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Minor Gripe

2020-11-25 -- Sailing the glass sea

Chris Ertel

(Disclaimer: I am not now nor have I ever been a sailor. I hope my meaning survives my nautical ignorance–if not, please email me and I’ll see what I can do. I’ve probably also made some errors in the ecology as well.)

I.

You wake up in your cabin, stretching up from your berth and groggily gathering your morning routine–the tea, the water, fresh clothes, perhaps a shave. The sun lazily crawls up through the windows and slowly slides down the wall as you rouse yourself.

Faint waves gurgle and splash against the hull as you climb out onto the deck, the air humid with sea breeze. You look out at the ocean, spotting shores in the distance and the dots of fellow traveling vessels–some with sail, some not–all going about their business.

It’s rare these days to find anybody sailing for pleasure.

II.

You’ve been doing this for longer than you can recall. Hours stretch into days into weeks and months and years, receding into the dimming horizon of memory.

It is core to your being–you take a job, you outfit your ship, you load your cargo, and you set off. Once in a great while, the job is to come back with information or experience and not some other lading–these are the fun jobs, but many times you return empty-handed. “Yes, this route still works”, “No, the ship doesn’t work that way”, “Yes, we’ve confirmed that it still seems no ship can work that way”.

You’re always in transit, barring the occasional stopover waiting for work on shore. With your experience, when you want it you can almost always find somebody who will hire you. Your rates have gone up over time as your capacity for cargo has increased and your techniques for exploration have grown. You don’t blink at vague charts and tables that years prior would’ve sent you jumping overboard in protest.

III.

Some birds fly in the distance, occasionally swooping down to grab fish from the ocean.

You see them, though fewer and fewer every year, and they seem to stick closer to land than you remember–you’re not sure if this is because they don’t know anything but the shallows, or if it’s because you’ve become accustomed to ranging so far yourself. On many nights, drinking and watching the glint of the white forelantern off of the ocean’s surface, you have argued both sides with fellow travelers; since nobody is entirely wrong everybody is somewhat correct.

Leaning against the side of the ship and watching, you wonder if you were once among their number. Were you a gull, an osprey–perhaps even a booby, hopping up onto ships uninvited?

It’s been so long, but you think you can clearly remember an unbridled and free life, coasting and playing in the thermals above the ocean, wings outstretched and beating as you enjoyed the sheer agility of unburdened flight. Closing your eyes, you remember looking down at the surface passing beneath you and spotting the occasional fish. Sometimes you caught it and felt satisfaction, sometimes you dove and missed; whatever the outcome of your dive there always seemed to be some fun inherent in the act.

Maybe you’ll get to go back some day, unload your goods and just run across the dock and jump up into the air unladen. It might be nice.

IV.

You’ve sailed alone, you’ve sailed as part of tightly-knit divisions, and you’ve even sailed with a flotilla. Many of the techniques are the same, though the dynamics change. Behavior and communication becomes thornier as more ships take a contract; simultaneously, the value of any individual ship drops.

A good group can and will shuffle around the load if anybody starts taking on water, can send out help to realign anybody who has been blown off course. A great group can even take a ship on its first outing and teach how to sail with the best of them, creating bonds and talent that can come back and help on future contracts. You’ve been there for those trips, and some of the best sailing and comradery of your life happened in some of the diciest weather. You miss them.

And then, there are the bad groups. Sometimes cargo gets stolen in order to look better at port, sometimes ships are left to go down with all hands because they haven’t made enough friends, sometimes the charted course leads out to nowhere and stops and you have to limp back to port and wonder how you fell for that, again.

Larger groups have pathologies all their own. You’ve seen entire divisions jettisoned because they were using the wrong sort of sail and were spooking the rest of the fleet. You’ve seen ships left to ram other ships without interference because they flew the right colors.

Perhaps the worst happens when the contract is so large, so lucrative.

A serious lading requires a serious fleet, and invariably a large one is assembled with varying ships and skills and people. The fleet is organized into sub-units, hopefully, and with excitement everybody sets off in pursuit of their joint prize. They make good time at first, but disagreements over plotting and charting and technique slowly mire everyone.

