Category Archives: The Ocean

Dead in Alaska — Part 2

People just keep wanting to drill in Alaska.

So it might not always look like it did back in 1997.
The fishing story continues…

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He had lost track of the hours. They had been here for days, he didn’t remember how long, up and down along the coast. They slept in their clothes, ate when they could. Miner was covered in the rank of halibut. He stank guts, and he hadn’t taken his boots off since they started. There was one small yellow light in the galley that was always on, a single bulb above the flexi-stove that hammocked in its bolts as it cooked. In the fatigue he stared at it for long moments, in a daze until it was time to work again, to feed and bait and cull, until the belly of the boat was full and there was nothing to do but return to port and offer the flesh to somebody with a mind to distinguish color and size, to match them to desire.

Out the galley window he could see Jim, his red hood pulled up over a mat of white hair and his knees bent gracefully against the bulwark, watching the horizon. His hand was hanging down limp by his side, loosely holding a red metal cup. When the boat dipped he reached out lightly, as if to touch his own sense of equilibrium.
Miner abandoned the stove, stepped through the open galley door out onto the deck. Butler was there, smoking a cigarette and watching the flotilla of sea-birds that followed them, hovering over the long-line and the occasional wash of innards that got sucked their way.

“I’d like to shoot them fuckers,” said Butler, gesturing to the birds with his chin.

His clear blue eyes bridled with a cantering beauty. But he shouted at them, waved his arms. He picked up a starfish and hurled it skyward, the loopy arms trundling over themselves like some fast-moving galaxy, but the birds glided effortlessly away, extensions on a careening mobile, and the creature in its dead orange blipped into the green sea and returned to its depths.

The sea was icy and green, fed by a northern coastal stream that brought berg water down from Kodak, galoshing and wild. The rollers glided by in trilobitian majesty. An unbound pulse, a substantive and quiescent thing cascading in shivering arcs across itself.

Miner and Butler moved to the stern where Jim was standing, next to the hydraulic spool and near where the gear line had been coiled. Jim was fiddling with the knots on the two floating pink buoys. He looked up when the boys approached.

“Paul wants to lay another couple sets,” he said.

“Jesus Fuck,” said Butler, taking a final drag and flicking his cigarette in a long arc out towards the birds.

Jim looked up to the cockpit.

“We’ll lay these here now, just up ahead,” he said, indicating some invisible smear of current toward which they were moving, “Then we’ll go pick those two sets we laid this morning.”

“I don’t know where the fuck they are, but they ain’t here,” Butler said.

“They live on the bottom,” Jim said, “They suck the bottom.”

“Scum suckers,” Butler said, “Just like us.”

“Just like you, maybe.”

“Shit.”

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Paul came out onto the rear deck of the top house and looked down at them and then scanned out to sea and lifted his face into the wind and like a dog his eyes lulled. He looked down at Jim.

“Ready?” he shouted.

Jim nodded and Paul turned the boat back around away from shore and soon the engine picked up and they began to make a slow five knot line into the rollers and out to sea. Jim hooked up the two floating pink buoys and tossed them off into the wake. The seagulls scattered from the splash but settled back again when the buoys had passed. Miner looked up and saw the sun was moving up again, shining off the starboard aluminium of the top-house, the streaks of shaved mite glinting vibrantly along its surface.

They were one on each side of the now trolling line, and as it sped out from the hydraulic spool they snapped and baited and hooked lanyards onto it, and stepped quickly back out of the way as the cutfish flicked at them from the rebound. The small lines flung about on the stiff wire until it dragged them under and down. Sometimes the gulls tried to loop in and steal one before it disappeared but the wire was quicker and they retreated upwards in squawking fury. And then it was done, the line exhausted, the lanyards too, and Jim strapped on two more floating pink buoys to mark the other end of the line and tossed them over the side where they began to drift, and soon they were the only two floating things out there. Underneath, along the floor, lay the thousand hooks.

Paul turned the bow once again and this time headed south, back towards the two remaining lines they had set the previous morning.

They wandered around the deck as they waited, waiting for the sea to turn in their favor, for it to unloose something from its skin, its wandering patterns in the currents. The lines were out and they had very little.
Butler paced back and forth between the two sides of the boat, his shoulders squared, and Jim watched him without moving his head.

“Why don’t you sit down?” he asked.

Butler turned his head slowly.

“Why don’t you shut up?”

“Wouldn’t be anything interesting to listen to then.”

“Shit.”

“See?” said Jim.

– Alaska, 1997

Barrel

There’s this innocent, sweet article about surfing in Guam.

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A famous wave in Cape Town, at Noordhoek beach.

It’s still dark outside when Nick arrives. A strong southeast wind had blown through Cape Town the night before and the streets are littered with fallen sticks and leaves. From somewhere nearby a rooster’s crow peals incongruously.
“Howzit?” Nick says. He smiles then looks shyly at the ground.
“Howzit,” I say.
We stand there in the darkness for a moment. A straggling remnant of wind flows down the street, then backs off again. It hasn’t rained, but it smells like it has.

