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[Essay] A Quarantine-Induced Throwback: August 1977

by Harry Gordon

Fumbling through old pictures while waiting out the pandemic, I came across this one of me taken forty-three years ago. If I look worried here, it’s because I am only thirty-three and in the middle of the Pacific at the helm of a 37-foot, cutter-rigged trimaran in foul weather and really don’t know what I am doing. That’s the compass atop the binnacle in front of me, and I’m reasonably sure the course would have been 180, due south.

It was the summer of 1977 that my former English teacher and football coach, the late Ted Toomay, invited me to join him and his crew of two others on a sail from Oceanside, California, to Tahiti by way of the Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands (Google them). At Chaffey High School in Ontario, California, fifteen years earlier, Ted had assigned me to read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, a story of a somewhat more famous voyage to the South Pacific, so I looked at this as a way of completing the assignment.

The sail to Polynesia included many indelible moments. There was a wild boar hunt in the highlands of the Marquesas Islands, Saint Elmo’s fire glowing menacingly in our rigging, cracking along at twelve knots before following seas as high as Mack Trucks; elegant, leaping dolphins; and that ghostly, lunar rainbow. At an invisible point of longitude and latitude just east of the Marquesas, we would have, for a moment only, occupied the same watery space that Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki had in 1947, a little fantasy I still carry with me. But much of the voyage was a grind of long night watches, days upon days of mal de mer, and wet, mildewed discomfort. A small, simple sailboat in a massive ocean never stops moving, of course, often in painful, jarring ways.

And there is a special kind of loneliness that comes over you during a solo midnight watch, when you remember that the distance to the nearest solid earth in any direction is about the same as that from LA to Saint Louis—sobering when you remember that this was pre-GPS and that we were navigating with what amounted to eighteenth century technology: a sextant and a clock.

A few degrees north of the equator after two weeks at sea, unstable weather turned the Pacific into a washing machine. The wind came up in our face, preventing us from making our heading, so we spent two long days beating through a watery obstacle course and bailing out the starboard float, which was taking on water. I stood my watches in foul-weather gear, alternately steering, throwing up in a bucket, and reflecting darkly on the fact that Ted had built this boat in his own backyard. This was not the romantic adventure I’d signed on for.

We had no hot water and nothing with which to bath, so when squalls scudded over us, we would hurriedly strip down, soap up, and hope the downpour lasted long enough for a complete rinse.

We took turns cooking, but it was tough in a rocking galley with no refrigeration, so the food was often from cans. I missed my son, and after two months of forced proximity, my mates—good fellows though they were—were getting on my nerves; it felt like quarantine. By the time we got to the penultimate stop on our voyage, Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, 180 miles north of Tahiti, I needed a moment.

I asked Ted to row me ashore. I planned to spend the afternoon alone hiking the atoll. As I sat at the end of the pier lacing my shoes, a handsome man dressed in crisp, white linen and carrying a martini walked down from the lush Kia Ora Resort just up from the coral beach. Grizzled, dirty, and rumpled, I must have looked to him like a Devil’s Island fugitive.

He told me that he was vacationing with his wife from South Africa, at which point he turned and indicated a nearby over-the-water bungalow. On its balcony, his wife, a dark-haired beauty wrapped in a sarong stood holding what I took to be a Bloody Mary while a white-clad servant arranged lunch behind her. Envy swelled in my heart like a wet sponge suddenly submerged in water.

“Are you off that boat?” he asked, pointing to our trimaran looking now like a big, beautiful gull floating alone in the lagoon, the water as clear and blue as liquid air.

“Yes,” I said bitterly, “and happy to be.” I explained that we’d been two months crossing five thousand miles of open ocean by way of the Marquesas.

He made an odd sound, just this side of a grunt.

“God,” he said, “how I envy you.”

Harry Gordon is a former newspaper reporter and teacher living in Long Beach, California. His work has appeared in the Concho River Review, Worcester Review, and the Southwestern American Literature.


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