In such cases, sadly, often the contract itself becomes a horrible Charybdis, an event horizon inside of which nearly nobody can escape. The sextants show the stars and the lack of progress, to be sure, but are swiftly knocked down because the profit is right there. People who can read a map are overruled by people who are scared of losing their commission, and then one day inevitably word comes that the contract has dried up. The results are never pretty, but the innocents have already been cut loose for heresy–the people who suffer most are either foolish or evil.

Some even make it back to port.

V.

You turn to look up at the sail, hanging limply. This is going to be a slow day.

One of the skills every serious participant in this field develops, some more easily and quickly than others, is that of tacking. The wind may be against you every step of the way on a contract, but with experience you learn that a difficult wind is surmountable–and sometimes even preferable to jibing; going with the wind on a contract can have nasty complications if you aren’t paying attention.

Unfortunately, for you, it looks like neither tacking nor jibing is in the cards. The wind is flat, there is no motive power for you to harness. You check the cargo, you tighten the ropes, you spend hours watching the gulls and other ships and looking up to see if today the wind will pick up. Any direction will work but it has to at least be blowing, damnit.

Everybody talks about the huge gales, the hurricanes, the thunder and lightening. There are even stories of ethereal fire that clings to the masts and rigging, of gigantic beasts sometimes surfacing to swallow fleets whole, of areas where any charted course will give even odds of disappearance. Stories of heroic struggles against the elements and the unnatural are swapped at every port, and a burgeoning industry exists in dramatic literature and even more dramatic instruction on how to best these circumstances.

These things and more are true and real, but the uncommon.

No, the common affliction, the curse that nobody really talks about for fear that they’ll either contract it or–worse–be told that they don’t understand it, is what you are currently experiencing. What you have experienced. What you’ll probably continue to experience.

You’ve noticed this phenomena isn’t uncommon. Some sailors bear this curse, sometimes starting after a bad contract, sometimes after a good one, sometimes before their first attempt out. You’ve had it since before you set sail, and you suspect you’ll never be free of it.

For you, there are days and weeks where the wind doesn’t blow. It doesn’t blow hard, it doesn’t blow against, it merely rests stagnant and indifferent. Other people may speed past, nearly within touching distance, but your ship will set still and motionless. Nothing you can do will change the wind, and the best you can manage is ship chores and getting ready so that when the time comes you’ll waste no time in harnessing the fickle climate.

Good fleets, good admirals have experience with this, and know that you can catch up. Sometimes, they’ll set a holding pattern and keep you company, or transfer load over so that you can take advantage of the occasional small merciful gust that otherwise would not help you. Some of the best admirals are those that are similarly cursed and know the signs and can make allowances.

Bad fleets, bad admirals–well, not so much.

VI.

Around midday a ship appears, a large junk billowing and flapping as it approaches. Its occupant waves from the deck and you wave back. Nearing almost to voice range, you see them gesture in inquiry: do you need help? You gesture up at the flaccid sail, and with great exaggeration shrug. They nod, and salute you as their ship passes and recedes. They’re having no trouble, for now, making their own journey.

Once open a time you would’ve cried at the injustice as they passed. You would’ve bawled and howled that your ship, carefully trimmed and cleaned and painted and patched, would suddenly decide not to move—through no fault of your own! The injustice, the seeming randomness of it, was entirely too much.

As time went on, you realized that this was simply your lot. Some people never seemed to get good contracts, other people never bad ones; some people never left shore, others only succeeded on long voyages. Your situation is no different. There’s no inherent sorrow in it–nor honor. It is, no more and no less, what it is.

You came to understand too that others, some of whom you’d even heard stories about, had this curse. Good and bad, great and small, experts in the trade and total beginners–yours was not the only affliction. You learned you could never tell from looking if somebody had it. The pilot of the junk might be heading out of a bout, or heading into one, or perhaps they really did just have the favor of the wind; there was no way of knowing.

You suspect that your unknown comrades in this struggle all come to similar understandings, hopefully.

VII.

The sun is setting behind the shore, the sky painted brilliant colors as stars peak out from gauze clouds.