Nick’s two boards are already tied neatly to the roof of his Golf. We slide mine in underneath the other two and I throw my bag in the trunk and then climb into the passenger seat and we slip out into the empty streets. We are going up the West Coast to look for waves. South Africa’s West Coast is a den of waves.
Nick is particular about where we go, and when, and why. There are many variables to consider. Optimal conditions require a perfect symmetry of these variables. The wind direction, the swell direction and size, the time of the day, which determines the tides, high and low, even the day of the week, which is a critical factor in how many people will be in the water – all of these are parts of a delicate equation that must be worked out on the fly. We’re going up the West Coast because the variables there on this day are working in our favor. The surf there, says Nick, should be working.
“Cooking,” he says with a smile, “Cooking.”

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As we’re driving, Nick is talking about a massive barrel he got the weekend before. Surfers talk about barrels as if they were rare animal sightings. The bigger the barrel, the rarer and more beautiful the creature. Some surfers get barreled more than others. Some, the very proficient, or those very lucky who happen to live in places, like Indonesia, where the waves curl into barrels on a daily basis, spend a good amount of time “in the tube.”

That’s what a barrel is, a tube of water.

It is what you see when you see pictures of surfing, men or women crouching or standing inside of a rounded and hollow space, surrounded on all sides, but not touched by, walls of water.

“I was standing,” Nick says, “like this.” He takes his hands briefly off the steering wheel and raises them as far above his head as the car will allow. “Straight up, touching the roof with my fingers.” I watch his fingers graze the car ceiling.

“I was fully upright, it’s the first time that’s ever happened to me.”

“Must’ve been massive,” I say, imagining the size of the wave that would allow such a hollow space to form, in the first place, and then hold its shape and move, parallel to the shore, without breaking.

Nick nods, smiling.

“It’s weird,” he says, “I can remember what it looks like inside. I can remember seeing the water, seeing that I was closed in, I can see the exit…” He trails off.

I look over at him and he’s trying to puzzle it out.
“But I can’t remember what it feels like.”

I don’t say anything.

“I can remember everything,” he says, “Except the feeling. It’s almost like it didn’t happen at all.”

This, to my mind, is the near perfect physical expression of the present moment, the vanishing, that infinitesimal suddenness that occurs when the mind goes blank. There is no past, no future. Nothing else is possible, or even desirable, because all of it, including one’s own awareness, has ceased to exist. I think this is why Nick can’t remember what it feels like, because his mind has stopped twisting and turning for a moment. He has entered an absolute stillness, become unhinged. There are no tethers, and no need for tethers. To my mind, it is an approximation of a flash of enlightenment. The fact that he can’t remember it, I say to him, is a sign of encouragement. I envy him this.

But now he is anxious, he says. He’s jittery and nervous in the car.

“It’s like a drug,” he says, “You want more, you can’t say why, but you can feel the need.”

He smiles when he says it, but he’s dead serious.

– South Africa, 2010

swimming on the train

There is no news about the past today.

It’s a long way to the end of the pier, where he’ll make his turn. In the water, their white bodies look like bits of marbled fat in a flank of meat. At the pier he comes dangerously close to a barnacled piling and feels its pull before kicking away. He raises his head a moment, sees Dan in front, heading on a course parallel to the beach. From the left, the Pacific pushes. Adam dives his hand in, like he was taught, slicing the water. He has to remember to kick; Dan says it’s how you free your speed.

Later that day, with Joe, he stands on the pier and watches the large, browned bodies – boogie boarders on the right, surfers on the left – sliding down the waves, creating bright green and white arcs. On their feet the boogie boarders wear V-shaped flippers; some have attached razors to the fins on the bottoms of their boards. Joe is wearing the UCSB tank-top that Adam let him borrow, a gift from Dan. Joe is too pale to be at the beach, Adam thinks. Even with a tan, which he does not yet have, the paleness will only shine out stronger. Adam does not know how he knows this, he just does, and so he doesn’t say anything. It is the same way he knows that Joe doesn’t know how to swim, even though the two of them have never spoken about it; and even though the two of them spend most of their lives at the beach now, it has never been an issue. They’ve only been in the water once together.

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There was a slight rain that day, and the workers waded through mist as blades of wet grass lipped the sides of their boots lazily, as if half-asleep, just in the process of waking up. Sam watched from underneath the spread of an oak tree where the ground was dry. He smoked a cigarette, cold air, looked at the ground where a few roots had broken through, a smattering of gray ash appeared there, fragile and beautiful in that early morning light. They usually did the unknowns before six. There was a public record book in the foyer, near the concierge. This one, Roger, he hadn’t been able to get a look at his face, too bad. They wouldn’t open it up today for the rain.

