a boatswain’s crepuscular ditty

“Aye.” Bioluminescent waves streak past the hull of the ship as you make your way forward. Carrying out the order, you climb into the headrig to furl the inner jib. Dousing it was smart in this wind, but the swell is big enough to dunk you if you stay out too long and your stomach swoops as the top of the waves skims just below your boots on the footrope. Easy enough to accomplish in daylight when the sea is calm, but another matter entirely in the dusk, with the bowsprit reaching such peaks and troughs of motion. Furling from the peak to the clew, you don’t take time to stretch each flake of canvas into a fancy zigzag like you would to show up in port, but instead grab loops and hunks of the bulky billows and wrap a daisy chain with the downhaul line, giving a good tug to keep the peak from creeping back up the stay in the wind and resetting itself, looping over and under the mass of canvas, wrestling and hugging until it is subdued, interlocking loops of rope creating a net to contain it, and you reach the clew, secure it to the jibboom, and spider climb back inboard. Grasping the jib halyard, you take out the slack, resecure it on the belay pin. Halyard coiled and hung, you make your way aft to the quarterdeck. It’s a new feeling to be on a broad reach with a following sea of this magnitude. Just off the starboard rail, dolphins surface. Knives slicing through the waves, flashes of silver, going ten knots like your ship. Long rollers come from behind, the ship surfing over each one like a hill passing ponderously under you. Motion completely different from the Atlantic, but even on the Pacific it’s different from when the swells are on the bow. Nobody leaves the deck, though it is after dinner and your watch is on duty. Only the right combination of conditions let you sail this swiftly on your wooden ship, without the engine, though the lack of a shaft brake means the whole deck vibrates from the freely spinning propellor. Propelled instead by wind, and a powerful push from the sea. Quiet has so many different connotations on the ocean, but the most significant for you is the silencing of the inner voice. Rising and falling, watching constellations of students form and ungroup, filter below to their bunks. Slowly, the deck clears, and just the standing watch remains. Turning over the helm to you, the second mate heads below to chart a position. Up on the bow, one of the students is on lookout. Vessels begin to appear on the horizon as night falls, tiny lights in the far distance, but none come near. With your mind empty and clear, individual words roll under you like the waves. Xylophilous, to grow or live on wood, which you think is meant to refer to insects or fungus, but you like to think could refer to a person who spends days barefoot on caulked planks of oak. You tuck that one away for later, perhaps the next line in the journal swinging in the hammock where it is stowed over your bunk. Zodiacal constellations march a glittering parade across the deepening sky, the night just begun.

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