If A Mermaid Came

“What is it like to sail in the ocean overnight?” a friend asked. “I can’t even imagine doing that.”

I’ll try to explain.

The easy answer is that it’s merely an extension of sailing during the day. You don’t stop driving your car at sunset, for example. The streetlights come on and your eyesight adjusts. You have to stay awake, but the road, the signs, and the distance to your destination remain the same. Similarly, you ride your bike and take walks after dark, and with the right companion by your side, it can be romantic and exhilarating.

On the other hand, sailing, like almost every other activity, is more dangerous at night, especially in bad weather.  Then, sailing through the dark is wet, cold and scary. The wind is fierce, the waves are high, and your stomach is knotted with anxiety. It’s even more harrowing should you have an injury and/or equipment failure. Jumping into action on a thrashing boat when you can barely see what you’re doing is heart-pounding. All you can do is try to get the situation under control, then trust your boat and take each wave as it comes. There’s some comfort in knowing that every storm passes eventually.

Perhaps the scariest part, however, is that thanks to human imagination, and no matter what you’re doing, nighttime just feels more dangerous. What might be lurking out there that we can’t see? Even on a calm night at sea, I always experience a primitive feeling of relief when the first glimmer of dawn appears on the horizon. There are no monsters under the bed come morning.

But sometimes, sometimes, sailing at night is bliss, and when that happens—as it did for us one night in the Bahamas—it goes like this:

The wind is steady at your back at 15-18 knots, the sails are full, and the boat is skipping along. Even in the Bahamas, it’s cool enough to need a jacket, yet the breeze feels soft on your face. The waves are small, 2-3 feet, and the whitecaps are like swirls of white frosting on a birthday cake. The full moon rises as you set sail and keeps you company all night. So the sky never really gets dark, just gray. It’s like having your own personal nightlight.

The moon itself is the color of pale honey, and it dapples a golden pathway across the sea. Miles offshore, in deep water, there are no worries about rocks, reefs or shoals and not another boat in sight. The ocean belongs to you and you alone. You mind the wheel, watch the compass, hold your course. In a way, it’s haunting. Time seems to dissolve around you, yet you must stay awake. So you watch the moonlight on the water and you envision a mermaid swimming along it, rising up like a dolphin on its tail to look you in the eye…

In an instant, the whole scene became quite real. I started composing a poem about it, and I tried to write it down. The moonlight wasn’t bright enough to see what I was scribbling, however, and in any case I had to keep my eyes on the ocean and my hands on the wheel. My only recourse was to memorize it as I went, which kept me wide awake and my brain occupied until it was Eric’s turn to come on deck.  

In the morning, between the rhymes and my scribbles, this poem was the result. Don’t expect great literature. It was two a.m., after all. But it does explain what it’s like to be out sailing in the ocean on a rare and perfect night.

If a Mermaid Came

I would ask her what she eats
Sea cucumbers on a bed of kelp
Oysters on the half shell
Deep-fried whelk

I would ask if she has a comb
To tame her wave-tossed hair
A purse in which to keep it
A barrette or two to spare

I would ask, Does she have a boyfriend
Who appreciates her charms?
Her sparkling emerald scales
Her slender white arms
And where, by the way,
Do baby mermaids come from?

We’d talk of girlish things
Until the breath of dawn
Then she’d flip her glittering tail
Dive deep and be gone

Leaving on my cheek
A kiss of salt spray
And a final question on my lips
Now too late to say

Does she know she is a myth
A creature who cannot be?
Was I as real to her
As she was to me?