Voyage of the Invader

by Louise Omwake Eckerson

Chapter 2

n the first evening, still within sight of land, our nautical education began.  Jack was giving the orders and Ed was at the helm while I kibitzed.  The sails were spilling the wind.  Ed turned the wheel but still the sails flapped.  My kibitzing changed to action.  Quickly Ed and I pulled the wheel in the opposite direction and the point on the compass began to climb.  Hell had broken loose and the sails were noisily objecting.  Something was very wrong.  A shout came from Jack: “Turn her to starboard.”  Neither Ed nor I had ever been at a ship’s helm before, and we were in the act of jibing before we knew what the word meant.  We reversed the turn of the wheel and learned our first lesson: when you want to go right, turn left.

Within the hour the first seasick casualty was reported.  June, the legal secretary, went below deck to her bunk in the girls’ dorm and remained there for the next week.  Bud, the student from Williams College, was the next victim.  Others followed.  Everyone was too proud to mention sea sickness, but it was a secret that couldn’t be kept for long.  I felt strong and experienced as a sailor, never having quite succumbed to the malady on freighters.  I was sorry for those who couldn’t take the roll of the ship.  I hoped it would not incapacitate any more of us, that the wind would steady the Invader’s keel, and that morning would bring a return of health.  As these thoughts were passing through my mind, the green devil was getting me too.  I didn’t tell Ed and stayed at the wheel.  Soon it wasn’t necessary to tell anyone.  As an early victim I learned the steps: first, a strong determination to fool the foe with deep breathing and mock cheerfulness; second, a plunge toward the rail; third, a brief respite as one returns to the group feeling sheepish but disguising it with grins.

Had I at that time read By Way of Cape Horn, by A. J. Villiers, a veteran of sailing ships, I would surely have lost heart.  On his three-month voyage from Australia to England, he learned the trials faced by sailors of old square-riggers.  Wrote Villiers: “Seasickness is a horrible thing about which no one can do anything save fight it.  It cannot be overcome in a sailing ship.”  Those are strong, discouraging words, but they are true.  Half of us became initial victims of the deep ground swells of the Pacific.  Five of us never became immune.  On the sail going west there was no letup in the swells that carried the Invader up on a crest and let her down on the other side.  We saw no white-capped waves, but the gray ocean produced giant undulations that quietly gained height and smoothed themselves out before the next watery hill was formed.  The Invader rode the waves and dropped with them.  Inside me, the motion evoked a feeling akin to the sensation that one feels when a fast moving elevator stops suddenly.  My elevator did twenty-four-hour duty as the motion of the Pacific remained unchanged for the entire eighteen days of the westward voyage.

The winds grew stronger as night descended and the shore became more distant.  “All hands on deck,” Jack yelled.  “We’re changing tack.”  Our men had been given a brief theoretical course in changing tack by a neighboring skipper while we were in Newport.  That July evening provided the test of their nautical learning.

Alone on the Pacific as the winds blew, I sensed the cold reality of our situation.  The men, five of them college boys and one below college age, were inexperienced.  Only one of them, Jack, had changed tack before.  The heavy boom had to be swung from port to starboard.  The willing but unschooled crew were hanging onto the ropes.  The ship was tossing.  At the wheel, Jack was bringing her about.  It seemed a terrible possibility that Bud or Joe or Marvin might be thrown overboard in the process.

I watched them clinging to ropes, being jerked off the deck as the ship dipped on one side, swinging occasionally until solid deck came under them.  I wondered how strong they were and could the ropes be trusted?  There was no guardrail midships.  What would prevent a large groundswell catching them off guard and tossing them into the ocean?  The night was dark and without stars.  We hadn’t experimented with the lifeboats.  A sailing vessel cannot be turned around on short notice.  One of us might slip on a wet deck and plunge overboard.  Yes, that could happen.  Balance is not easily maintained on a deck that rises and falls with such uneven motions.

From 17-year-old George, later dubbed “The Little Captain,” to 50ish Van, “the mystery man,” we were on our own.  No warnings were given; no rules were made, except that liquor was forbidden, but we all knew that our lives and welfare depended on our own good common sense.  The fate of the summer cruise hung on our collective judgment and this judgment was on trial.  So that first night, as the winds blew and the sails flapped and our inexperienced men clung to the ropes, I caught a glimpse of the serious risks in this adventure.  I fervently hoped that the sun would shine tomorrow and keep on shining.

