Skip to Content

Casting off the lines

I am going to die, I thought. And that would be a good thing. We were somewhere off Watch Hill in Buzzards Bay, and I was heaving my innards over the rail, an activity that had occupied me for much of this wet, windy morning 15 years ago. My husband and I had just taken possession of a classic 1965 sailboat, and we had dragooned two fellow sailors into our maiden voyage from Essex, Connecticut, to Marblehead, Massachusetts. This little adventure was to be a culinary cruise — our friend Tony had proposed an itinerary based on his favorite coastal eateries.

But as I faced my certain demise, food was not figuring into any thoughts of an afterlife. I had sometimes felt queasy on boats. This was the trip where I learned that I am susceptible to the most debilitating form of seasickness. From my vantage point, head hanging over the side, the world as I knew it had already ceased to exist. We seemed to be surrounded by gray walls of water, boxed in by gray rain clouds above.

I was with three far more experienced sailors; they did not need me to control the boat. But they needed me to navigate.

“Could someone please tell me where the hell we are?” Tony’s voice cut through my misery. Funny thing about that qualifier “some.” “Somewhere off Watch Hill” is so vague that it is almost useless information when you’re on a boat. But “someone” in this case was highly specific. I hauled myself down to the nav station.

“Here,” I said a few minutes later. I shoved a chart at him and jabbed a finger at it. “We are here. We want to be there.” I gave him the course.

“Thank you very much.” There was no sarcasm. Tony is naturally gracious.

“You are very welcome.” I turned away and made another contribution to Neptune’s realm.

Songs of Melusina 4, by Lia Melia; powdered pigments and solvents heat-processed on aluminium.

When I was a kid, I decided that God lives in the ocean. That might be right. The ocean looks much as it did before there were humans; it looks much as it will long after our species is extinct. Nothing is fixed, everything moves. But here is the great contradiction of the amorphous sea: It is a domain defined by lines — a human construct — where latitude and longitude can pinpoint any location, where waypoints on charts serve as signposts along highways as familiar as any interstate. Line is the greatest abstract invention of the human intellect. Go ahead and argue for zero or infinity. You’ll still have to admit that line is much more useful.

On our boat, my husband is the captain because he has instincts that come only from a lifetime of messing about with boats. I tell him where to go — as an architect, I have instincts that come from a lifetime of messing about with lines. Ashore, my car has no turn-by-turn voice GPS. I worry it would erode my sense of direction. Sailors no longer fear dragons, but they do fear rocks, reefs, shoals, and storm paths. It is no coincidence that “lost at sea” is usually synonymous with “died at sea.”

We made our way to Jamestown and canceled our dinner reservation — no one had much enthusiasm for a wet dinghy ride that night. Jarred spaghetti sauce never tasted so good. We were warm, dry, and tethered to a mooring, our position secure. On a boat, charts don’t change, but plans do.