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It was beginning to get dark, and the sky outside was marked with low-hanging brows of pink clouds. Through the wires of the tracking poles, the lights of passing cars receded by slowly. He was staring out the window when another train going the opposite direction appeared. There were two stories to the train, and both were lit by yellow lights and he could see through the windows to the hills on the other side. They were watching his train, seeing a similar sight. He stared out the window. And then he saw a face. Cursed between his lips, cold pick of metal, the hesitancy of his tongue, against the rocks of his teeth, like an anemone, clutching stone against the waves, giant muscle seeking shelter. Motionless, needle in his mouth, watching her, and she, stuck by this sudden cold pin, watching him. And there they sat with their reflections holding them together in their respective trains.

dead in alaska

I saw this sad story from Alaska today.   “Alaska man shoots wolf”

I spent many months on a fishing boat in Alaska years ago.  I worked alongside this man, who had lost his son in a car accident.

And what it was like, on my halibut boat, some of the time:

Paul leaned into the void and craned a scrawny neck. He stopped the line before the fish hit the surface, leaving it dangling below on the tension, caught in a pane of green water, turning and twisting like a pale silver polyp. Peering back from the controls he looked at Butler, whose sealed-off eyes twitched from within his orange hood. The boat was listing in the swells, and the shapes of the men’s bodies shadowed the tick-tocking of the gulls.

“All right,” Paul yelled, “I’m bringing her up.”

Miner nodded. He kneeled and stared into the black glass.  His orange slicks dripped and gleamed. He pointed, a shunt of white limb visible.  The knives they had given him lay angled at his feet.  His cheeks were hard and he moved them with difficulty.  A root of light led to the horizon, where it would not hit until the next day began. From there, Miner could see the world: the sun tracing for countless hours through the near sky, the barely audible scrape of the sea through the scuttle holes, draining and blowing the empty plains they had floated on, they were now floating on, for days and days.

The boat sank into a swell and rose again.

“Get her,” Paul screamed when the fish broke through, “Get her.”

Butler and Jim were on their chests, leaning over the bulwarks with their hooks poised.  The tendons in Butler’s arms were taut, smooth, twitching like flanks.  The fish began to thrash when it felt air.  A gaff socked into her head, pierced her eye and yanked. Then it rose, and jumped of itself like an epileptic body. Paul was frantic at the controls.  Butler had dropped the gaff and picked up the hammer.

Time to go, time to go, he said, and then brought it down on the eye with a dull thump and the reverb spread across the wet wood.

Five or seven high walls were grey as sandpaper and rougher and beyond them a prairie full of sheet water where the light fell forgotten in the abundance of ocean.   Butler would have hit her again and again, but there was no time, and Jim had already grabbed the fish and was lugging her away to the stern.  Paul watched.  His brown hair was thin, the hood had blown off and he picked up a beer he had resting on the iron toe-ball and took a slug.  The foam gathered on his beard and he wiped it away with his hand. His lips were wet when he grinned.

Miner stood up and grabbed the tail to pull her over the two slot boards and into the stern.  As soon as she landed she began to twitch again.  Her mouth was gaping open and her lone eye-ball swung in its deltoid swivel like a ping-pong ball in a vat of oil.  Two knives had already broken. The boat took a swell, dipped, and resurfaced into a green light.  It was past eleven at night and the sky was still bright.  Twenty hours he had not slept drifted by as he stood up to pull her back to him. He held the knife while Paul worked the pulley again. Butler and Jim stood with their knees poised against the bulwarks, their hooks draped over the sides like branding tools.  No one was looking. He was on his knees.

He watched as the bile spewed onto her.  The rain was light enough not to wash it away.  Instead, it pelted at it as if it were feeding, pocked it like ionized steel, and slowly began to eat away at it until it broke up into slabs and began to disintegrate.  He rubbed his hand over her skin and wiped the rest of it away.  His face was about to erupt; he knew it now.  But he held it back. Paul stood there like a harpooner on the bow, his eyes fixated on the planes of green, and the tunnel of darkness from which the spinning fish had come.

He struck her with the knife. She tensed when the point entered her, and stayed still and rigid in a tight involuntary muscle lock.  He cut the jugular and blood seeped over the blade of the knife and dripped onto the deck.  She bucked again and he had to pull the knife out to keep from breaking it. He held her head to the deck and looked up to find the horizon for a moment.  There it was, a thin strip of muted grey, stretching above the sea in a parallel world.  The blood was flowing thicker from her thrashing, which had risen again and then faltered.  He eased the knife back in and when he saw that she didn’t yet feel it, slammed it into her cranium. Her one eye lolled in refuge.  He kept her fore down with his other hand and closed his eyes.  The whine of the pulley appeared again. A small mean snatch of darkness. The birds are purgatory now, needles of flight.  He heard himself whimper.  No one else had heard.  No one here.  Not one soul here.