I was fourteen when my father shaved off his beard. Since I was four, he’d had
a mustache and a goatee, a bristly tuft on his chin dyed to look like the rest of
his hair. A beard never belonged on his face, yet after two weeks of shaving, I
still wasn’t used to seeing him with soap and a safety razor, instead of
trimming stray hairs with his manicure scissors.
“What are you looking at?” he demanded, foamy shaving brush in hand.
“What a nice day it is,” I fixed my gaze on the peaceful Pacific Ocean behind
him and tried not to smile. He looked ridiculous with a blob of foam on the tip
of his nose.
When I looked again, he scowled at me, lather covering one cheek and
streaks on the other. He made a few more strokes, put aside his razor, and
wiped soap from his face. I quickly glanced down at my book. I was a
heartbeat too slow.
“It won’t be long before I’ll have to teach you how to shave,” he said, turning my
head to the side.
I jerked away and dabbed foam from my chin. “It’s not so difficult I’ll need
“All it takes is a steady hand, right?”
He hummed with Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, normally one
of my favorites until he joined in. My little sister was less annoying.
He leaned over to check our speed. “We’re making good time. We’ll be there
in no time if this wind keeps up.”
Under my breath, I said, “Good luck on that.”
No sailor ever complained about trade winds. Sailing with the trade winds
from behind was mind-numbing, yet vastly better than battling storms, or being
My father built our 38-foot yacht from scratch the old-fashioned way. The
Spray was far too small for six people and a cat, yet he was always quick to
point out that small had advantages when it came time to put up the sails. The
Spray was also slow, to which he countered his boat had an agreeable
motion. It didn’t. It wallowed through the long ocean swell, up and down, rolling
from side to side. It was like living inside a washing machine day after day. I
was lucky; I seldom got sea sick. My little sister and grandmother were
I turned back pages of Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World,
glimpses into the Captain’s journey until I found what I wanted. “This part took
him 29 days.”
A month without setting foot on land!
“We’ll do it in two weeks,” he replied airily. “The wind hasn’t changed in three
“Slocum arrived in Apia on July 16th. It’s the same time of year.”
He dispatched my point and the possibility of fluky winds with a shrug. He was
brushing his teeth when the wind veered south. Shortly, it expired. With feeble
puffs, the Spray slowed to a crawl. I hated the thought of being cooped up a
day longer than necessary.
“A temporary lull, right?”
He missed my sarcasm. “The wind will be back. A couple of hours, give or
Doubtless, our captain was right—astern, puffy clouds loomed on the horizon.
However, prognostications of weather conditions based on cloud formations
were as fraught with uncertainty as such ancient mariner sayings as ‘Red sky
at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.’ Magnificent
sunsets preceded some of our worst storms at night.
“Two weeks to Apia,” he said, back to humming.
Apia, Samoa, where we were headed, was 1,250 miles west, only two or
three days on American expressways, rest stops and fast-food restaurants
included. It didn’t seem to bother my father that reefs dotted the course he’d
mapped out. All around us, the sea was deep dark blue; however, atolls could
appear without warning when the tips of volcanoes reached up from the
depths. Usually, they didn’t break the surface before coral took over. Captain
Slocum wrote of the same stretch of ocean: ‘coral reefs kept me company, or
gave me no time to feel lonely.’
However, I was lonely. The gap between my father and me was as far as Apia.
I had more in common with my brother, three years younger. Ben spent every
spare moment reading his Encyclopedia Britannica, insisting it held the
answers to all of life’s questions. My sister and grandmother talked endlessly,
making up for lost time. Whenever we went ashore, my mother collected
postcards and travel brochures. At sea, she shunned the technology of the
21st century and documented our journey in scrapbooks with floral cloth
covers. And me? I read novels from my father’s collection of classics when I
wasn’t playing my guitar or doing school work by long distance.
Danielle, my closest friend, was 590 nautical miles astern in the Marquesas
Islands. I’d known Dani for only twelve days, yet we’d become inseparable.
She gave me a journal as a going away present. I missed her even more than
I missed her grandfather’s stories.
“Sal must think Zagarovsky’s in Tahiti,” I said, hoping to steer the conversation
in that direction.
Dani, her grandfather, Sal, and his wife, Marion, were headed to the Society
Islands: Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Huahine. Sal hadn’t said why they were going
to Tahiti; however, everyone knew it was because of Zagarovsky.
“More likely he’s back in New York selling crack. You’d think after twelve
years, Sal would get over it.”
“If someone killed my son…”
“Revenge is self-destructive.” He always interrupted me.
