“A Mile From Land” #31

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

31 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

If I thought there was a culture shock on Grenada, it held nothing to the light of the tiny island we sailed up to as our first port-of-call. If it hadn’t been for the small group of spear-welding natives waiting for us on the beach, I would have thought the island uninhabited.

‘Are you ready to go ashore, Sister?’ Dr. Stephen asked as he sidled up to me. I looked from him to the Natives and back again. He smiled, but before he could speak, Ian joined us.

‘Wow, where’d you come from?’ My eyes widened.

‘Below decks.’ He winked. ‘Ah, L – I – P’s – Local Indigenous Persons. In this case, the old adage about carrying a big stick applies.’ He chuckled. ‘These people are peaceful. They are as friendly as they look aggressive. You’ll see.’

‘You’ll brief the team before we go ashore, Ian?’ Dr. Stephen asked.

‘Sure, why not.’ Ian winked at me. ‘Whatever you do, Sister, keep your habit on. These Natives respect Sisters.’

‘I – I don’t thing I am a Sister anymore, Ian.’ I reluctantly admitted, exchanging looks with Dr. Stephen. Blushing, I unconsciously brushed a hand over my abdomen.

‘Once a Sister, always a Sister, in my book.’ Ian winked again.

‘I’ll go and gather the team in the front lounge for your security briefing, Ian.’ Dr. Stephen nodded, leaving us alone to talk.

‘I’ll let you know, early. We’ll have a buddy system when we go ashore. You’re assigned to me. The Captain requested that I take special care of you. I think he likes you.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No eye-rolling allowed, Sister Sarai. I’m deadly serious. Here, you’re like a hot sticky bun… a divine treat that all the men want a piece of. It’s my job to see that they don’t get even a taste of you. As far as they are to know, you are mine. All mine!’

I laughed at him. ‘ I belong to no one.’

Ian snorted back. ‘If you want to live, Sarai, then you’ll pretend really well that you are my girl. I promise, I won’t bite.’

An hour later…

‘All aboard that’s going ashore.’ Captain Merk dropped the gangplank to the lifeboat.

 

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“A Mile From Land” #30

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

30 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

It didn’t take me long to become proficient at plotting our location and heading via the sextant and compass. I learned to trust the positions of the stars; and when they were behind the clouds, the compass. As a last resort, I learned to read the radar screen, too.

Manning the helm, especially the night watch, became my joy. I loved the feel of the ship’s wheel in my hands. Nothing on Earth can compare to the feel of water pressing again the hull, wrapping around the rudder. There was nothing like the sound of the sea as it split along the keel. With the sails full of wind, the power was beyond compare.

The ship had backup diesel engines and mechanical control of the rudder, but we rarely used it. Switching to the engine meant dropping the sails. We hated to drop the sails, even in the storms that seemed to roll in every evening. To say that I learned to sail through hell with ease wouldn’t be too far- fetched.

After the first night, I gave up on wearing my habit continually. The ship’s helm was just too windy. I would save it for when we went ashore. Then, I would be working as part of the medical team.

“A Mile From Land” #29

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

29 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

There’s nothing like a night at sea to tell you just how insignificant you are in the universe. As I stood at the helm and looked out over the glassine surface, I felt so very small. Smaller than the atom, even. In those hours alone at the helm, I had a lot of time to think about life, my place in the universe, and God’s place in my life.

‘It’s a good place to talke to your Maker.’ Captain Merk said as he joined me at the helm. ‘You can’t be out here long without realizing just how large the universe is, and how puny and small we are. And yet, our Maker cares for us. If his eye is onthe sparrow, how much more is it on us.’

‘I suppose.’ I shrugged.

Captain Merk put his hands over mine on the wheel. ‘It’s easy to get off course here on the open ocean. So, sometimes, we need the Captain to come along and set us back on course.’

‘How did you know I was off-course?’

He pointed to the stars. ‘That – that up there – is your roadmap. This – ‘ He tapped the compass,  ‘…is your beacon of hope. Between them, you can always keep your ship on course. It takes faith and trust.’

And that was how Captain Merk shared his deeply rooted faith in God. He did it by living example and through simple analogies. He didn’t preach. He did read the Word every morning before breakfast. He was a Captain that truly and whole-heartedly cared for his crew.

 

“A Mile From Land” #28

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

28 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

For as sick as I was last night, you’d think I’d been born of the sea tonight. I spent all day with the Sailmaker, even long after the other sailors had gone. The main sail was the most important sail to the ship. I felt honored to be sewing on it.

It was hard work, too. A strong steel needle, waxed thread, and a whale bone hand protector were our tools. Each stitch went through six layers of canvas, heavy canvas at that. It took all my strength for each stitch. Each stitch had to be perfect. The sail, and our lives, would depend upon it. By the time We’d finished, my hands were cramped and blistered.

In truth, I hadn’t even noticed the blisters. I had been too busy listening to and sharing, and learning from the stories the Old Sailmaker told. While we sewed, he brought us coffee with a ‘splash’ of his homemade hooch for flavor. I sipped, and the old familiar burn of childhood returned. His hooch tasted even better than my Memaw’s ‘shine. I asked what he used to give it such flavor.

