While Mamede worked his magic with the tiller, his tripulação worked hard at the rail, doing what needed to be done to keep us on our feet. I did my best to help with this but mostly the rail just worked on me. It took every-thing I had to stand there and hold on when every part of me ached. Worst of all were my hands. They were raw from holding my coarse espeque lines.
I had come to realize that the crude trapeze was the ideal torture device, using a two-step process to break me down. First the lines wrapped around my left hand and wrist like a Chinese finger trap, getting tighter and tighter the more I gripped. While this ostensibly improved my hold on the lines, the real reason was to cut off all blood supply to my hand. Only when my fist was numb could the second, more insidious part take effect. And like all cunning torture it was slow and subtle, providing no warning until it was too late. The second part was the line itself: the polypropylene fibers biting into my soft skin. Once the line was removed, the blood and pain came rushing in.
Adding to my physical distress, I still felt like a complete novice on deck. The experience I had gained from the first day of sailing did little to prepare me for the second. The jangada’s motion on a beam reach was very different from that of beating. Running a course parallel to the waves it was less about slap, slap, slapping on our nose, and more about roll, roll, ro-ohh-olling way over. There still were slaps, and when they came they were much more ominous: sneaking up from behind our backs, smacking our exposed bottom like a steel wrecking ball, causing the hull to lurch and shudder.
Whenever this happened Ze and João reflexively sprang out on their lines to counter the heeling deck, then hauled themselves in as the wave swept under. If they ever got tired of performing these calisthenics, they didn’t show it. Especially João who was always in motion, dipping and diving, bouncing and jiving. It was clearly the thing he enjoyed the most.
The jangada’s rolling was mostly very rhythmic: more wind at the wave top heeled us over, less wind in the trough brought us back. Up and down our rail went, in and out we swayed on deck.
At first I didn’t get it — I held myself tensely and my timing was off. Either I over-anticipated the wave and leaned out too quickly, nearly slipping off the deck, or I waited too long and was rudely pitched forward. The effort sucked up a tremendous amount of energy, most of it spent just trying to recover. With time, though, I gained a better feeling for the motion of the hull and I began to relax. Only then could I leave my physical discomfort behind and take a good look around. Only then could I appreciate where I was and what I was moving through.
Under a cobalt sky the ocean at the horizon was a fuzzy, pixelated image defined by countless facets of moving water. Like an impressionist painting it had a pulsating quality. I couldn’t see the individual waves that far out but I could see their energy in the constantly shifting surface — as I could feel that energy under my feet, tossing and turning me.
Closer in and the picture became more clear. The dots grew larger and segregated into lighter and darker bands of gray and green: the waves being defined, but only as flat lines drawn across a surface, interrupted, not continuous. Closer still and 2-D space stretched into three. Impressionism gave way to a dynamic realism. The crests running toward us were very real now, with height and depth, and a width that spanned the water for as far as the eye could see.
And as an individual wave drew near it took on a life of its own. There was no stopping it now. Like it or not the approaching peak would pass under our keel, imposing itself on us with a unique personality. This was performance art at its finest — lifting us up and carrying us along, demanding our full attention until the act was done. Then quick as a lick the wave was gone and we were on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one . . .
In between each wave, at the very bottom of the trough, a final perceptual shift took place; the most ephemeral by far. Blink and I’d miss it, let my mind wander and it wasn’t really there. The change occurred for a number of reasons, internal and external, emotional and physical, all working together to bend space and time.
The shift had as much to do with the jangada as it did with my own condition at the time. If life on a small boat at sea distills reality and slows down time, then life on a jangada does this better than any craft I’ve ever been on. The boat achieves it by being so small, with a deck so close to the water. Standing only inches above the ocean’s surface, or inches below when a wave washed over the planks, I couldn’t help but feel intimately connected to the watery world around me. I would have to be swimming to get any closer, and you may call me distant, but I didn’t want to be that close.
When we find ourselves in new situations that are radically different from what we are used to, and under more stress, our minds can do strange and wonderful things. Reality, or what we think is reality, can easily become altered. My alteration came that second morning on the jangada, surrounded by waves that are themselves optical illusions.
What is a wave but moving water. But does the water really move as we see it? Standing low in the trough, glancing over my shoulder at the next looming crest — much as I might peek through my fingers while watching a horror movie — I saw a menacing wall of water charging right at me, soon to roll over and bury me. Close your eyes and pray for the best!
But instead of being swamped, the jangada was carried magically up the wave’s side and over the top with barely a smack (that is, if the ridge didn’t break). And as soon as the crest passed under our keel it became a very different wave. Now the wall was happily running away as if it had been playing a game all along: tag—tag, you’re it—now I’m gone—gone, gone for-e-ver—catch me if you can! — teasing me, laughing at me, thumbing its aquiline nose at me, brilliantly in the reflected sunlight.
Was the water really moving as I saw it — toward me, under and away? Or was it doing what we ourselves were doing — going up and down in a circle — ending up pretty much where we began? This is an optical trick of our natural world, a beautiful deception if ever there was one, allowing me to see what is usually so well hidden: waves of raw energy moving through space.
Where the illusion broke down, however, was at the bottom of the trough — at the inflection point between consecutive waves. At that spot the water wasn’t going anywhere and neither were we. And it became very still. Contributing to the stillness were the walls of water, blocking my view like cliffs and blanketing the wind to a whisper.
And in that stillness, for that brief instant, time seemed to stop and the ocean beneath my feet turned to solid. Suddenly I felt as if I was standing at the bottom of a deep green valley, on a beautiful clear morning, with the bright blue sky above going on and on. Blink and it was gone, and we were once again thrust to the top of the world on a wave, where everything looked the same, yet also completely different.
The first time I experienced this momentary shift of phase, liquid to solid, it tripped a much more profound change in my perception of the natural world around me. All at once I saw a very new reality — one that was filled entirely with energy. And that energy flowed through everything: from the sea into our hull, from the hull into me, from me to the sky, from the sky to the sea. The energy was me — we were all the same — all one and the same energy.
Well . . . this totally blew my mind.
Not only did my aches and pains evaporate right then, I felt euphoric.
Everything seemed right and peaceful and good at that moment. It all made sense. There were no boundaries or limits, only the present moment — time and energy.
Trying to come to terms with what I was feeling, I must have looked a little lost. I could tell Mamede was watching me and I returned his gaze. Still in the throes of my newfound enlightenment, his bronze face shined brightly and sparks seemed to fly from his windswept hair, joining all the other sparks in the swirling sky above. Our eyes met and he came into focus — he became more real, more physical. He was smiling at me so peacefully, like a proud father toward his son. And good father that he was he turned to the water and put into words exactly what I was feeling right then: “Out here you know you are alive.”
Out here you know you are alive.
He said it so plainly, as if stating a basic principle, a law of nature, the simple truth. And I smiled back. I didn’t say anything. What more could I say?
Next chapter: Slave to the Tether