From my bunk I can hear them talking, low tones from the direction of the wheelhouse. Almost whispering so they don’t disturb the others that are also off watch, and trying to grab some sleep before it’s time for one of us to take our turn at the wheel.
I can’t hear the words, just the sibilant sounds of quiet conversation in the distance, almost lost in the creaks and groans of a wooden vessel underway at sea. At least one of the voices is that of a male, and it might be that there is only one speaker, having a conversation with himself. This isn’t unusual among those of us who spend hours alone on watch, looking at radar screens, chart plotters and out into the limitless darkness of an overcast moonless night. We talk to the boat. We talk to ourselves as we recall and act out conversations we should, or perhaps, shouldn’t have had.
Lying in my berth I attempt to identify the voices. There are only two men aboard for this voyage down the coast, and I know for certain that one of them is lying in his bunk holding his breath and trying to make out the words. It is the chef’s watch, and she doesn’t have a voice that could be mistaken for a man’s. She is also not prone to self-discussion. The quiet voice is very deep, I hear the rumble of it woven into the other boat sounds. “It’s probably the autopilot” I tell myself in an attempt to release my mind and return to sleep. But instead my mind settles upon something a visitor to the boat once told me.
She first asked if there was any history of Westward having a spirit aboard. She then said that the ghost of a former captain was aboard because during the time he was master of Westward his life was complete, so when his living was finished he had returned. She went on to tell me that the captain is very pleased with what we have done to preserve the boat, and how we are introducing others to the wild places of the Pacific coast aboard her.
Westward’s spirit is benign. I hope. Perhaps even willing to wake a drowsing helmsman who has let his course wander toward danger? I doubt the good captain would be very handy with a sander or varnish brush, but just knowing that those who have sailed this fine vessel in her past still sail with her today is a boost to a weary sailor.
It occurs to me that even if ghosts don’t really exist, that the spirits of the hundreds of people who have been a part of Westward’s past are still part of the boat. The tens of thousands of focused hours have an impact, whether the focus was a pod of Orca’s or fitting a rod bearing; watching a glacier loose its’ edge to the sea or sanding the varnish on a window frame. So many people have looked out of these windows at the flexing ocean. Sometimes I feel them with me, watching for the first inkling of the dawn when we will share the relief of being able to see something beyond the reflecting dark glass of the pilot house windows other than our own wrinkled faces lit by the dim red glow of the binnacle light.