Nightwatch #1 (on demons and ghosts)

for Marike, πάντοτε

Night or day, when at sea we are always on watch, Marike and I.

She is the skipper, the one who oversees and takes charge of the whole vessel–without her there would be neither vessel nor voyage–and I navigator and cook, but we make all of the important decisions about what to do on a passage together, including how and when to spell each other off.

Rest is as essential as wakefulness, for sailing requires both strength and presence of mind, particularly on a long passage. It is never a question of if there will be a challenge, but rather of when and of what sort, for simply to stand or sit or keep going or eat or endure or figure out what has just appeared over the horizon, whether cloud or creature or another vessel, are significant undertakings at sea: nothing is to be taken for granted, particularly at night or in adverse conditions. And what you cannot see, you must teach your ears or your flesh to give shape.

Love, you log the sea miles, sailing as I sleep in both darkness and light.

Love, I log the sea miles, keeping watch in the bleakest hours as you sleep.

Night Watch #1 (transcript)

i.

The seas are pretty flat, but there’s a surge just below the surface of the water and little flecks of bioluminescence tossed up at the crest of each wave. A bit of foam as the boat goes forward, east.

Stars; a scattering of low clouds.

Hello. Orion, my old friend. I know you’re standing over Quoddy now and here on the water between the coasts of Spain and Corsica.

ii.

At night, you hear demons.

The engine will suddenly sound like someone talking or a creak in the rigging like music.

Before, when I was down below, when I was trying to sleep, I was sure I heard a full-on band playing loud music.

And sometimes maybe the demons are real.

They’re not on the boat, but they’re on the water.

So on the radio there’s a rescue by helicopter, I’m not quite sure where. A passenger ship off the coast of Menorca; many people are involved, many languages.

Then later there is an effort from many authorities–the French, the Italian, the Spanish, someone speaking British English–to get a boat called Not-a-Warship or Metal Warship or something like that to respond. And after many, many minutes, that vessel responds and then I’m asleep because I need to be asleep. And there’s this mystery that remains that is related to the world.

iii.

Then there are other demons.

Right at sunset, one of our port lights blew out and just floated away. Luckily, we were in pretty calm seas. Marike was trying to kill a fly and she pushed on the port light and bang! it just fell out. The caulking had dried out and it wasn’t holding anymore. So we got red tape and she leaned over the side of the boat and taped and I cut.

Then she remembered we had a piece of plexiglass that just fit in the spot and we taped that over it too. And then we went and taped the opposite side preventively in case that one should fall out too. So at least it wasn’t going to fall out.

Luckily the seas are pretty calm, but that was a little straining and it haunts your dreams.

And you know, there’s this hole in the boat.

So at least I tell myself, well, that red tape that we put over it, that we’ve seen withstand rain and lashing and terrible storms on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. So it can take this for a little time.

iv.

There’s not really enough wind to carry sail, but we’ve got the main sail out as a steadying sail and now and then a little gust will bang on it and the boat will rock.

It’s choppy. Even with the seas this calm, there’s just this really short period banging, and that too has its ghosts, right?

Where’s the horizon?

You’re constantly bouncing above and below it.

Are there lights or did you dream there were lights?

Is there a form or did you dream there was a form? Is that a fleck in your eye?

v.

The deck is covered with dew, with salt.

The air is very damp and salty.

It’s not really cold, but we dress warmly because you get cold out here. I have on a long pair of pants and wool socks and shoes, and a shirt with a polar and a vest, and a waterproof jacket. A windproof jacket. It’s a little overkill. I’m kind of warm. I took off my hat and my scarf, but once you get cold, it’s really hard to get warm. So here we are.

vi.

Night watch.

While you are sleeping, there are people sailing all over the world.

There are a lot of boats out here. Many of them are cargo ships. Some of them are labelled on the AIS as carrying dangerous goods. There are also a lot of sailboats.

There are a lot of people moving around on the water. Day in, night out.

vii.

I saw a shooting star.

And there’s just a touch of wind.

It’s sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 AM.

Over and out.

Good night.

Notes

Everything I know about the sea and sailing I have learned from and with Marike. She does not speak in this piece, but is everywhere implied.

The sound piece was recorded somewhere between the coasts of Spain and Corsica between 2 and 3 am 25 October 2022, a fragment from a voyage of more than 50 hours in the open Mediterranean.

Both images above are photos I took that night while on watch, the first of the darkness, the second of the screen of our navigation instruments, showing the distance still to travel, the shapes of the coasts, and, in green, other vessels, mostly cargo ships, on the move in the region. Below, a screenshot of few seconds of the audiogram of this nightwatch.

This is a rough outtake, not a finished work, an effort to begin to find a form for a new sound and text poetry project rooted at once in movement at sea and literature.

Quoddy refers to West Quoddy, Nova Scotia, where we live. There, in the autumn, Orion rises to the southeast, above the sea, and then sets to the west.

AIS stands for Automatic Identification System, an internationally deployed and recognized shipboard transponder that gives a vessel’s location, speed and other information at regular intervals. (Some of this information is visible in the second photograph above.) Mandatory on commercial and larger vessels and optional (but sometimes wise) for smaller pleasure craft, AIS enables mariners, vessel traffic services and rescue operators to locate, name and visualize where other vessels are and how they are moving. Vessels that may be carrying hazardous goods must indicate that in the information supplied via AIS. Migrant ships adrift or vessels engaged in smuggling operations typically do not carry AIS, thus “disappear” from AIS readers. Numerous devices and programs are able to receive and interpret AIS information. Here is one: https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/home/centerx:-12.0/centery:25.0/zoom:4

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