There's no such thing as ghosts, and if there are no ghosts, there can be no haunted house.
I remembered my Grandpa telling me this numerous times when I visited during the summer, and though I came around eventually, I still thought it a shame that a grand old house like his harbored no spirits. I think I still do.
I recently read an article on how a boat must be of a particular size to attract a ghost, as one would need room to roam and a small vessel would certainly not be suitable for such wandering. I knew this well,
as I tried to wander about the tiny cockpit, ducking into the cabin to check my stew on occasion.
What about the boat herself? I pondered, stirring the thick stew with an old wooden spoon. Odd thoughts were common now, two weeks after sailing my sloop out of the Galapagos, heading for Tahiti.
There were times, oddly enough, that the boat had taken her course a little too steadily, and I remembered reading Joshua Slocum's book on his circumnavigation and his encounter with a friendly enough, yet quite dead, helmsman. His boat was larger than mine, though by his account, his ghostly pilot made no move away from the wheel, keeping Spray on course while Slocum lay ill.
Tomorrow would be Friday, October 13, and there would be a full moon as well. Fertile imaginations would have a field day, though I expected things to be no different on the open Pacific, eating, sleeping, sailing, and performing the countless little tasks always clamoring for attention on an old gaff-rigged wooden sloop.
After a wonderful, well, palatable dinner, I watched the sun settle into the water to the west, absently checking its position relative to my bow as I straddled the bowsprit and mended the safety netting slung below. I also watched intently for a sail I had spotted earlier that day, two miles ahead. It had gotten too dark to see her and I wasn't sure whether I was gaining, but as I was behind, it seemed a safe enough bet.
The chances of a collision in the open ocean were, to be honest, astronomical. Not unheard of, however, and a weather eye had to be kept all night, creating an interesting sleep pattern for the solo sailor.
I would set my alarm to sound every thirty minutes, I'd wake, pop up to give a good sweep of the horizon, then stretch out for another half-hour. This wasn't the most comfortable thing for me, but to become a figurehead for a container ship had somewhat less appeal, so I kept it up.
The netting repaired, I stood upon the bowsprit, one hand gripping the forestay as I rode the swells, the movement this far forward was far greater than that on deck, and I quite enjoyed it. Far cry from my bout of seasickness off the South Carolina coast my first night out. I had been worried about having to cancel the voyage at that point, finally overcoming the problem by the time I reached Panama.
There, two points off the starboard bow, something! I made my way back to the cockpit and found my binoculars, scanning that part of the horizon. I knew I'd seen something, an anchor light, fire... something.
There it was again, a white light, not a fire. It was moving about with the waves, though not moving at all in relation to them. I quickly disengaged my vane and steered for this point, catching sight of the bobbing, flickering light just often enough to verify my course.
The wind had picked up a bit and I had to come about twice to line up with what appeared to be a mess of tangled wood and junk, held together with a haphazard tangle of sails and rigging, made more buoyant by a couple of apparently empty water casks. Wow, I thought this guy had it worse than me.
I was thinking of the old-fashioned nature of my boat, and my fondness for the romance of it all. I, however, carried a large multi-compartment plastic water tank, and a nice, quiet, modern little diesel powerplant, well concealed, of course. There was nothing in this mass of wreckage that even hinted that this vessel could have existed in the 20th century, at least beyond the first quarter of it.
"Hello?" I called as I closed with what once had likely been a beautiful craft. I could see in the brightwork on splintered and broken wood a fastidious and loving hand. Just this afternoon, this had been probably the most beautiful boat in the south Pacific, and now look at her.
"Hello?" the voice was weak, and I had trouble discerning its position among the shattered wood and stores. "Hello?"
One other thing, the voice was unmistakably female. This was not unusual anymore, I suppose, though I'd personally never known a lady cruiser to keep an old wooden boat so well. A great sadness threatened to overcome me, as I knew this fate could so easily await my tidy little sloop.
I hove-to just outside the field of wreckage and worked my eyes over the dark water, "Shine your light!"
