I learned to be a sailor, cruising the azul Atlantic waters down the coast of Portugal and crossing the Mediterranean. My Quartermaster title did not absolve me of any crew duties. First Mate Piest made certain of that. There were twelve of us at his command. He rotated us through every duty station in eight-hour shifts. Myself excepted, the crew worked with the fluidity, timing, and toughness of the Green Bay Packers on Lambeau Field. But day by day, I learned the play book and the coach spent less time chewing me out.
My complexion darkened, my back strengthened, and my pants loosened with the work. The skin on my hands thickened into leathery hide from the nonstop contact with coarse ropes. Within days, I stopped feeling the motion of the boat under my soles. After a few weeks, the Mediterranean wind spoke, telling me what must be done next before anyone barked the orders.
I came to know Neko II as a living thing. I could feel the tension between the wind in her sails and the weight in her keel that propelled us across the ocean. When the strain was its greatest and she heeled in the wind, she felt like a stretched tendon. These were Neko II’s moments of glory. This was when she was happiest. This was when she was the strongest. When the wind failed and she stood slack and upright, her timbers felt old and sad.
We sailed into the ancient ports of Cadiz, Málaga, Almería, Valencia and Barcelona, ports that have been receiving sailors for millennia. Their rock walls and stone castles greeted Neko II as an old friend, making the modern steel and fiberglass vessels look out of place. These ports of call, filled with tawdry booze and unclean women, were hedonistic playgrounds for the crew.
For me, it was work. I spent my days ashore searching in the local markets and warehouses for the provisions we would need for the next leg of our voyage. The ports of Spain smelled of spices and fish, smoke and the stench of humanity. They were unfailingly beautiful and disgustingly filthy at the same time; a third world country with the architecture of a Medieval world power.
I learned to haggle with people whose language I could not speak. Though the words did not translate, we yelled for emphasis, gestured and pointed. The expressions on our faces would communicate our displeasure with the prices we’d negotiated with our fingers. Finally, I’d smile and nod to confirm the deal while the merchant would inevitably respond with a pained scowl as if to say, “I am taking a loss on this sale.” I knew that I was still being cheated.
We sailed across the southern coast of France and down the western coast of Italy. In Rome, I found an English-speaking proprietor in a camera shop. I used the savings of my meager pay to buy a Pentax 35mm camera with a standard lens and a dozen rolls of slide film.
The Captain had informed the crew that when we reached Mombassa in two months Neko II would be hauled out so that the hull could be scraped, repaired and painted. The process would take weeks. While the boat was in dry dock, the Captain had scheduled a guide and outfitter to take him on safari. The crew was invited to join him if they were willing to pay the fee for food, lodging, guide services and equipment.
Safari in Kenya! I could not get the idea of it out of my head. I imagined stalking lion through tall grasses of Kenya with an elephant gun like Teddy Roosevelt. I had fantasized about an African adventure as a child. The price of the safari added to the expense of my camera would eat all the pay I’d earn during the entire voyage, but I knew that it would be worth it.
We shoved off from Messina, Sicily, leaving the western Mediterranean, and headed south-southeast across the Ionian Sea toward Crete. It was the longest leg of the voyage so far and the furthest from shore. I experienced the awesome scale of open water sailing for the first time. There was nothing as far as the eye could see but water disappearing over the convex horizon in every direction. Neko II felt like a tiny wooden island.
The Ionian Sea crossing also introduced me to the power of Poseidon. We received radio reports of a massive storm system that was moving across Europe. We were south of the weather, but it drove strong winds that upset massive rolling swells with troughs deep enough to swallow Neko II whole. I thought of the ancient sailors who first left the sight of land in flimsy boats to explore the world with nothing more than their faith in stars and their gods to guide them. They either possessed more courage than I have ever felt, or they were insane.
I was deeply relieved when we caught sight of the island of Crete. Our first stop in was in Chania, a picturesque city on the west end of the island’s north shore. We sailed into the city’s old harbor where, again, Neko II blended in comfortably with the ancient surroundings. As usual the crew disappeared into the red-light district and I took my shopping lists into the markets of the city. The layover was brief. Forty-eight hours later we set sail for Heraklion, where we were to pick up a photographer from the National Geographic Society.
“She’s taking photos for the magazine,” Simon explained. “Cute girl, but she’s got lesbian hair. She’s a cold fish, that one.”
Spotting Annie Cobb as she made her way through the crisscrossing crowd on the dock wasn’t difficult. She had two cameras hanging around her neck. Her short dark hair accentuated her elfin features.
Approaching the boat, she stopped periodically to photograph the bustle of life swirling around her. As she clicked away I wondered how many hundreds of rolls of film she must shoot on an assignment like this. When she was finally aboard, we shoved off and set sail for Port Sa’id, Egypt, to begin the hundred mile passage through the Suez Canal.
Annie took the cabin directly across from my own. To say that she was “cute,” as Simon thought, was both an understatement and an exaggeration. Her light brown eyes were large and set wide, lips full and bowed, long neck like a gazelle, and jaw sculpted like a Greek statue. Her tall figure was undeniably that of a woman, despite the baggy t-shirts and ever-present deep pocketed cargo pants. But she moved with masculine purpose.
Simon’s “cold fish” remark was a perfect example of English understatement. She never once acknowledged my existence. I never saw her make eye contact with anyone other than the Captain or Piest.
For the most part she was like an assassin. She shot at us from the shadows while we worked; each click of her camera was like the spit of a bullet from a silenced gun. Were she not the only young woman on the boat she might have been forgotten. Because she was, every male pair of eyes monitored her every breath. When the crew’s crowded v-berth quarters were filled, I could hear the men arguing late into the night about what made her tick.
Annie’s presence made the days pass faster. My high school sweetheart, who was a year younger, found a new boyfriend after I left town for college. She got married and had a kid. Her husband swept floors at a General Motors transmission assembly plant. College was a succession of flings. When the music stopped playing at my graduation commencement ceremony, I was left standing.
The night before we arrived at Port Sa’id, I went up on deck to smoke my last cigarette of the day. Across the deck, Annie leaned against the rail, looking at the sky.
“Where are you from,” I asked. It was an awkward generic question — like asking an unknown college coed what her major was at a school dance.
She slowly rotated her head to look at me. Her face glowed orange from the ember at the end of her own cigarette.
“The National Geographic Society,” she said, exhaling a cloud of cloud of smoke in my direction.
“I’m from Ohio. East Liverpool. It’s on the Ohio River not too far from Pittsburgh. Most folks work in steel mills or at the pottery just across the river in West Virginia. My old man owned a barbershop downtown.”
My words hung unanswered. I realized I sounded like a hick.
She took another long drag then flicked the remains of her cigarette into the black sea.
“I’ve been there.”
“Homer Laughlin pottery. In Chester, West Virginia, right?”
“Newell. But they’re practically the same town. Why there?”
“I was shooting a story on cheap China coming from Asia.”
And that was it.
I watched her disappear down the stairs into the yellow lower deck light. I shivered slightly and looked out to sea. One way or another, the hunt was about to begin.