>> Wednesday, October 24, 2012
“Poor old horse!” We sing in a jumbled chorus, slightly off-key. We are all dressed in our Sunday best, or as “best” as possible, given the fact that we are living in such close quarters and many of us have not taken a shower in at least several days. But it does not matter; happily gathering to take twenty minutes out of our hectic 24-hour schedule, we celebrate the passage of our first month at sea. The dead horse, made of two sheets of reusable paper bags stapled together, its mane made from pieces of twine, its eyes two black x’s, awaits its fate with apprehension.
The tradition of throwing the effigy of a dead horse is an old one. It dates back to the practice of shanghaiing sailors onto a boat against their better judgments. A crimp would drug the unlucky soon-to-be sailor using alcohol and opium. The sailor would wake up the next morning in the damp hold of a ship, with only the clothes he was wearing and a bad hangover, his first month of wages received in advance by the crimp. The sailor was essentially “buying a dead horse,” until, after a month of working for free, he and his peers would celebrate beginning to earn wages by throwing a replica of a dead horse overboard.
I grin as I see the word “dolphins” written in green on someone else’s slip of paper. We have been seeing so many dolphins that whenever we hear them spouting on a calm evening in port or watch them gracefully surfing the waves along the bow, our initial reaction is “again?!?!” I remember waking up sleepily for my 0000-0400 watch only to see everyone crouching over the rail. A dolphin was weaving in and out of the wake, leaving a trail a bioluminescent light, its fins outlined against the dark waters. How lucky we are to complain about seeing too many dolphins!
On another slip of paper I see the word “burrs” in capital letters. I remember I stay at Cumberland Island, where burrs would cling onto clothing, backpacks, the soles of flip flops…Understandably; we were not the most cautious. We crawled our way up the twisted branches of live oaks, handing upside down like clumsy excited sloths. We ran barefoot along the island’s white sands, maybe playing a game of pick-up soccer on the beach. We waded ankle-deep in the muddy shore, chasing and catching fiddler crabs. No wonder we got a little dirty, bringing back twigs, sand, mud, and of course, burrs.
I see a more personal note; someone has scribbled “fear of heights” on their slip of paper. We have recently started the race to becoming “aloft-cleared,” for which we have to pass a series of tests (how to tie knots, how to set or strike a sail, etc.), so that we can climb up the shrouds to the top of the masts without a crew member. I remember the thrill of seeing the boat grow smaller and smaller below me as I ascended, bringing one hand above the other then one foot above the other, breathing deeply. I clutch the shrouds more tightly as the boat rocks back, looking at the faces squinting up at me for reassurance. But any uneasiness disappears as I reach the top and marvel at the immensity of the ocean and the beauty of the small world that is our ship.
I look down again at my blank slip of paper and smiling, I write “family-style dinners.” We were recently tricked into a bread roll ambush on the pretext that we were having a family-style dinner and should all squish into the main salon. Muttering variations of “never again,” we resolved ourselves to the fact that “we were not a family.”
We watch as the dead horse is twirled over our heads and is thrown into the ocean. It floats along the surface and disappears out of sight as we race on to our next adventure. I know that though it has only been a month, we are a family, even if I will not admit to it.