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March 26, 2001
"The Ocean Cure"
  Real Audio

The last time I was aboard the Odyssey I sat for a while reading a book by Harvey Oxenhorn called Tuning the Rig, about his experiences aboard the square rigger Regina Maris, a ship which, starting in the 1970s, introduced hundreds of people to the study of whales. It is a beautifully written, insufficiently appreciated book about the sea and about the healing quality it had on one man's life, and which it has so many time had on the lives of those who sail upon it. I knew Oxenhorn slightly. He died far too young, shortly after writing Tuning the Rig. But I too experienced the kind of curative quality of a prolonged sail during a trip I took aboard Regina Maris for three weeks in 1979. As I can now see, it was a time in my life when I too was suffering a sea change. The entry in my diary for March 21st of that year goes as follows:

At sea, near the Tres Marias (engines running)

"The oil skins hanging in a line at the foot of the rear companionway steps, swing together like a perfect chorus line as the ship slowly wallows along, leaving behind the harsh cliffs of Maria Caiafus, the southernmost of the Tres Marias Islands off Baha California. Near the bottom of my cabin door is a vent reminiscent of those circular air inlets on the front of my grandmother's stove. The cabin door version is made of two thin disks punched out in two pie-shaped designs which can be turned into registry to admit air. This vent buzzes slightly on the port limb of each roll in sympathy with some component vibration of the all-pervasive throbbing of the engine, that underlies the floor, the timbers, and our lives. On some slow heaves of the ship a cabinet door opens an inch or two then quietly closes with a tap, entertaining itself for hours and days at a time with this dull witticism.

The curtain in the door to my cabin adheres to the principal of the vertical while the ship reels beneath it, looking for the true vertical which the curtain keeps pointing out so clearly to it, but which the ship continuously ignores. It is like so many of us in this world who seek so earnestly for what is so obviously before our noses. I too have spent these last few years reeling about beneath the fixed laser ray of a reality too inexorable to acknowledge. I have tried every tack, every course, and every set of sail but cannot avoid its fixity. It is the very thing that planted me on this ship.

The cook aboard this boat is the sole survivor of his family-his father, brothers and sister having died in a car crash. I wonder whether I am not the sole survivor of a collision of my own making. I created a wonderful galaxy, a cocoon-a proud ship moored in the stream of life, awaiting the moment to set sail. It had friends, family, music, whales, and the sea. But I have somehow set it on a reef. Swept off by the surf, I have survived the waves only to be cast ashore on an island. The image is backwards though because what I have spent the last three years on is, by its insularity an island, and now I have been cast adrift in this ship of state.

I find I cannot live as I had so long prepared to live. In that respect, it is like studying a language for 40 years, and mastering it just as all others who spoke it go extinct. This ship I am growing so fast to love is the ideal partner for the aimlessness I feel-a symbol come to life of a life come to tatters, a tumbleweed that can be set about the prairies by every dust devil. And like all castaways and waifs who wander restlessly towards some inside-out oblivion they know not of, I feel the heavy arch of blue above, and the beat of the sun, below.

But take heart old man, as the poem says:

"Judge not the play before the play is done.
Her plot hath many changes
Every day speaks a new scene
The last act crowns the play."
Well, I did take heart, and now, 22 years later, am living through plot changes I never would have predicted then. I find myself sailing on a new boat, the Odyssey, which has become not just another chapter, but the fixed purpose of my life.

This is Roger Payne, speaking to you, alas, from land.

2000 - Roger Payne

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