Captain's Orders | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

Captain's Orders

Author fetching Rabaul in 50-knot squall -Thea Mortell photo



by William Thomas



Thea has never been on a boat before. “That’s excellent,” I assure her, before casting off from Degnen Bay’s government wharf for our mutual first sail aboard a trimaran.

“You have no bad habits to unlearn. Don’t worry about the jargon. You’ll pick it up through osmosis. Right now, the only two things you need to know are: if you see anything that concerns you underway – a drifting log, another boat – sing out! The only foolish question is the one you don’t ask.


“And if I give an order, you must carry it out immediately. Even if it makes no sense – do it, then ask me later. Your life may depend on it.”


Thea nods, shivering from excitement and December’s cold. Neither of us can guess that four years later, closing an unfamiliar Fijian coast, her instant response to an apparently crazy command will save us from violent shipwreck.


Together we sway up the new Macken mainsail, crackling like the snow underfoot, followed by the triangular headsail and smaller inner-stays’l. The breeze grabs its new toy. And we gather way.


Feeling a lover stir under your hand is the closest sensation to the tiller’s first response as our backyard creation awakens from dreams of cedar, Dacron and powder glue… gathers the wind… and takes off.


A local bystander will later remark on what a treat we looked short-tacking up Degnen’s narrow entrance, three sails thundering through each pirouette until tamed with a skirl of winches. In these rockbound confines, a single misstep could wreck our new boat. But Thea handles the colour-coded jibsheets with the surety of a 12-metre veteran.


Minutes later, with the broad expanse of Trincomali Channel opening before us, the stripped-out, engineless Kismet is sailing fast, one outrigger flying, everything strapped in tight.


Stoked on speed, Thea and I share the helm. “See how I’m pushing the tiller the opposite way I want the bow to go,” I instruct. The mate looks uncertain. “Okay. You take it.”


Anticipating a novice’s confusion to such counterintuitive directions as steering away from the intended turn, I smile at our sinuous wake.


“It looks like the land is moving,” Thea exclaims in wonder.


“That’s the perspective ancient Polynesians used to navigate their double-canoes,” I compliment her. “For now, focus on your course. See the white house on that point? Aim for that.”


The next time I look, our wake has straightened out. Thank the goddess, I silently exult. She was born to this.


“You were born to this,” I tell Thea. In all the years to come the only persons I will encounter who steer Celerity as intuitively as myself are Thea and a shy dolphin-eyed woman for an hour off Kyushu.   


By then, I will know well a captain’s gut-clenching prerogative to retain the helm and tell the person he holds dearest to clip on and go forward on a pitching deck in heavy gusts and wild seas to furl and lash the headsail. Only mutual trust and my willingness to reverse these tasks allows me to give that command. And for Thea to carry it out.


 发件人     William Thomas 2019