‘Nutmeg, and a bit of coconut.’ He grinned with pride.

And so I acquired, or rather re-acquired the taste for hard liquer. And, as I soon found out, ‘Salty’ had a seemingly endless supply. I quickly learned how to use it as a crutch against reality.

 

“A Mile from Land” #27

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

27 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

Morning Dawned in beautiful golds over a sea of glass. It was so beautiful that for a few moments, I thought I had died in the storm and was now in heaven. It was just THAT beautiful. I stood on the top deck, leaning on the railing, and grinning like a fool. I’d been to hell the night before and was now in heaven.

‘Good morning, Sister. I’d like you to go to the front lounge and report to the Sailmaker for duty.’ Captain Merk ordered as he joined me at the rail. ‘Before you do, I want to see you eat this. Cookie said you skipped breakfast.’

I looked at the huge gooey sticky-bun in his hand. My stomach churned. ‘I’m not sure I can, Sir.’ I mumbled.

‘Eat. I guarantee you’ll feel better afterwards.’ He put the sticky bun in my hand.

Cautiously, I bit, ate, bit again. ‘This is heavenly.’

He grinned. ‘Yes, it is. Now, get below to the front lounge. There’s a lot of work to be done.’

A short climb down the ladder and walk across the middecks found me in the lounge. The lounge resembled a disaster area. There was sail material everywhere, along with several sailors. Everyone had a needle in hand sewing.

‘Ah, Sister, there you are.’ The old, grizzled Sailmaker spoke. ‘I thought you’d washed overboard.’

I ducked my head self-consciously. ‘No, Sir, I’m still here.’

‘Good, good. Have a seat. There’s a lot of work to do. You do know how to sew, yes?’

‘Yes, Sir.’ I nodded as I slid into the booth across from him, noting his toothy grin.

‘Today, I teach you how to make a main sail.’

And thus, a friendship that would span nearly a decade began. A friendship filled with wisdom and unconditional love that brought things like hope and faith back into my life, one stitch at a time.

“A Mile From Land” #26

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

26 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

‘Put one hand here, and the other here. Now, whatever you do, don’t – DO NOT LET GO!’ Captain Merk placed my hands on a belaying pin stuck through a middeck’s rail. ‘I’ll be back.’

I was alone. It was just me, the angry sea, and God. Each time the sea rose stories above my head, I prayed for a quick death.

Then, as the waves crashed down against the ship and my death grip on the belaying pin, I prayed for salvation. Not eternal salvation, that is. I was already certain that my soul would have its eternal reward. No, I prayed for the physical salvation. I prayed that the life within me would live. I didn’t care about myself. I had nothing left to live for. After the baby was born, I would be free to die. But; until then, I needed Divine Intervention just to survive this storm.

The ship heaved, and pitched, and yawed all night. It felt like an eternity. Often, I found sailors, or the CMO at my side. Each promised I would live to see morning. I didn’t believe any of them.

Our Medical team’s doctor, Stephen, even tried to convince me that I was never more than a mile from land. I wasn’t that gullible. I knew what his ‘mile’ was – straight down. Many also tried to get me to let go of the belaying pin and go inside. I refused. After all, Captain Merk himself had told me not to let go. I didn’t until he personally gave me leave to do so. That leave did not come until the seas calmed. Even with the calm sea, I was still so seasick I felt I was at death’s door – one toe already over that fatal line.

‘I know it’s hard to believe, but you’re going to survive this.’ Captain Merk said as he squeezed my shoulder. ‘You’re seasick. It’s as close to death as you’ll ever feel; and yet, live.’

 

“A Mile From Land” #25

“A Mile from Land”
By. Lee McQuinn
(note: all names, locations, and identifying information has been changed to preserve privacy and respect.)

25 January 2017 – Timeline: 1985

Dear One,

If I could stay at the top of the main mast forever, it wouldn’t be long enough. Weird thing about the nest, though. It’s not physically possible, mind you, but when the ship rolls in one direction, you feel as it the nest itself is rolling the opposite. All of it is very disconcerting until you get used to it. Until then, the sensation puts morning sickness to shame.

Seasickness aside, the nest afforded the most extensive view of the world. In fact, you can almost make out the slight curvature of the Earth on the horizon. I’m not sure how many miles you can see; but it must be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. And in all directions, there was nothing but sea and sky. I hugged the bucket I was given and made frequent use of it. The Sailor, Joe, smiled.

Then, the sun began to set. For a brief moment I was so awed by the beauty that I almost fell out of the nest. Oh, but mere words cannot begin to describe the unfiltered golds.

‘Red at night, Sailor’s delight.’ I muttered.

‘Yes, but that is gold.’ Joe noted.

Below us, the tourists were already bellying up to the bar. Even from the nest I could smell the rum.

‘See out there, on the horizon…?’ Joe pointed. ‘See the difference in the sky?’

‘It’s night-rise, that’s all.’ I shrugged.

‘No, that is a storm, and it is a big one. I saw it below on the radar. We best go down, now.’

Before we’d reached the deck, the ship was already beginning to sway. Within the hour, I would be praying for the mercy of death.