It was a beautiful day to be out on a boat, even if the sailing itself did not happen. A curious booby had landed in the afternoon on the stern of the boat, looking forward in seeming expectation of a voyage that you yourself have given up on. The little fellow’s feet looked for all the world like silly boots while he paced to and fro impatiently, and after a couple of hours of inactivity he seemed to pout and fly off. You wished you could join him.

The trick to living with your curse, you’ve decided, is that you have to make peace with it and plan accordingly.

You never pick the contracts that are time-sensitive if you’re sailing alone. You try to avoid bad fleets and inexperienced or ignorant partners. You make sure that you have colleagues and plans in case the winds don’t blow for extended periods of time, and you make sure that your clients understand that even if you aren’t the one arriving with their cargo somebody else will. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this level of care has put you farther ahead than if you hadn’t had to worry about it and had ignored those factors.

You make sure you pick sturdy sails and you make sure you understand them forwards and backwards. Other folks have the luxury of trying out lots of clever designs and new techniques, but with your situation you have to be very conservative in what you risk; failed rigging on the only hours of wind you may catch for days is unacceptable. On the plus side, you’ve gotten very good at teaching others how to use the techniques and kit you’ve settled on. On the minus side, you’re always worried that there’s some big advance you’re missing and you constantly worry that your prudent conservatism has ossified into grumpy stodginess.

Lighting the lanterns, you give another review of the ship. Salt has accumulated on some of the smoother surfaces, and its grit prickles you as you run your hand across the boards. After eating tonight, you’ll be back with a bucket to scrub away the crystals.

VIII.

Belly full, sun down, salt scrubbed, you wearily drop into your berth, swinging slightly in the canvas. You can see pinpricks of light in the black sky beyond the cabin window, a constellation shyly teasing half of itself through the pane. It’s time to sleep and see what the morning brings.

The most secret knowledge of the curse is that sometimes, the waiting is too much.

For some, it takes weeks, but for others it may be a few days–in hushed tones, it has been noted that if the contract is running hot enough and things line up just so even a few hours of stillness is enough to do the deed. The scariest implication is that you can never tell if you’re in the first ten minutes of a day or a month without meteorological favor; that being the case, some folks don’t even last an hour scared as they are of what might come.

Finding these abandoned or scuttled ships hurts, but being unable to ask their departed crew when they hit that point hurts worse. There’s the hope that if you could find out, that if you and your comrades could just learn the mechanism, maybe you could prepare for it better, guard against it somehow. Alas, the glassen ocean spills no secrets, and the silent water gives no answers.

You’ve had these thoughts yourself, feeling the air stop and hang about you, heart beating slowly and then quicker and quicker as you try and shake off the feeling that this time, this time will be the last time. For you, it’s never lasted for more than a minute or two…but you’ve seen the coarse outline, gotten arms around the sticky inky idea grabbing at you and trying relentlessly to pull you to the sickening and horrifying conclusion that maybe this is the beginning of the last time the wind will still.

Work helps in these minutes, little tasks. That’s maybe the real reason that you do your ship maintenance so much, keep so many chores near-finished and look for new ones to start. You can’t abandon a ship with so much undone, after all, and whether or not the wind picks up there are a dozen little things to be done right now that need attending to. The wind will come…surely.

Turning your head and nestling against your hammock you wonder if this strategy, writ large, is what causes all the contracts and the work.

What wind powers civilizations, what motive force causes people to band together and fight and live and love and keep at it? What if it slows, what if it goes out? Perhaps this frantic trade, these jobs, are as important in their own way as cleaning salt and polishing cleats and patching sails are in keeping that inky grasping horror away. This is not the first time you’ve wondered this, and you aren’t alone. Does that mean that the analogy works? Distressingly, does that mean the horror waits? Neither postulate is entirely wrong, so both are somewhat correct.

IX.

Sleep has nearly overtaken you, the soft noises of the water and the ship and hammock’s gentle rocking aiding its pursuit. Today was another day without wind, as was the one before that and the one before that–but you left port and got here somehow, so it stands to reason that the wind did exist and will exist once more.

You hear a flap from the sail, loud in the otherwise light soundscape of the night. Moments later another follows it, and a minute later a third, and then all is quiet.

Yes, perhaps tomorrow the wind will come again.


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