I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . . John Masefield, from the poem, Sea Fever
We met him on a Friday night under a sky filled with stars.
The tiki lights had illuminated our way as we followed the stone path that wove through the resort and led us to the beach, Waikiki Beach, where we were staying this past Labor Day Weekend. People, hundreds of them, were spreading towels and setting up portable chairs on the sand, and the wall that separated resort from beach was packed with people sitting squished together as well. It was my husband Cam who found the two of us a spot on the wall, right next to him, this tall lithe man wearing khaki pants and a porkpie hat. His face crinkled into a smile as he scooted over, making room for us to sit. It was the waiting game we were all playing, waiting for a display of fireworks that was promised to be spectacular. And at first, we said little to our next door neighbor, just small talk about the luck of having a seat and the size of the crowd. But as Cam and I watched the people stroll by, families with small children, couples, old and young, some holding hands, I kept glancing in the direction of our new friend on the wall. His face beamed as he looked out at the scene unfolding in front of us. There was a peace about him and a sincere delight with it all.
I’m not sure how the three of us made the transition from the shallow waters of small talk to the depths of true connection, but, once it happened, we found ourselves plunging in with heart and soul. Cam and I had just shared that we lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and our new friend had replied that he had grown up in Wisconsin, knew the U.P., loved the wildness of its land and the Great Lakes, and we learned that he now lived in California, in a small town south of Santa Barbara. We then confessed our secret, that we were feeling a bit naughty, hadn’t told anybody — he was the first — that we had flown here to Oahu for the weekend, a few short days of exploring the island before heading back home. It would have seemed natural to have asked him, “What about you?!? How was your flight?!? How long are you staying on Oahu?!?” I think that’s what we did. And that’s when everything turned topsy-turvy and sea-wavy. That’s when we learned his story.
Our new friend’s name was Steve, and Steve hadn’t flown to Hawaii at all. And it was no whirlwind trip for him. He had been here several weeks, in Honolulu, playing his own waiting game, waiting for a boom to be shipped to the island from the mainland, waiting for the seas to settle into a pleasing pattern after Hurricane Lane, waiting for the perfect moment to head back home to Santa Barbara. You see, while Cam and I had hopped on two Delta flights and sailed our way through the skyways over the continent and South Pacific, arriving the very afternoon we had taken off, Steve had set sail from California, in a twenty-eight foot Cape Dory boat, and, after four weeks at sea, had landed at the marina next to this resort, with a broken boom, a ripped sail, a happy heart and an ocean of enthusiasm for his adventure. Cam and I began bombarding him with questions. We learned that he had been a sailor for years, loved his sturdy boat, that this trip had been on his bucket list, a post-retirement dream.
Honestly, if he had told us that he had climbed Everest or had meditated for a month in a cave in southern France or had ultra-run his way across the continent of Africa, I don’t think I would have been as mesmerized. I am inspired and impressed, amazed to the max, by these extra-ordinary feats, but, somehow, I can wrap my mind around them. But this story — I just couldn’t fathom it! Cam and I were trying our hardest to envision it, the sea with its constant waves and wind, and the sky, the wide open sky, for days, and weeks, just the sea and the sky — and Steve in his twenty-eight foot boat. No, Steve didn’t see many other vessels at all. And sea life? Flying fish, large flying fish and small flying fish were his companions, but no dolphins, and occasional sea birds, skimming close to the water, catching the fish, usually one bird sighting at a time, but then, at night, a pair of them together as they too settled into the darkness. And the darkness! The darkness wasn’t dark at all. Steve was lit up, his whole body animated, as he shared with us about nighttime in the middle of the South Pacific. He pointed up above the palm trees to the red-glowing planet that hung in the sky over our piece of the beach. “In the middle of the sea, mars is so bright and red and luminous. You wouldn’t believe it. It lights up the world.”
It might have been then, at the moment of picturing a small sailing vessel and one sweet man alone with the whole of the sea and the whole of the nighttime sky, that I felt the shudder. It was the hair-standing-on-end and crown-of-the-head tingle that arises within me when I’m in the midst of something big and profound and beyond my understanding. And when I felt the shudder, I intuitively reached into my pocket and pulled out a small white wave-washed stone that I had picked up weeks earlier from the shore of Lake Superior at the Pictured Rocks National Park. I handed it to Steve, and he rubbed his fingers over its surface, and I told him it was a talisman from Cam and me, that we would be thinking of him, sending him love and fair winds and safe passage. He seemed appreciative, received it as a sacred gift, tucked it into his pocket, wanted to know all about the Pictured Rocks and the beach where the stone had been found.
It was shortly after moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, when the boys were toddlers, that Cam and I first camped at the Pictured Rocks. We set up our tent in a spot nestled under white pines and beech trees above the cliff of dunes at the Twelve Mile Beach Campground, ate a dinner cooked over a fire, tucked our precious sons underneath blankets, and, together, from the top of the banking, watched as a scarlet sun dipped down behind the wide expanse of Lake Superior. It was then, in the growing darkness, that I slipped down the dunes to the beach, brushed my teeth, then stood there transfixed. I remember it still, the feeling I had that evening, something I had never experienced before. It was the bigness of it all — the sound of the waves, and the white curls that somehow glimmered in the darkness, and the sky, so much sky, filled with stars, more stars than I could possibly imagine. And me, alone on this twelve mile stretch of beach. And I remember I felt God that night, whatever God might be, something bigger and grander than everything. And I remember that I felt less significant than I had ever felt and more significant than I could ever imagine, that there were no words for what I was feeling that night so many decades ago.
Perhaps the memory was infused in the stone, polished by those Lake Superior waves, and picked up along the same stretch of shoreline this past summer, the stone that I gifted to Steve as we sat together on the wall. Perhaps the memory is an ever-so-tiny taste of what it might be like to be in the middle of an ocean alone for weeks on end, just you and the sea and the sky. I know that I discovered a depth in myself that night at the Pictured Rocks and an expansiveness, too. And I can only imagine the depth and the expansiveness that one must feel when sailing across an ocean, alone. We saw Steve again briefly the next evening. He was sitting in the same place on the wall looking out at the South Pacific. We told him that we were leaving the next morning, that we had thought about him all day, that it was the highlight of our trip to meet him and hear his story. He replied that he had researched the Pictured Rocks, that the stone was tucked in a safe place, that it was a pleasure to meet us — and then, all lit up with the delight that seemed to be in his essence, he said that he, too, was leaving in the morning, that the winds and weather were favorable, that he was ready for this voyage that might take up to six weeks. I gave him my e-mail and he promised he would let us know when he was once again on solid ground. And the next morning, while walking along the beach before setting off for the airport and our one-day of travel home, we caught a glimpse on the horizon of a small boat motoring out to catch the wind, Steve’s twenty-eight foot Cape Dory. “God Speed!” we hollered as we waved and wiped tears from our eyes, sensing that Steve and his boat rollicking in the waves and the wind were already on solid ground.