Coming full circle

The view astern of the research vessel Rachel K. Goodwin while at sea.Photo by Mike Martel

Winter 2023

By Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

In “Ulysses,” Tennyson penned, “And this gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

And I, growing older and 100 miles offshore, ponder how I will continue questing.

After a week at sea, I was happy to be returning to port. My journey had taken me out to the edge of the Gulf Stream – not into it, but so close that the warmth and humidity made the air around the boat feel sultry and close.

The sea had taken on a deeper shade of blue with every mile we’d traveled out, and the wispy, scudding clouds, reminiscent of the tropics, were hanging low, seemingly just above our heads. Dorsal fins had occasionally sliced through the smooth seas, and I’d nearly expected to see fan-shaped bursts of flying fish emerge from the glare of the surface, but we were too far north for that.

Now, a few days later, returning to familiar waters, it was a joy to see Boston Light welcoming us home. We passed through a quick thundersquall with rain, wind and lightning as we left the grim sentinel of Minots Ledge Light behind us, and after the storm had passed, the sun came out. As we rounded up into Quincy Bay at day’s end, a rainbow broke out over Point Allerton against the backdrop of blue-black clouds.

I had answered an advertisement on a lark and, by sheer timing and good fortune, found myself signed onto a Boston-based research vessel as professional crew for a week-long trip to the edge of the Continental Shelf. The company needed a crewman aboard with a master’s license, so my papers became my passport to a temporary job.

We carried a cargo of marine scientists and equipment in addition to our sparse crew. When I wasn’t handling lines or standing helm watches – 6 a.m. to noon, and then 6 p.m. to midnight – I managed to take a few photos; the work was not hard. We ate decently and regularly ­– the ship had a cook, and he was a good one.

Our trip took us 100 miles southeast from Montauk, the easternmost end of Long Island, to a place known as Block Canyon. We sailed from Quincy to New London, Conn., to load researchers and hi-tech undersea survey equipment, then south from Montauk to the edge of the Continental Shelf. It was a working adventure and, in retrospect, perhaps the most therapeutic thing I have done for myself in years.

This was nothing like skippering sailboat deliveries; it was a lot like my Coast Guard experience more than 40 years earlier. In the interim, I’d had very little experience similar to this trip.

In the warm, humid summer night, a hundred miles at sea, the stars burned as singular points, shining brightly despite the haze, and the Milky Way, seldom visible from my backyard at home, now blazed a luminous girdle across the sky.

This was awesome to behold, its magnificence alone discouraging idle talk among those few of us passing the time outside on the upper deck at night. We shut off the deck lights as we rocked in the gentle swells. The whole sea of stars above and the bright belt of the Milky Way stood out so brightly and seemed so close that it almost seemed possible to reach up and grab a handful of celestial bodies. I held onto a railing.

We were stopped in the water, hove-to as we would be until dawn, for the second night of calm seas while we tracked the comings and goings of two dimly lit floating electronic sensors called gliders, each one no larger than a kayak. They resembled large surfboards, with flat, solar-cell-covered tops almost flush with the surface of the water. These devices were part of our vessel’s weeklong offshore mission.

We were somewhere over Block Canyon, a deep cut into the downward slope of the end of the Continental Shelf, the closest truly deep water to New London, the operational home of the half-dozen marine scientists aboard. We bobbed at the surface, over the lower end of the slope, in some 500 fathoms of water, an unimaginable 3,000 feet below the vessel. Down at the bottom, the slope continues down to 1,000 fathoms – the abyss – and icy blackness. Deeper yet, and many distant miles to the north, the wreck of the RMS Titanic sleeps some 13,000 feet beneath the surface.

The sea was calm, as calm as it ever gets that far out, and yet it was not still; the sea, like the soul of man, is never still but always undulating and rolling with crosscurrents. We were alone, without another vessel or even a plane or contrail in sight. But we were visited once by a whale, once by some sharks, and more than once by a pod of dolphins that leaped out of the water a short distance away, presumably to get a better look at us.

