‘Spineless’ Sam – a sea story

Spring 2023

By David Roper

It could be his last night on earth. But twenty-seven year old Sam Martin doesn’t know that yet. It’s 9:35 pm. Saturday, January 5, 2004. It’s 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind is gusty and southwest. Sam is sitting on his usual stool in the Perkins Wharf Marina waterfront bar.

Sam is looking at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. It’s his only choice, really, other than to stare down into his rum and ginger beer drink. A sad soul staring down into a Dark and Stormy, he thinks. How appropriate. He sees that his reflection in the mirror doesn’t show him completely–the bottles of Cutty Sark, Gilbey’s Gin, Gosling’s and Myers rum cut off part of him, taking the place of his lower body, as if the bottles are holding him up.

Sam thinks that he probably should stop drinking, at least in the bar, because he fears his strangled credit card can’t handle even one more drink. Still, when Scotty the bartender drifts back toward him, lifts his chin and says, “Spin you up another?” Sam nods back. “Why not.”

Scotty turns and reaches for the Gosling’s rum bottle. “My feelings exactly, especially in this weather.” He shakes his head while reaching up for a fresh glass. “Must be crazy on that boat you live on, huh? Rockin’ like crazy. Freezin’ like crazy.” He fills the glass with ice cubes, reaches into the cooler and pulls out a ginger beer, adds half the can, then tops the glass off with the rum before squeezing in a half lime. “What you need is someone to keep you warm out there, pal,” he says, handing Sam the drink.

Sam shakes his head. “She’s in Portland.”

“Then go to her!”

“My car’s shot. Plus, things haven’t been going too good with her lately.”

Scotty nods. An obligatory nod. He doesn’t feel anything for Sam, really. He just wants to be home, curled up with his video games. There won’t be any tips tonight; no one else is going to venture out in this weather, even on a Saturday night. He glances out the window: snow is racing by, as if late for something, or fleeing some unseen adversary.

Sam takes a slug of his Dark and Stormy. He thinks of Sylvia (he always thinks of Sylvia). Why does this always happen to me? He’s still sober enough to sense a pattern in his life. But he sees only the pattern, not the reason behind it. If he’d been in front of a Jungian psychologist instead of Scotty, it might be suggested that his Anima is not integrated, which might explain why he does not take action with the world. Why he seems to have no courage. Why he overreacts to slights and confrontations. Why he is not appropriate in his actions. Why he can’t find the energy to get things done. All that would ring a bell to Sam, because, more or less, that’s what Silvia – and a few other women, now that he thinks about it – have said. The psychologist might have gone on to tell him that his typical relationships would lean towards “Animus hounds,” those types who know it all and make all the decisions in a relationship. But right now, on this night of January 5, 2004, this is something Sam Martin does not know.

There are also several facts that Sam does not know, facts that will have a crucial bearing on his future over the next seven hours:

The two old twelve volt batteries on his boat have already lost 70% of their strength due to the cold; the cell phone in his pocket is at 17% charge; the alternator belt on his boat’s engine is frayed and close to breaking; the threads on the valve on his portable propane cabin heater–his back up to the electric heater powered by the dock’s shore power–are nearly stripped; and, perhaps most importantly, at 43° 14’ 01” N / 70° 27’ 04” W, the buoy line of a 12-trap offshore lobster trawl floats too close to the surface of the sea.

Sam Morris doesn’t know any of this. Nor would he think, at what is now 10:14 p.m., that it would have any importance. He only knows he is miserable.

He will call her again. Tonight. Not here, though. Not in front of Scotty, but on his boat, where he’s the king of his castle. He’ll face up to her criticisms, defend himself, profess his love.

At 10:25 p.m. Sam hands Scotty his credit card, crosses his fingers under the bar as he watches Scotty run it through the card reader. When he sees it’s approved, Sam puts on his down jacket, signs the tab, adds a meager tip, and tells Scotty to have a good night. He hurries out before Scotty looks at the tip.

Sam is surprised by the power of the storm as he makes his way down the steep gangway. The blowing snow melts as it crashes onto his face; his mittened hands slide while trying to grip the round metal railings on the gangway. On the dock below he almost falls on the snow-slickened surface. Then he does fall. It maddens him. He feels like a fool, but he’s glad no one is around. He sees himself, a drunk on his back on a dock in the midst of a snowstorm. So, this is what you are, what you’ve become, he thinks. He closes his eyes, starts to float off. But then, in what’s left of the rational part of his mind, he thinks, even with the howling wind, something’s missing. Some other sound is missing. Then he realizes the noisy bubblers used for melting the ice around the marina boats have stopped. It dawns on him that the power is out. For how long, he wonders.

He pulls himself up and works his way over to his sailboat. He hurriedly flips open a corner of the canvas tent covering Sea Spirit’s cockpit. There is very little spring to her as he steps aboard, and he knows she’s mostly frozen in already. Scrunching under the canvas covering the cockpit, his back hits the tarp and causes a mini avalanche, pouring snow down under his coat and shirt, which slides down his bare back. It all causes him to move too quickly, and he slips on the dusting of snow which has blown in onto the varnished teak grate on the cockpit sole. He lands in a lump in the cockpit well. On the outer edge of his mind, he’s already thinking he’ll freeze to death if he doesn’t get below.

