by Gillian Walch
My father is quiet. He isn’t the same kind of quiet as a rock but the same kind of quiet as a book. He is particular with his words, as if they were stepping stones. He relies on his few strong words to support him and convey his thoughts. He never speaks unless it is more beautiful than silence. He seems to have his longest silent conversations with the sea.
He is a boat captain, though he refuses all titles. No “Captain Walch,” “Captain Willie,” or even “Cappy.”
He’s just Wilson.
I was five years old when we rented a boat.
Her name was “Hotel California,” after the Eagles song.
She was 40 feet long, she had a mast that reached as high as a giraffe’s neck and sails that stretched like giant, white handkerchiefs.
My memories have since faded. I only remember the moments that really counted in shaping my young brain, like the time I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard my father sneeze upstairs. I later found out that he was keeping watch the whole night to ensure that we stayed on course. Silent, stoic, strong. I thought a lot about that night, and what my dad thinks about when he’s alone. Family? Life? Work? Memories?
Does he fantasize about leaving?
Maybe he was just listening to someone or something.
After nine months of sailing as a family, we reluctantly returned home for work and school. Dad never stopped dreaming about going back.
His job was hard manual labor. He would get in his truck and drive an hour just to get to work where he’d sweat and groan and lift and pull, over and over on each apartment. All to the tune of mariachi music. His body was running on empty for years, like the “check engine” light in his eyes and in the lines on his face that never turned off.
One day, when I had a particularly hard day at school and he had a particularly hard day at work, we walked to the beach together. It was the perfect time of day when the overcast clouds hadn’t burned off yet. The sky and the water faded together into a breathtaking light gray. As we sat there I tried to spark a conversation, recounting my day. Things teachers said, things friends said, things I said… My hands were moving as I talked. Frantic movements, abrupt movements, trying to convey everything. I looked down and realized that I was the only one talking.
“What’s mom making for dinner?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I looked over and he wasn’t listening to me, his eyes were closed. I was stepping on the waves’ words. I was intruding on this moment. This wordless conversation between him and the sea. They were old friends. His reverence could only be compared to prayer.
After 14 years of waiting and saving, he finally got his boat.
Her name was “Kokua,” which means the action of Aloha.
She was 51 feet long, a catamaran with good bones and sun-bleached decks. The splinters could be ignored. I thought her mast could pierce the fabric of the sky.
He bought it in Florida, but he needed help sailing it out of the dangerous path of hurricanes, so we decided to move it up to South Carolina. Our crew consisted of four people: my father, mother, brother, and me.
It was our first night at sea and it was my turn to take watch while the others slept. It was five hours into the blackest night I had ever seen. The lights of the city were hundreds of miles to the left and too far away to interrupt the neverending void. This did not discourage the full moon, however. I snuck up to the deck for my shift when I saw my father sitting there. He wasn’t reading or anything, he was just sitting. Quietly. He was looking across the blackened abyss like he could still see the horizon.
I joined him without saying a word. I have since learned how to approach a captain when he’s communing with the sea. We just sat there and felt as the swells inhaled and exhaled. The boat dipped so low it felt like we were about to get swallowed. This ambiguous force can both destroy and give life, but the unpredictability of it all is what scared me. As I gripped the railing next to my seat I looked to my father. His serenity confused me, so I asked why he was so calm. He explained the physics of a two-hauled boat, how flipping and sinking aren’t possible. I could see his face with the help of the moonlight; he had a slight smile that was almost undetectable in the dark. I told him I was good to keep watch if he wanted to sleep but he just shrugged. We sat there together, our breathing synchronized with the water as we rose and sunk. We just listened together.