"I've no light, sir!"
"No matter, I see you now!" I gazed to windward, decided I could risk moving in a bit, starting my little engine and idling toward the pale hand grasping a rosewood trimmed hatch. "I'm moving closer. Grab the ring when I throw it to you!" She'd know I'd have to keep steerage-way in this mess, for fear of being thrown into the mass of deceased sailboat.
She caught my lifering on the first toss, and I gently towed her out into the open water before heaving-to once more to bring her in.
Dripping on my teak deck, petite yet showing a great strength, she shivered until I wrapped a woolen blanket about her shoulders and led her down into my cozy cabin. I still had stew from supper, and it was still warm, so I gave that to her and let her eat while I took to the cockpit once more to set course.
I nearly missed it, being so dark and low in the water, a mahogany and teak chest. Scrambling for my boathook, I snagged a rope handle on the chest and dragged it aboard, setting it aside as I reset the windvane steering device and relaxed for a bit.
Perhaps 30 minutes later, she came up from the cabin, wearing one of my old khaki shirts and a pair of my shorts. She smiled, "I'm sorry, my clothes were so unbearably damp... and I had hoped you wouldn't mind." Her accent was unmistakably Brit., though her dark hair and mildly exotic features spoke of the islands. I decided she would look equally hot whether in formal dress or a grass skirt.
"That's OK, I was going to suggest just that anyway."
"You are American?"
"Yes," I nodded, just noticing the intense blue of her eyes, reddened a bit by exposure to saltwater.
I hadn't realized I had paused until she extended her hand towards me.
"My name is Victoria Crasswell."
I took her gentle, strong hand and bowed slightly, "Jack Conrad," smiling awkwardly. She was lovely. "I can offer you a hot shower and some privacy here, I'll set it up and hide in the cabin until you send for me."
She gratefully accepted and minutes later I was below, trying to read and failing miserably, listening to the melodious singing from the cockpit, accompanied by the splashing of a good deal of precious fresh water. Conservation must have been somewhere in her mind, though, as she quickly finished and was soon warming herself across from me, in the starboard berth.
Soon she was asleep and I went up to scan the horizon again. I considered the idea of having crew, the possibility of getting a solid night of sleep in the near future was appealing. The weather was pleasant enough and I spent the rest of the night under the stars.
"I think this is my due for launching on a Friday." Victoria, leaning on the mast, stated.
"Pardon?" I could never pick up a conversation so quickly, you have to lead me into it or I'll miss the point entirely.
"My poor boat, I launched her on Friday, about three weeks ago." she smiled sadly, "Bad luck, you know."
"I've been wondering what caused your boat to break up like that." I swept my hand out toward the sea, for no real reason other than punctuation, "I suppose a container ship could have dropped..."
"I've no idea." she seemed put off. "I had just finished cooking my supper, and there was a terrible crash, then another. My first thought was perhaps a whale." she shrugged, "though I supposed I would have seen it afterward."
Deciding to leave the sensitive subject for now, I sat cross legged on the cockpit sole and began to patch a small hole in my canvas bucket, "If you don't mind, I've noticed you have the most exquisite voice, and a lovely British accent, but there's something very casual about it."
"I was born in Papeete," she smiled, perfect white teeth reflecting the sunlight back into my eyes,
"My father was a schooner captain, trading with the natives for pearls and met my mother there. She was half French and had learned English from a missionary who had long since gone when Father arrived."
"Wow," I coated my twine with beeswax and started stitching, "Things are still a little backward out here?"
Victoria laughed, "We had heard of a great many wondrous things from the mainland, but I think the simpler life is preferable."
"I have to agree," I finished and collapsed the bucket, stowing it away. "That's why I'm out here. I got tired of the hustle and bustle of the big city and escaped."
"I've never seen a city." she flipped her long, straight hair out of her eyes, "I suppose I really don't have the desire. I built my boat for the sheer adventure of it."
"You built that boat?"
