onto a rolled-up fleece that serves as a communal pillow. With her eyes closed and arms crossed over her chest, I can’t help thinking of a corpse ready for burial at sea.
After an hour of sleep, April rallies. Determined to pull her own weight, she insists on cooking the evening meal while I pedal. Balancing the breadboard on her knees, she begins peeling an onion, riding the waves as she would a bronco back in Colorado. Then her eyes glaze and her face turns white. She reels like a drunk, exhaling noisily. Setting the board down and scrambling to her feet, she leans over the side and begins retching violently. Only bile comes up. All she’s been able to hold down in the last 24 hours is a little water.
“It’s like morning sickness only worse,” she groans, slumping back to the passenger seat and covering her face with her hands. To make matters worse, she’s been having lucid nightmares, a side effect of the anti-malarials we’re taking after the mosquito-ridden Solomon Islands.
“Last night it was a rollercoaster. The car I was in climbed higher and higher. As we started downwards, that first swoop in the stomach was terrifying. So real, like it was actually happening! Then I noticed someone standing below the tracks. It was my daughter, Lacey. She was just a toddler, her little arms reaching up to me. Except her hands were gone, sliced at the wrists—”
She halts partway through the sentence, the imagery too disturbing to continue. “I’ve had other dreams, too, where I’ve felt threatened, or overwhelmed by an aura of tremendous evil, the pit of my stomach filled with impending doom…”
The wind strengthens during the night. By the morning of the eighth day, cresting waves are once again pounding our port beam, the boat shuddering with every blow. Despite this, April is determined to carry out something she’s been looking forward to since day one.
Washing her hair.
“I can’t arrive in Cairns looking like the Coral Sea cowgirl with high seas hair now can I?”
“Why not?” I counter. “Better high seas hair than Barbie hair. No one will ever believe we’ve just pedalled a thousand miles through some of the roughest water in the world if you step off the boat wearing hair curlers.”
My objection is overruled. Gathering up her bottles and a flask of vinegar to untangle the knots, April edges gingerly to the stern, and secures the paraphernalia with bungee cords before any of it rolls overboard. She then begins dousing her hair with seawater using a plastic tea mug, at the same time hugging the rear compartment with her thighs to maintain balance. Moksha bucks and heaves, hissing waves collapsing unnervingly close.
With her wetted hair flailing in the wind, April massages a dollop of shampoo into her scalp. A wall of water suddenly explodes, engulfing the stern. My crewmate reappears a second later, hanging on for dear life to the safety line, eyes screwed shut from the stinging shampoo.
“This is a pain!” she gasps, spitting out a gob of seawater. “A real pain in the ass!”
Having a woman aboard, I’m realizing, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there isn’t the same clash of egos you get with two men. None of the predictable sucking of teeth and “Ooh, you don’t want to do it like that” every time something needs fixing. Women are easier on the eye, too, and in April’s case stronger psychologically. “My ambition is to be like the Energizer Bunny,” she’d declared after refusing to let me pedal her 3:00 am graveyard shift. “Known for going and going.” Woozy with seasickness, she’d clambered out of the warm cocoon of the Rathole into the freezing cockpit, and, without a murmur of complaint, wriggled into her waterlogged socks, and got to work.
On the other hand, April’s long, blonde hair has become an integral part of on-board life. Hairballs lurk in the porridge. Tresses work their way around the cranks. Even the little twelve-volt cooling fan snarls with loose strands and has to be dismantled every few days. And the novelty of being repeatedly smacked in the face by a barrage of soggy underwear while pedalling is fast wearing thin.
Smirking, I stand in the open hatch and watch April do battle with her arsenal of bottles, combs, hairbrushes, and razors. She’s soaked and bedraggled, hair plastered to her skin like a drowned cat. Keeping a firm hold of the safety line, she tries releasing a tangle with her free hand.
“Just like taking a shower back home, eh Ms A?” I pick up the camcorder and press record.
“Oh, just like,” she replies through clenched teeth. “Just like.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“Take that camera away for a start, so I can rinse off.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
She scowls at me through sodden locks. “I’ve got nothing on underneath, and I’m freezing. I just wanna rinse off and get dry.”
“Alright, alright, keep your knickers on—or rather off!”
“Yeah, well, sometimes a person can’t always be Mary flippin’ Sunshine.And just remember, your short and curlies are within my reach.”
Back in the central compartment, I enquire as to whether the whole exercise has been worth it. April’s teeth are chattering. Her shoulders are stooped with cold. She clings with grim determination to the port side oar like it’s the last life raft off the Titanic.
“Most definitely. It was a wonderful experience.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Really?”
She looks away. “Well… actually… no, it wasn’t a wonderful experience. It was an awful experience. But it feels good to be clean.” A lone seabird swoops low over the white caps, skimming effortlessly using the deftest of wing movements. “Mentally,” she adds wistfully, following the bird, “I think it’s worth keeping a few routines from land. It’s the little things that make all the difference out here, I’m finding, that help you stay human.”
I’d come to the same conclusion on the Atlantic, adopting pet projects—Created Value tasks I called them—to trigger involvement and sustain interest, making life aboard more bearable.
“But I preferred your hair encrusted with salt,” I joke. “Complemented the swashbuckling look. Rather suited you, I thought.”
“Easy for you to say, Mister Lewis. You’re going bald.”
“Talking of which,” I say, reaching for the kitchen utensils in the starboard side netting, “I’ve thought of a way to keep your hair from getting matted in future.” The blue-handled scissors are pockmarked with corrosion and streaked with rust, the edges blunt as hell. They’ve been used for a variety of tasks on the boat, everything from scraping barnacles, to cutting rotten carrots, to pruning toenails. And ever since my brass dividers went missing on Tulagi, I’ve been using them to plot our daily position.
“Come to Freddy!” I snap the blades. “Snip, snip!”
April looks horrified. “Get away from me with that thing.”
The wind slackens late afternoon, the rain peters out, and for a few delightful hours before sunset, the Coral Sea draws breath and turns its malicious eye elsewhere. April emerges reborn after two hours in the Rathole. She sits on the passenger seat, her hair straight and free of knots, looking like a freshly wrapped tamale in her green lava-lava. Her efforts, I admit, have been worthwhile. She stares out across the undulating rollers, and for the first time since Coral Sea Corner the nearest thing to serenity creeps into her face.
“Don’t worry, Mister Lewis,” she murmurs. “I’ll look every bit the pirate princess when I step off this boat in Australia.”
I stop pedalling for a moment to slip Van Morrison’s Moondance into the CD player. The sun sinks smouldering into the sea as the legendary Belfast man’s nasal whine fills the cabin, punctuated by staccato stabs of brass.
We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won
As we sailed into the mystic…
April taps out the rhythm on the same oar she was clinging to earlier. Funny, I think, how music can change perspective so dramatically. One minute you’re cursing your gypsy soul for getting you into such a cluster fuck in the first place. Next, you’re celebrating how fortunate you are to be experiencing a truly magical domain few will ever see.
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic…
The next morning I download email. My parent’s neighbour has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Richard is otherwise healthy, in his early forties, energetic, funny, intelligent, with a loving wife and now only three weeks to live. Without any warning, it’s all over.
At the core of life, I’m reminded, is transience. The good times, the bad times, they’re all illusions—especially the bad times. “This too shall pass,” as the saying goes. The only thing you can count on is that nothing ever remains the same.
* * *
All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis
>> More excerpts from The Seed Buried Deep, part two in The Expedition trilogy, will be posted in the coming weeks prior to US & Canadian publication.