Voyage of the Invader

by Louise Omwake Eckerson

Chapter 4

ow about a little bait, Ben?  Have you got something for this hook,” queried Van, our Isaac Walton.  “The ocean must be full of fish and we’ll have some for dinner.”  Had Ben pictured himself cleaning fish for 20 hungry appetites, he might have recommended solitaire for Van’s solo entertainment instead of fishing.  Equipped with hat and pipe, Van introduced a sport that continued to be popular with him throughout the round trip, a diversion that offered a maximum of inactivity, a game for which it wasn’t necessary to have rules or provide turns of play. Maybe fish swim across the ocean in a direct line like steamships.  There weren’t any fish in our waters.  Van tried different bait, depths, locations, and speeds but the ocean was just as empty of fish as it was of ships.

In addition to fishing, wild game hunting became a sport for a couple of days.  We were below deck one evening when we heard a deafening commotion above us.  This was no storm, but lifeboats seemed to be rocking, oil cans sounded as if they were rolling back and forth across the deck, men were running frantically to and fro, and voice were raised above the din.  An investigation was in order.

Topside, Jack found Ed, Marvin, and Haven playing tag with a mouse.  The stowaway was trying to find a sanctuary.  It ran across the deck and into the gutters, retraced its steps over the battlefield to lodge temporarily
behind the oil cans.  From there it sought the protection of a life boat and disappeared.  The next day a sign taped to the mast warned the mouse never again to expose itself on deck under penalty of death!  With killers on its trail, it hid for the rest of the journey.

A wee bit of sun put in its appearance on the twelfth day, a field day for photographers.  Owners of a garden variety of camera equipment appeared on deck, and the wheel, sails, lifeboats, and ropes curled up on deck provided nautical backgrounds for local color. 

Bud was a handsome natural.  Denims held together with numerous bits of white adhesive tape, tennis shoes that had forcefully objected to pressure from within, and a dirty white sailor cap completed his costume.  In this fashion, he never lost his calm, youthful dignity.  Bud’s pal was Joe—tall, dark, photogenic, and thickly bearded.  His Invader uniform, even in quite cool weather, was a pair of white trunks that darkened with the passage of time but held together without the assistance of tape.  Joe always spoke in gentle, modulated tones accompanied by manners of the same brand.  To compensate for a bad ear, he tilted his head a little to one side and rolled his dark eyes effectively toward his companion. 
His manner of swearing was refreshing.  Without warning, one would hear him issue a soft “Jesus Christ” that resembled a benediction.  It was pleas­antly shocking to hear strong language in such benign tones.

Assorted as we were, there was one characteristic common to the Invader group: whatever background, accomplishments, college degree, or wealth were represented, little mention was ever made of them.  One stood or fell on the reputation he made on the few feet of driftwood floating on the Pacific, a tacit agreement that the past was left in California.  We were making a new little world at sea, using what the past had taught us in solving physical and psychological problems.  Each was mea­sured by his ability to adjust to the specific conditions sur­round­ing us.  It was a democratic society that awarded credit where credit was due.

I do not know why each Invader chose this kind of summer va­cation.  I believe the positive goal of adventure, not the nega­tive notion of escape was dominant.  Our numbers did not in­clude the social butterfly, the shirker, the dependent, the braggart, the fearful, or the poor sport.  Each Invader was a strong-hearted individual capable of facing circumstances as they arose.  In adversity there was no demonstration of hysterics, wild imaginings, or hasty judgment.  Calm and quiet discussion typified the behavior of the crew en route to Hawaii. 

Gradually we became sailors in word and in deed.  At first, our nautical vocabularies were pitifully meager.  Initially, we spoke of going upstairs and downstairs, dining room, bedroom, kitchen.  The companionway was stairs.  Eventually, bow and stern replaced front and back, and port and starboard were substituted for left and right though even today, many parts of the Invader are “those things” to me.

Louise and Tony
Louise and Tony
In appearance more than vocabulary, we became sailors.  Weather had the power to level differences among us, especially among the girls.  Hairdos and cosmetics went the way of other beautifiers.  Limited by baggage restrictions, clean or different clothes seldom appeared.  It was not a question of what to wear but how much to wear.  When I stood at the helm at night, practically all of my wardrobe was on my back.  The helmsman was unprotected, and the more gloriously the wind blew to propel us forward, the colder the weather felt in the “tropics.” 

The ships bell was supposed to be rung every half hour to inform the crew of the change of watch and meals.  During the first few days, we made an attempt to follow this nautical tradition, but the effort soon became too great and we relied on our voices to summon the next helmsman or the crew to the mess hall.  Watch One, come and get it.”  All much less trouble than climbing the companionway to ring the bell.

Another reason for letting the ship’s bell go the way of other rituals was mathematical.  To keep track of the appropriate number of bells, from one to eight, and to ring them at the proper time was too much for our unmathematical minds.  And, no one seemed able to master ringing the bell without inserting extra beats—an insult to any ship’s bell.  It must be rung with precision and it must be an accurate time-crier or its time honored history is desecrated.