The Gulf Stream follows the curve of the shelf. Since we were so close to the Stream, I hoped to see flying fish emerge from the sea in front of our bow, or the iridescent blue and white bubbles of Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish dotting the surface; or perhaps dolphins beneath the bow, effortlessly keeping pace with the forward motion of the ship, as I had often seen decades before beneath the bow of our Coast Guard ship underway in the Gulf of Mexico.

Such memories took me back almost 50 years, to the time when I was a young seaman. I felt, for a moment, a twinge of excitement, of joy, a thrill of discovery much like I once knew. I was transported back to the Gulf, with its glaring hot sun and shimmering seas. But then, just as I began to indulge in a daydream of memory, the dream-bubble burst; the fantasy was gone, and I was back in the present again.

There were no flying fish, no jellyfish, no dolphins, orcas, or pilot whale. And the young seaman that I had recalled being moments earlier was now a spindly older man hanging onto a steel railing because he simply didn’t have the balance anymore to navigate a rolling deck without a handhold.

That, I realized, was something that had begun haunting me on this trip since its start – the meaninglessness of time with advancing age. Moving forward and backward in time is possible in the mind. Moving backward is easy, as soothing as a memory; forward, or returning to the present, is often neither easy nor comfortable. You remember what things used to be like.

Somewhere in Paul Hendrickson’s book, “Hemingway’s Boat,” during an interview with an aged Gregory “Gigi” Hemingway, Ernest’s tragic youngest son, I recall Gigi saying something to the effect that all older people essentially live in the past. It is an uncomfortable thought, hauntingly true, perhaps.

Thinking of life as a metaphorical library, experience takes our lives from a book or two at the start to a full-fledged reference center in old age. Within those corridors and aisles, it is easy to become lost and disoriented.

When I boarded the research vessel, I could no longer “hop” aboard like I had once been able to, and this bothered me. I worried that I would fail at being a seaman. But that was because, in my mind, I had drifted back to 1975. All that I had become or done in my entire career became an insignificant wisp of smoke in the wind; I felt insecure.

I had to shake myself. I reasoned, you’re only making this trip for fun, for a small beer-money check. It does not define you. You run a successful small business, you’re semi-retired, and you’ve had a good career. So who cares if this trip does not work out to your expectations? This isn’t what you do for a living, and it hasn’t been so for almost 50 years.

And yet it does define me. Like Everyman, I can’t bring my achievements, certificates, or honors of the past 40-odd years along to help me survive the day. They are vapor. Yet every error, failure, or mistake from the past is sitting in the audience, annoyingly vocal – yet only I can hear their voices. I shake myself and feel a wave of dizziness. All that matters now, I tell myself, is the length of rope in my hand, the rail that I’m holding onto, and making certain I can perform the task assigned without being swept overboard. That would certainly end this fond daydream, I thought grimly.

Over the course of a week out there, several times I had to break out of the mindset that I was a young, inexperienced seaman who could, at any moment, be barked at by a Chief Bosun’s Mate for screwing up, but nobody was going to bark at me, I finally realized. I was older than any of them, but it took days for me to shake that thought because I knew I was physically less capable than the young crew members, and I felt inferior.

The boat had two captains aboard: John, a young fellow, was the primary captain. Bill, nearer in age to me, was second in command. Bill was stocky, bald, rough in both speech and humor, and we got along very well, probably due to our closeness in age. His wisecrack fatalism made me chuckle. I bent forward to pick up a length of fire hose from the deck during an exercise. Standing beside me, he grinned, noting my stiffness in reaching down. “As we get older, it [the deck] gets farther and farther away,” he observed, making me laugh.

Somewhere between Block Canyon and Nantucket Shoals, on the way to a survey site, a pod of dolphins approached us and began leaping into the air. They were exhilarating to watch. They swam under us and away from the opposite side of the ship into the distance. I watched them as they disappeared. They did not return.

I returned from the trip refreshed. The sea always remains the same, changing always and yet unchanging in the larger sense. In comparison, we mortals do not endure for long. But even after the ravages of the years, we are drawn back to the salt sea, having been once-smitten, and we find ourselves crawling back to the wet edge of the strand forevermore, as long as we are able.

Capt. Mike Martel sails out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.