At the forefront of his mind, though, is the dreaded Sesame lock, a temperamental sentry that secures the hatch boards and blocks his entrance into the cabin. He knows from experience that it may or may not be frozen solid. Through his thick rag sock mittens, he fumbles with the tumblers, carefully moving the last one up just one notch, which he knows should be the right combination. No good. He’s really shivering now. He thinks of the book his middle school students are reading. A line from “To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s classic Yukon story where the central character slowly freezes to death, pops into his mind: “It certainly is cold, the man thought”. He pulls the little Mag lite out of his coat and shines its weak beam on the tumbler numbers of the lock. They’re correct. Sam blows hot breath on them. He pulls again. Frozen. In desperation he grabs a winch handle and bashes the lock. It opens.

He enters the cabin; he’s surprised it’s not warm. It’s even darker than usual down below deck as both hatches and all six bronze ports are blocked with wind-packed snow. He grabs the Mag lite again and points its weakening glow toward the hook where he knows he’ll find the butane lighter to light the back-up propane cabin heater. His mittens off now, he fumbles with the heater valve with one hand and pulls the trigger on the lighter with the other. In a poof the most wonderful orange glow springs to life. Sam bows over the heater as if it’s a shrine, palms out, just above the burner.

A shot of rum from the Myers bottle warms him further.

He dials Sylvia. Voicemail. He dials again. Voicemail. He dials a third time. Voicemail. He doesn’t bother to leave a message. He knows she won’t listen to them. He tries the text route: Sylvia, if you’re not listening to my voicemails, I know you can see this: I only need to talk for two minutes and then I’ll leave you alone. I’ll call now, so please, please pick up. He dials her again. She picks up, third ring.

“What?”

“Hi Sylvia…well, so, how are you?”

“Sam, just get to the point. For once.”

He gulps for courage. “I just don’t understand your behavior.”

“My behavior?”

“Why are you so nasty to me? Why so controlling?”

“You need to grow up. Take some responsibility for your life.”

Sam takes another slug from the bottle. “You know, I’ve been through some pretty tough–”

“Oh, pleaseeee. You just don’t get it, do you? We’ve been through this a million times.”

“I don’t know why it’s so tough…I mean, I don’t know why I can’t…I don’t … I don’t know what I need.”

“You need therapy. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You need to take control. Even your eighth grade students push you around, for God’s sake.”

“What?”

“Make a decision. Do something. Be a hero.”

“What? I mean, how? What decision?”

“The decision to run your own life, instead of letting your boss, your students, your mother, and me run it, for Christ’s sake. Don’t let life run you.”

“It’s just been so…” Sam stops there. He doesn’t know what to say. There’s silence on the line. He wonders if Sylvia has hung up.

“Sylvia?”

“Don’t be spineless, Sam.”

“But I don’t–”

“You’ve used up your two minutes, Sam. Time’s up.”

Click.

Sam leans back on the bunk. He stares at the center hatch above him. A gust leans Sea Spirit over onto the encroaching, slowly hardening cradle of ice. The frozen seawater makes an eerie grinding sound as it moves back and forth on his boat’s hull, lifted by the ocean surge that flows into the marina. The boat’s halyards ping angrily against the aluminum mast in the strong southwest wind, as if nagging Sam to do something.

Make a decision. Take control. Be a hero. Her words echo.

He thinks: following southwest wind…and only about 40 miles northeast to Portland… autopilot can steer…me on deck just once and awhile to check on things, then back into the cabin, to the propane heat and maybe a quick pull from the rum bottle to warm back up. Five to six knots all the way. Be there in seven hours. Piece of cake.

He takes another slug of rum and smiles. It’s his first smile in a long time. He thinks: sailing to Silvia in a winter storm. I can do this…tie up in South Portland at dawn at the public dock under the bridge, the decks covered in snow and ice…call her and tell her to come to breakfast. She’ll see what I did to come to her. She’ll be amazed. He nods confidently. A decision made. Control. A hero.

Sam Martin does not know this is all the height of foolishness, because his rational mind is not in control. Instead, it is driven by the power and confluence of two things: the basic human need to be loved and a science called ‘alcohol courage”– a term originating in the 17th century, where soldiers heading to the front lines to face cannons and gunfire were given a good dose of gin to boost their confidence. Physiologically speaking, inside Sam at the moment a liposoluble neurotropic substance penetrates his blood-brain barrier and inhibits his central nervous system functions, his brain releasing a flood of dopamine, making him feel confident and powerful, reducing his inhibitions and fears, and building courage. But it is also affecting his judgement, increasing his likelihood of making impulsive decisions.

Sam pulls himself up from the bunk and begins putting on his warmest winter clothes. Normally, if he were sober, when headed out to sea he would have gone through a pre-departure check list: full engine check, course input on the GPS with alternative and ‘fall back’ courses also programmed in, steering systems check, rigging check, final weather check, and float plan filed.

But Sam does none of this. Instead, he hurries on deck to start the engine.

This is part 1 of a two-part series.

David Roper’s upcoming novel, “The Ghosts of Gadus Island,” is scheduled for publication next year. Dave is the author of the three-time bestseller “Watching for Mermaids,” as well as the sequel “Beyond Mermaids” and the novel “Rounding the Bend.” All are available through Amazon.com or roperbooks.com.