On the Invader, schedule, vocabulary, and formality were adjusted to fit a group of unseasoned tars who didn’t know the nautical ropes and for whom time was of negligible essence.  We were also delinquent in the nautical practice of brass polishing.  Our ship was like a beautiful lady dressed in white with jewelry of brass.  Before we left Newport, we tried to make her proud of her shiny accessories, but when the results of our efforts reverted to green overnight, we declared a two-month holiday on brass polishing.  Wind and rain during the five years when the Invader didn’t leave her dock had done irreparable damage.  That bode ill for the Invader and her crew, for the badge of a good ship and her tars lies in the golden metal that dots her deck.  A ship whose metal is brownish green reflects the life of those aboard.  Tarnished brass denotes a tarnished crew.

Bea and I shared comparison between the Invader and her neighbor at the dock back in California.  The Good Hope, a schooner owned by the Spaldings (of athletic goods fame), was a model of loveliness and efficiency.  Our interest in her won for us an invitation from the captain to go aboard for a guided tour of the 160-foot schooner.

Captain Robinson, claimed that The Good Hope was the finest schooner he had ever seen sailed.  Every bit of brass was sparkling; every inch of the deck was scrubbed; the galley and engine room were immaculate; the sails were furled and covered for protection.  We saw the ship’s silver and linens.  And we were given delicious doughnuts, still warm, fresh from the galley.  Everything was arranged for the greatest comfort and enjoyment of beauty.  This was how a schooner should be.  The Invader had equally graceful lines, was also freshly painted white, with new sails—but inside, her house was not in order.  The Invader had set sail with only one able-bodied seaman—the engineer—and this was his first experience on a schooner.  The Good Hope was manned by sixteen able-bodied seamen the year round, and when she sailed her meager two months of the year, five more men were added to her crew.  We returned to the Invader wise about shipshape schooners.

Typical rain, wind, and cold
Typical rain, wind, and cold
The Invader was not in a class with The Good Hope, but she had a charm of her own.  For me there was a long drawn out thrill in seeing her move in response to the turn I gave the wheel.  That responsibility was a privilege, one hour twice a day and the most popular assignment on board.  It wasn’t a bad hour in spite of rain, wind, and cold.  There was something satisfying to me in having the movement of the schooner literally in the palm of my hand.  There was a modicum of responsibility sometimes necessitating a maximum of physical strength.  When the wind was strong, the wheel was stubborn and the waves offered resistance to the movement of the ship.  Then the weight of the whole body was required to pull the wheel to one side.  Technique was involved to avoid over compensating to correct the ship’s change of direction.  The fewer the turns of the wheel to bring her in line, the more proficient was the helmsman.

Some calculations based on taffrail readings, the distance-time ratio, indicated that our most proficient helmsman was Helen.  Her eye-hand-body-judgment coordination surpassed that quad of abilities in all of the men.  However, when the ground swells were very heavy in response to a strong wind, strength became a major factor and on such occasions the men replaced the girls.  Hence, more than eye-hand coordination was required in playing God to a schooner on a wide ocean.  In doing so, one had a feeling of power.  The helmsman was in control—it was he who manipulated 136 feet of steel and wood across 2,400 miles of empty ocean.  Twenty lives were aboard her and her destiny seemed to be in the helmsman’s hands.

There was poetry in it.  There would have been more poetry if we had had more frequent points in the sky—stars and sun—by which to steer.  But even so, the rhythm of the schooner as she rolled, the rhythm of the body as it pressed against the wheel, gave cadence to that poem of action.  The sound of the water lapping the sides of the vessel was natural music.  And even in cloudy weather, there was a loveliness in broad stretches of gray sky and water providing a backdrop for the towering white sails and details of the ship.  Poetry was everywhere—in sound, sight, and sense.

Perched on the wheel box, one had a grandstand seat for the comedy spread out before him.  Sailors reeled when the deck rolled and a good wide reel never ceased to offer some degree of slapstick comedy.  A wobbly climb up the companionway directly facing the helmsman, an unexpected lunge in the direction of the rail, an unintentional highland flight—all were funny.  When we watch animals at the zoo acting like humans, we laugh.  Conversely, when we saw people who should have acted like people handling their bodies in unorthodox fashion and suddenly so, we laughed.  Because the bodily contortions came to the owner of the body with complete surprise, he was usually as amused as the spectators. 

Even the poor victim of seasickness could sometimes see a comical aspect in his predicament.  That virtue—the only one in seasickness—is due to the usually temporary nature of the affliction.  Mal de mer is seldom fatal, but while it lasts it is dramatic with many a sudden exodus, and immediate grateful relief.  We see others as they see us, and we know there is comedy in it.  I have been through it all and know every mile of the charted course—the a.m., noon, and p.m.  of the ocean’s punishment of men.