"You don't think a woman can?" a humorous sharpening of her eyes kept me in line.
"Yes, of course. I have rarely seen it, though. I did notice, however, that the work you did on what I could see when I picked you up was quite lovely."
"Thank you, I suppose I'll start again when we return to Tahiti." she turned to appraise my wind vane self-steerer, "and I simply must get you to show me how this contraption works."
"Gladly," I smiled and started below to set lunch to cooking.
The wind was up a bit and Crystina plunged headlong into the roughening sea until I eased her off a bit.
Victoria, who had been a great crew over the last few days, had already made my boat more ship-shape than it had ever been. I had been meaning to mend that storm jib in Tahiti when I had time... really.
Crystina's namesake had been a woman in Florida, the love of my life for a few short months and in a fit of hopeless romanticism I had named my sloop for her two weeks before she had decided to fall in love with a close friend.
I digress, this is not a story of my broken heart, at least not at that point.
My brightwork was polished, the teak deck positively glowed, and everything seemed to work
better than it had before, as Victoria had found an oil can and industriously made her way through the sloop making everything "ship shape and Bristol fashion".
I didn't think many people used that phrase anymore, but I had to remember that her father had been an English schooner captain.
The standing rigging was a good grade of stainless steel, served and parceled well enough, I had thought. My best sails were of a lovely modern material that appeared as old canvas and shook off the water like a well oiled duck.
I was intensely happy, I suppose I should mention that. Two weeks after fishing this lovely woman from the water, I stood at the wheel and kept an eye and both ears on the wind. I had suffered an accidental gybe once and though nothing had been badly damaged, the narrow miss between my scalp and the swinging boom stayed fresh on my memory. Fortunately, now, we had fallen almost to a beam reach as we angled into the waves.
Victoria stood before the mast, having just handed the storm jib. I didn't think we needed to shorten sail quite that much, but she seemed proud of her repair effort and I admired her work from the cockpit, only to realize that she'd been on the ball as the wind freshened.
I yelled for her to take in a reef on the main, but she seemed enraptured by the view forward and couldn't hear me over the howling wind. I set the steering and scrambled up to complete this task when she turned and smiled to me. I grinned like an idiot and tied off the sail, returning to the cockpit.
Life was good.
The sun had set sometime, near the equator it happened rather quickly and soon the weather quieted, allowing us to put up the number one jib and shake out the main. Within an hour of this, the stars had come out in full force, and I had nearly fallen asleep at the wheel, though the windvane was doing the actual steering.
I lifted my droopy-lidded eyes and gazed at Victoria, who was standing in the cockpit before me, smiling down with gentle laughter in her eyes. I smiled back and started to say something, though I have no idea what, and she placed her finger over my lips and said "shhh"
I complied and she kissed me softly with rose petal lips, and shortly we were giving the ever watchful stars a hell of a show.
There are no lines drawn on the ocean for our convenience. I wondered how many people might have actually believed it to be so, possibly even looking for a long white strip of paint marking the borders between countries and states. Longitude and latitude were purely an invention of the mind, and with the odd logic I seemed to enjoy after weeks at sea, I pictured some obsessive-compulsive maniac trying desperately to paint these lines on the ever active water.
Though I had a GPS receiver, I made it a point to use an old sextant I had inherited from an old salt I had befriended while fitting planks to Crystina and I had finally become proficient, using the little high tech box to check my navigation frequently and nearly giggling with joy as my calculations nearly matched perfectly. I remembered as a child thinking of great lines on the sea, wondering how it had been done, and thinking of how helpless ancient mariners had been before they existed, but hey, I was 5.
Victoria and I had become close since the night "at the wheel" and I had never imagined such a pleasurable life afloat, the beauty, the swish-gurgle of the hull slipping through the Pacific, the occasional bad weather and shouts of "I hate boats!".
It wasn't all roses and cream cheese, but usually around sunset, Victoria and I would take each other places indescribable to anyone who hasn't shared in such bliss.
