My Odysseus set sail last September on a twenty-seven foot, forty-year-old, triple keel sailboat named The Albatross. I suggested he rename it Safe Passage, Home in One Piece or Mama Said No. "It's bad luck to change the name of a boat," he said, and anyway, he liked the name. He told me the albatross is said to carry the souls of dead sailors back out to sea. I didn't want to talk about dead sailors.
He had a crewmate, John, and a plan that was more vision than plan. Northwest Florida to Tampa, Key West, then depending upon the weather, either Puerto Rico and Belize or maybe the Bahamas. The destinations were less important than the leaving.
On the afternoon before their departure, I drove to the harbor and he rowed the dinghy to shore for me. I have sea legs on dry land, so I was already feeling a little nauseous by the time he rowed us back and helped me aboard. I sickened further as I took in the size and condition of the boat. She was smaller than I had thought, older, slattern in the manner of a flophouse landlady, jaded and bereft of dreams. She would not bravely carry him between the Scylla and Charybdis. At the first sign of turbulence, she'd toss him toward the beach and head for calmer waters where she could drink his booze in peace.
Odysseus, however, was smitten. He falls in love so easily – his goats, his bicycles, his car, his girlfriend, this boat. The only thing they have in common is that they are his, and so, adored. I tried to see the boat through his eyes. As he touched her bow proudly, bragged of her dimensions and history, I laid my hand down too. "Bring him home," I silently implored her. "Alive and just as he is now!" I added, closing any loophole she might craftily exploit.
He rowed us back to shore, to a pizza restaurant, and I sat next to him in the booth trying not to cry, wanting to put my foot down like I did when he was twelve and invited to an unchaperoned party. Back then, I could tell by the set of his chin and shoulders, growing manlier by the minute, this would be one of the last times my foot would be heavy enough to come down. By the end of that summer he had his own sailboat, a Sunfish named the S.S. Sassy. The next summer, a Prindle 19 named Sugaree. Thereafter, the wind carried my voice in the opposite direction of his ear, and at home my footsteps were inept, mouselike pitter pats, no weight at all.
Saying goodbye at the harbor, I hugged Odysseus. Blood ties strangle as often as they embrace, and I knew he was feeling a bit of that as I squeezed him tightly. I realized I might be one of the things he wanted to leave, an albatross around his neck, one of many. I let go reluctantly, making sure to memorize the feel of his back under my hands, just in case. I thought of Homer's Odysseus. His mother died of grief waiting for him to return home. You can miss someone that much.
We'd given Odysseus a satellite spot device and watched the blips on the map as he dove headlong into the Gulf of Mexico on his way toward Tampa Bay. Three days in, the blips stopped coming. Twenty-two hours passed. After a sleepless night, we called the Coast Guard for advice. A non-distress call was in the works when, suddenly, a blip appeared. At that moment my rib cage flexed to catch my heart. I'd been mopping the floors, preparing my house to accept funeral casseroles.
He wrote about what happened during those twenty-two hours:
"A dark line appeared on the horizon. The wind cooled and shifted....It [the storm] was a ball dropper. The first big blow dumped my spreaders in the water. 80 feet of stainless chain, improperly secured on the fore deck, plunged into the water....I wrestled it onboard. That night, I pleaded with multiple gods. They were unresponsive. By midnight we were reduced to 15 minute turns at the tiller. Sleep deprived, wasted with exhaustion, shoveling raw coffee into our mouths. The wind must have let up around four in the morning. Though I can't be sure. I woke up to a flat calm sea. The main was torn at the head, and tattered elsewhere."
Before the Storm
Their bad luck continued, damaged sails and unfortunate winds keeping them from land, which was now tantalizingly visible. By the time they reached shore, they'd been at sea seven days, and were abashed by their foolishness, their romanticized notions of sea-travel. He wrote:
"There are no words to describe the woozy euphoria I felt as I stepped onto the... pier. I couldn't walk, which was just as well. I had intended to kiss the dock anyway."
After a stay in Tampa, they sailed to Key West, where a turbulent hurricane season anchored them for three months. Then, his crewmate jumped ship with a Siren, leaving Odysseus alone amid a sea of ragtag liveaboards – swashbucklers and lotus eaters, men and women who've dropped out of society to live on decrepit boats.
In December, while riding his bicycle to a sail repair shop, he was run down by an SUV that rolled over his legs and took off. In his call home, he was euphoric with survivor's adrenalin, and angry that his bike – a stainless steel model from the 1970's – was destroyed. He adored that bike, and its death hurt more than his bruises and swollen knee.
From Key West he sailed back to Tampa and anchored there for four months, where he fell in with a group of crusty liveaboards, all with the first name "Captain." Days were spent at the library or writing and painting aboard The Albatross. At night, he rowed to the dinghy dock and walked to a nearby bar for beer and karaoke. He shared with me this bit of wisdom:
Worst karaoke song about a boat -- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Best karaoke song about a boat -- Lyle Lovett's If I Had a Boat.
He seemed content. His expenses were few, and the odd jobs he did around the marina provided ample sustenance. I worried that he had eaten the lotus and cared no more for home. The other Odysseus was gone ten years. Mine had been gone only ten months, and my hands were already losing the feel of his back. The missing felt heavier and moved into my throat, encircling my neck, an albatross.
Last week Odysseus sailed into our harbor, and on my computer I watched the satellite blip mark his final stop – the bayou less than a mile from his house.
As I ran up the steps to his porch, I stumbled over the top one and he caught me before I went down, which was just as well. I had intended to throw my arms around him anyway.