It isn’t fair to judge a person when they are seasick.  The most one can do is to play the good sport, and it is a difficult act for it is a “laugh, clown, laugh” situation.  But Carl knew that I possessed a zest for living on the Pacemaker and the El Capitan.  He may have regretted his association with the green atmosphere that hovered around me, but he bore his cross courageously.  He didn’t forsake that piece of missionary work because I must have been a most uninteresting companion—horribly self-centered, boringly unimaginative, cheerful only from social necessity of playing the game.

I didn’t want to do anything.  Lying in my bunk came the nearest to being a pleasure.  No bridge, no desire for fresh air, no pleasure in jotting down a few diary notes.  Morning gallery work became a dreadful inevitability.

Bud, June, Fran, George, and I made up the semi-casualty list.  Life went on for us but dismally so because the schooner kept on rolling.  Bud found some relief in sour pickles.  It was days before I realized he had stumbled on a partial temporary relief.  Good sour pickles do something magical.  My theory is that they shock the system into forgetting everything else.  It was a treatment that I found salutary and I reserve no patent on the idea.

I recall one evening on the Invader that should have been repeated but never was.  It was a simple old fashioned song fest.  I have enjoyed many of these on freighters.  When rough edges of voices are muted by ocean waves, group singing is as satisfying as singing in the bathtub.  Even with harmony there is a lusty, vibrant zest that marks carefree seafarers.  It takes little urging for one to start singing—just the boldness to strike out with enough words and notes to make a song recognizable, and everyone within hearing distance joins.  It almost never fails at sea unless the leader picks a night when the ship is pitching.

The program seems to follow a pattern—first, songs of the sea.  “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” is an easy starter.  “Bonny” permits singing with gusto, and it takes such a selection to tune up and reduce shyness.  “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” is usually attempted with a rush of enthusiasm but after several lines it peters out to a la-la-la “till Jack comes home again.”  Now the singers ready for “I’ve been working on the railroad.”  Eventually, voices and moods become more mellow and American folk songs are feelingly and softly sung.  Finally, the less enthusiastic, or perhaps the more musically inclined, regard the program as having hopelessly deteriorated and they drop out.  The quality of music continues to suffer progressively until the last little remnant sleepily drones “Good night ladies.”

The Invader’s most successful musical event took place while I was at the helm.  Here was a community response—spontaneous, free, and hearty.  It happened once.  Now it could become a frequent outlet for feelings of anxiety and disappointment.  We didn’t have good voices, but we did have a desire to express ourselves over the range of emotions represented by the variety of songs.  What fun it would be while sitting at the wheel, turning it automatically as the marker jumped up and down on the compass!  This was sailing with the atmosphere that I had imagined
Shorthand class
during those months of anticipation before the trip.  It was an evening to be remembered on the Invader.  But that was the exception on the Invader.  What happened to produce it remains unknown. 

Helen’s practicing on the French horn was the only other music onboard.  Once or twice a day, Helen retired to the saloon to keep her lips and fingers in trim for the Chicago Symphony in the fall.  I remember the plaintive notes of “Goin’ Home,” to which the French horn lent itself in rich forcefulness.

A shorthand class initiated by June, was the only educational activity to flourish aboard the Invader.

By the eighteeth day, an intense desire to see land was shared by all twenty ocean hoppers.  Without exception, we craved the comforts on shore, especially satisfying drinks of cold liquid.  To bring landfall closer, we called a meeting to urge Jack to set his course for Hilo on Hawaii instead of Honolulu on Oahu—a day’s distance from Hilo.  He altered the course.  We hoped that we were then within a few hours of solid ground and security. 

Before daylight of 19th we were supposed to sight the lighthouse on the southern-most tip of Hawaii, which is the southern-most island of the group.  Our rationed water supply would last four more days, but there were no other pieces of land within four weeks of our estimated position.  We had to see that lighthouse or . . .

Typical rain, wind, and cold
I wandered up on deck after dinner and found Joe leaning on the brass rail in front of the wheel.  He was years younger than I, and on this night I wondered what was ticking behind the serious face of this Beau Geste.  We discussed rumors that had circulated, and I probed a little to discover how quiet Joe was looking at the facts.  In a couple of sentences I learned what bothered him.  “Jesus Christ, but I want things to turn out right because of my mother,” he said thoughtfully.  “She gave me the money and she’s back home now wishing me a good time.  I don’t want to disappoint her.”

Joe was not alone in looking backward and forward and wondering.  For days the estimate of our distance from the islands had jumped around and none of us knew how accurate the latest taffrail reckoning was.  But Jack thought that we were near land and Frank, who also had some knowledge of navigation, agreed with him.  One other sign encouraged us—the radio had come to life and music from Hilo came over the air.  Not fully convinced but fervently hoping that we would hear the Columbus shout “A light!” before morning, we went to bed.

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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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