Changing Tack: 12:00

Changing Tack: 12:30

Changing Tack: 1:00

Changing Tack: 1:30

Jack called for changing tack several times that night and the next day, and soon changing tack became the routine.  When the winds shifted, with need for a corresponding shift in the angle of the sails, the girls were the cheering squad while the men did the work.  At night we could be of service with our flashlights, or we could hold an unruly piece of canvas close to the boom until someone tied a gasket around it as the sail was furled.  Although all of us were signed on as “crew,” most of the credit for able seamanship belonged, deservedly, to the men.

“First watch, come and get it!”  The invitation to breakfast was extended in blunt, un-nautical jargon.  Watch II had to dress in a hurry in order to serve Watch I on the first shift.  The two watches—under Jack and Ed—had been organized while we were still on land.  As with fraternities, an esprit de corps blossomed among the members of each watch, friendships evidenced by their close associations on and off duty.  I was on Ed’s Watch II.  My galley duties included breakfast chores.  It was not easy to drag myself from the bunk with a whirling head and a stomach threatening to erupt and take orders for prunes, fried, boiled, or scrambled eggs, French toast or pancakes, tea or coffee.  The ship was rolling and the dishes played tag over the slick oilcloth-covered table.  Steps were not steady and spills occurred.  The bunk back in Cabin I looked good to me.  “Be a good sport,” I whispered to myself and as cheerfully as possible as I solicited the next order for eggs.  As Watch I dribbled sleepily in, there was time for short breaths of fresh air at the companionway.  I inhaled deeply and returned to face food with a little more courage.  During the first four days, many of the Invader’s crew shared my feelings.  Breakfast was not a hilarious affair in spite of Ben’s culinary skills.

As time passed, the French toast became an object of daily scrutiny.  It started out bravely as big generous slices, competing with Ben’s enormous pancakes.  After several days, it began an Alice-in-Wonderland act by degrees.  Each day it shrank a little until it was about two inches square.  By the twelth morning our French toast could no longer hold its own.  Ben had been slicing mold off for several days until he could no longer salvage enough bread to transform it into French toast.  So the pancakes won the contest, and fish in the ocean feasted on three dozen loaves of moldy bread.

When I read about galley chores in the SITA brochure, they sounded wholesomely attractive—that sporting type of nautical activity that makes a traveler into a tar.  They offered the opportunity to be useful in an elementary sort of way, preventing one from becoming totally lazy during a pleasure cruise.  A “cooperative voyage” with the passengers serving as crew had its appeal, a romantic touch adding to the spirit of the adventure.  But in a brochure you don’t feel the roll of the ship, the vibrations of the motor, the smell of the galley.

After breakfast we went on deck to see what promises the first day held for us.  The morning was dull and damp.  Rain was on the way.  It did not appear propitious, but we refrained from putting such pessimistic thoughts into words.  As we looked around, everyone was accounted for except June.  She found her bunk indispensable and remained there while the rest of us reported for duty on deck, in the galley, and at the helm.  While the men continued to do repair jobs begun in Newport, we tried to orient ourselves to our new environment.

What should we expect in the next two months?  What was in store for us? What about the rumors that Japan would attack Hawaii?  Nebulous, vague fears had no place in our optimistic minds.  War was not a major topic of conversation.  We had left talk of war and politics on land, along with the everyday worries and fears that make people wish something hadn’t happened or hope something won’t happen.  Our year’s contribution had been made to seriousness, dignity, and conventionality.  We were eager to dispense with world-shaking problems and much of formality.  Our agenda was to bask in the sun, to forget the past, and indulge in the present.

The SITA brochure had urged us “to leave the turmoil of civilization and return to the peace and beauty of Polynesian culture . . .”  We were on our way.  Tomorrow would bring the sun.

(We were at sea for a couple of weeks without benefit of radio—our receiving set had gone dead after two days and we never had a sending set.  We saw no other ships on the crossing, and the thought occurred to us that war news might have sent radio-equipped vessels to the nearest ports.)

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Voyage of the Invader Chapter Index

Introduction  Chapter 1  Chapter 2  Chapter 3  Chapter 4  Chapter 5  Chapter 6  Chapter 7  Chapter 8

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