The Sea Is So Great...

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 8:45pm

The New Year came in on a dour note, wind-driven rain slamming the south-facing windows near the foot of my bed. I would not sleep, I knew, so I stayed up late, reading a book loaned to me several years ago. The bookmark was about four pages in, then I must have put it down before eventually giving it an “I will read you, truly, someday” place on a shelf.  It seemed I had been sick forever, the winter cold and everything else that is always “going around” and my normally slow reading pace had been accelerated.

It was late, deep into the morning by the clock,  the storm on the edge of abating when I finally went upstairs so it was correspondingly late when I first looked at the news on New Year's Day and saw that a fishing vessel had gone down in that terrible weather a few miles south of Block Island.

It is increasingly difficult to get local news; I had to cave and turn back to the radio station I abhor just for a mention that as of this writing the Coast Guard is still out, and has not shifted its mission from search to recovery.

I may or may not have seen the vessel, gone to the ocean floor, at port in Galilee, but I did not know it, nor the crew, the confirmed survivor and the others for whom the search continues, nor do I know any of the families, but I still cling to possibilities, of stories from the past, of miracles, in spite of the short days and proclamations of certainty of the worst on-line, from Maine to New Jersey at last glance. They cannot not all “know the facts,” these social media experts whose stories overlap and contradict each other.

It is January but the sun is shining, the day is short but it is clear, commercial fishing is now “only” the second most dangerous job — knocked off the top of the list a few years ago by logging. All the while I cannot erase the echo of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the soaring mariners' hymn we learned in grade school — probably because we lived on an island — in its original form — perhaps because our books were old.

It is sometime sung at funerals all the way from this little ocean-bound town to the grandest national stage, within the last year at services for a former President and a sitting Senator. It is a song I presume everyone knows and understands and embraces, even as I realize that a foolish delusion.

I hear airplane engines overhead, somewhere vaguely to the east but have no idea if they are search planes; it is an almost-still day, the wind slight, the ocean deceptively calm.

Today, there are but a few year-round fishing vessels home-ported here, more are summer and charter boats, an adaptation of an old industry. Someone compiled a list in 1961 of the active fleet; of the 17 listed only one was captained by a truly young man, who raised a large family with the income it provided. He was, among the fathers of my classmates, the sole one to be so occupied. I have vague memories of a few others, briefly here when I started school, the tail of the exodus of local fishermen to Galilee with hope for a better living.

My own father had fished when he was younger, a job and an adventure when they sailed to New York to sell their catch at Fulton's. An older fisherman told me one of my uncles had been the best mechanic he'd ever seen; I was not surprised, he left here and became a missile engineer. When I was little, there was still a fish market in the Old Harbor, a neighbor ran a few pots and brought us the occasional box of lobsters, trade for the raw skim milk he took for his pigs. Little boats, mostly painted some combination of green and white and black and a sort of muted orange, were moored in the outer basin, enough to fill a camera's frame and make a picturesque, romantic, postcard.

The industry flourished in Galilee, growing by leaps and bounds when we were young. Often someone would point out the boat on which an uncle or a one-time neighbor fished when we putted in on the old Sprigg Carroll on a school trip.

The big white boat passes my house almost everyday, on the far side of a field and a pond and a low hill. It appears and disappears as the land dips and swells. My elevation is not high, I lean over to look out a window and feel the horizon is at eye level. I see the odd, quickly disappearing wakes of the hi-speed ferries in summer and watch the stable winter vessels lurch, although it rarely appears a perilously journey.

It is not from my house or the Neck Road, but primarily from the hill on which the Harbor Church sits that I am most reminded of the old prayer “O God, thy sea is so great, my boat is so small” which was probably not intended to have solely the narrow interpretation I allow.

But, I have always lived on an island and it impacts my perception of the world more than I believe; our boundaries are so defined, where the ocean begins; this lost boat may be one of the ones I have loved in winter, white lights on black water out to the east. Or a sister.

The fishing vessels out of Point Judith seemed to get bigger every few years, as they went more and more miles offshore. They looked huge in port but, of course, they are all so small.

Night has fallen, the ocean and sky have melded into one darkness and the Coast Guard has suspended its search of that great sea.