No matter the length of time at sea, her long soft hair was always fragrant, reminding me of tropical flowers I could not identify. Her skin, soft and supple despite the elements, and her eyes, oh her eyes.
There had never been a bluer blue, and the ocean and the sky would always envy her eyes. No sapphire could dare compare.
I became a poet, at heart anyway as I never could place my feelings on paper, but I still felt the beauty of her presence and decided that any attempt to express it in mere words would fail miserably.
In a nutshell, I was stricken, and there are no lines on the heart, no instrument delicate enough to navigate the wild expanses of emotion. No dead-reckoning and no GPS, merely the sensitivity of one's own heart and the willingness to follow.
What had happened to the manly-man I had been? Why was I draped over the coaming and filling my head with mush from a thousand love stories? I had an answer, though I'd never admit it to myself.
Tahiti, now a tourist trap, still held great charm. Tomorrow, according to my chart, we would make landfall and I would escort Victoria to her home, where I was sure her family waited expectantly.
The wind was abeam at about 20 knots and we were making decent time with a delightfully clear sea and no traffic all night.
We lay entangled in my blankets on the cockpit sole wrapped around each other, both gazing at the stars. Victoria pressed her lithe body to mine and whispered in my ear, "I think I may..."
I sensed her hesitation and kissed her, "yes, I think I may, too."
"But there is something terribly wrong. Something... I don't know."
I wrapped my arms around her, holding her close, "Don't worry, Victoria. I'm here."
"For how long?"
Suddenly it struck me. I was going on as soon as I was assured of good weather to Australia. Perhaps she wanted to stay home, build a new boat, or give up altogether and settle down. I knew instantly that I could not stop now, though perhaps after I had made my circumnavigation... we could speak of this tomorrow, and I distracted her once more as we both raised our voices to the stars.
"Victoria?" I shielded my eyes against the morning sun. "Victoria?" Where was she?
I looked forward, nothing, and I went below, desperation and fear causing me to stumble as I made my way into the cabin. I entered an aromatic cloud of frying bacon and fresh eggs. "Oh my." I smiled, feeling a bit silly at my panic. "Good morning, my Sweet." I looked questioningly at breakfast.
"I spoke a ketch coming from Papeete. They came alongside and sent us a small gift." she motioned toward a reed basket in the sink, containing a few more eggs and cheese.
"Did I sleep that well?" I wondered at last night, yes, we had been quite energetic and had fallen asleep somewhere in the wee hours of the morning. I could easily have slept through a hurricane this morning.
She nodded, "yes, you did. But," she added charitably, "you did most of the work last night."
Laughter in her eyes, and she was incredibly sexy in my old khaki shirt.
Breakfast was wonderful, though I had kicked most fatty foods years ago, and Papeete was soon in sight. My worries had returned, though I had softened my position, thinking perhaps a longer stay wouldn't be a complete disaster and maybe I could even consider staying on a more permanent basis. Her company had suddenly and frighteningly eclipsed my only lifelong dream. I couldn't imagine life without her now.
There was no audible splash, no surprised scream, no sign at all that she had gone overboard. I had come up after finishing breakfast and she was gone, just like that.
Panicked, I hove-to and searched the horizon and worked inward with my binoculars. Then I went below and switched on the radio, calling for help and returning to the cockpit after receiving several promises of help.
I reversed my course. She'd come up on deck maybe 15 minutes before I did, so she couldn't be far, and I knew she was a superb swimmer and the water here was pleasantly warm. Soon the area was being swept by three cruising sailboats, a Tahitian customs boat, and an Aussie destroyer, all moving slowly and crisscrossing each others' paths.
My guts had frozen into a block of ice and I was frantic. I had furled my sails haphazardly and was motoring around, watching the water's surface and veering toward everything I could see, anything that could even remotely be human.
Toward evening, the official boat traffic had increased and I was ordered rather firmly to take my boat to the port. Crystina was moored snugly and watched by one of the volunteer searchers as I made my way to shore in my dink, meeting up with a compassionate looking fellow with a clipboard and a lot of questions.
I was puzzled by his reaction to her name, "Victoria Crasswell?" his eyes went wide and he shook his head sadly, speaking unintelligibly into his walkie-talkie and looking at me as if wondering what to do with a lost puppy. "I am sorry, sir. But we cannot continue the search."
"I'll go back out, then!" I shouted at him.
"No, you may not. This is for your own good, you are distraught and will be a danger to yourself and other vessels." He produced a notepad and sketched a rough map, pressing it into my hand.
Stunned, I could only stammer.
"Go there." he said softly, and I felt compelled to obey.
The house had seen better days, though it still exuded charm and more than a touch of elegance.
Peeling paint and silvered wood only seemed to distinguish the home, somewhat like the graying sideburns on my high school English teacher.
A slow, rhythmic creaking marked the position of an ancient woman in a rocking chair nearly as old. Her hair, long and silver, streaked with stark white, was tied back with a royal blue ribbon. Her face clung like moss to her high cheekbones and provided a soft parchment frame for two pools of shocking blue.
"Victoria..." I whispered.
"Do I know you?" her voice, familiar, still beautiful but... wait. No, this must be a great-grandmother. I could see the resemblance, even through the effect of the years.
As I wondered, her eyes widened, I swear, to the size of saucers. "Jack." it was a statement of fact, not a question.
"You, " I shook my head. No, this couldn't be. "What..."
Her smile dispelled all doubt. This, somehow, was my love, "What happened?"
There was no confusion on her face, "Yes, I remember you. You haven't aged a day, and somehow I'm not surprised. There was something surreal about our adventure and I never could believe that it had even been real." I found her perfect composure odd, but somehow also natural.
I was in shock. I merely stood there for a short eternity and gazed into her eyes, seeing only truth. "What happened?" I repeated myself, rather stupidly I suppose.
"After I had left you in the cabin, I stood on the transom to stow the steering vane and slipped, falling into the water. The next thing I knew, I was aboard a merchant schooner and we had already moored.
I waited, Jack. I waited for you to arrive, as I knew you would. I waited 60 years.
I had to move to Australia during the war, convinced that you had joined the Navy and would return, though I'm not sure I really believed that, as you never made port in Papeete. I was afraid, actually, that you had been lost."
"I have been lost, my Darling Victoria." I whispered. "I am lost now, I ate a wonderful breakfast just this morning, and last night..." I watched her eyes light up.
We stayed up and talked until the wee hours of the morning, amazed at the twist of fate, or time, that had brought us together for such a sweet, short time, then had torn us apart, wedging so many years between us. "I am happy to have known you, Victoria. You have shown me what love really can be, and I am richer for it." I sighed, then began to softly shed tears, "but I have robbed you of your life. You waited all those years."
"Jack." she said sternly, "if you weren't worth the wait, I would not have waited. Now, after all these years, I am satisfied and I know that most people will never know that feeling."
I placed my arm gently over her shoulder and held her until she slept.
I wondered, what would have happened if she hadn't fallen overboard into her own time? Or, had I been in hers? Which Papeete would we have found waiting on the horizon? Would fate have found another way to separate us?
Questions chased each other around in my aching head, blending tears to be squeezed out and down my face as I watched the coroner gently ease the shrouded form into his van. She had passed in her sleep, as I also slept beside her and the long, silent nights at sea entered our dreams and we shared our farewell under a glittering blanket of stars.
Crystina plunged headlong into a moderate sea and I stared out toward the horizon, daydreaming with Victoria's teak and mahogany chest in my lap. I've never opened it, and I believe I know when I will.
One thought crossed my mind as I made my way back to the area in which she had lost her vessel with the help of my GPS: she had been in my time, for the Global Positioning System satellites didn't exist in her time.
I spent two days adrift where I had found her, finding no sign of the remains of her trim little sailboat and finally sailed West once more. I had a circumnavigation to complete, after all.