He was about to lecture me on life’s lessons when my brother came up from
the cabin, lugging a Britannica volume. Ben occupied the opposite seat,
choosing shade from the mainsail over sunburn and peace and quiet.
“Zagarovsky tried to kill me and you don’t seem to care,” I said, choosing
persistence over common sense.
My father inclined his head as if he hadn’t heard properly. After a few
moments, he said, “You think it’s only luck you’re still alive?”
I considered saying other than being the eldest son, none it was my fault.
Zagarovsky wanted vengeance for something my father did.
“I didn’t mean it like that. You always say running away from your problems
He made me wait. It was never a good idea to confront him directly. “What
makes you think we’re running away?”
“Aren’t we?” I looked around. The sea, like the sky, was as empty and endless
as I’d ever seen it.
“I’ve always wanted to sail the seven seas,” Ben muttered from behind his
It was my father’s dream, not shared by the rest of his family, to sail around the
world. He said we’d be gone as long as Joshua Slocum—it took him three
years, two months, and two days to travel 46,000 miles. After one year and
four months and 13,549 miles, we were still a long way short of the halfway
“We’ve seen the last of Zagarovsky’s goons,” my father declared. He hadn’t
“What about Faro? Sal said…”
He cut me off again. “I know what Sal said.”
“What if we report what happened to the police?”
“We’ll be cooling our heels for six months. We’re getting as far away as
possible. We should’ve left right away.”
“He said Faro was even more dangerous...”
He glared at me so I skipped the rest of what Sal said about the need to be
very careful. He also said running wasn’t the solution. Zagarovsky would catch
When I looked up again, he was watching me. “What?” I heard my voice break.
“Your eyes are just like your mom’s.”
“Mom’s eyes are green.”
“I meant my mother. You’re a lot like her.”
“She had blue eyes, huh?”
“Ben looks more like my father,” he said.
Ben put aside Volume XI. “What color were his eyes?”
“The same color as yours and mine. Brown.”
Ben muttered what might have been ‘no way,’ his usual response when
something aroused his interest and he couldn’t explain it.’ He picked up the
pencil we used to record the Spray’s position, frowning as he scribbled on the
scrap of paper serving as his bookmark.
“What color eyes did Grandma’s husband have?” he inquired.
My father pulled on his chin as if he expected to find a goatee. “The last time I
saw Thom was before you were born. Ask your grandmother.”
Ben went to find her, lugging his encyclopedia with him.
I took advantage. “Did I get anything else from your side of the family?”
“Your grandfather's love of music.” He checked his watch. “You’re on duty,
He used ‘Victor’ to annoy me, his way of letting me know he’d heard me
“We left him in the Marquesas, remember?”
He tapped the wheel. “Good luck on that, Mister. You’ve got the wheel until
eight. No shipping channels to worry about until this evening. Keep an eye out
for Caroline Atoll. Give me a call when we’re closer.”
He recorded our position, cast his gaze over the sails and rigging, and
scanned the horizon. He always followed routine as if getting a step out of
order would result in catastrophe.
“Pay attention. Just a mile off course could be a disaster in these waters.”
I blocked my ears to the rest of his lecture and returned to my book. He knew I
hated ‘Victor.’ He never called me ‘Josh’ like everyone else. After he’d gone
to his cabin to nap, I occasionally looked up—no sign of civilization, no ships,
no vapor trails all the way to the horizon. There were a few wispy clouds far
astern, a reminder of where we’d come from.
+ + +
Unlike the rugged volcanic islands of the Marquesas, Caroline Atoll was flat
and deserted, a skinny necklace of dozens of tiny sand islets and coral heads
defining a half-a-mile-wide lagoon. Scattered coconut trees burst through thick
clumps of vegetation on the three largest islands. Everyone trooped on deck
when I called them, even my father, rubbing sleep from his eyes. It was the first
atoll we’d seen. For an hour, we sailed beside it, staying clear of reefs
extending far into the sea.
Still unused to the Spray’s constant up and down, my grandmother preferred
to sit in the rear of the cockpit. She braced herself, tilted down the brim of her
sunhat, and folded her arms.
“Your boat rocks a lot, John.” She grimaced, her expression rapidly
approaching what my mother called 'squeamish.'
“Watching the horizon usually helps, Sarah.”
She was already staring at the horizon. She gave a dissatisfied sigh. “It
“You’re taking it remarkably well,” my mother said. She meant my
grandmother’s house, burned to the ground, everything gone.
My grandmother coughed, the usual prelude to retching. “It could have been
worse.” She shifted her gaze from the horizon to my eight-year-old sister to my
eleven-year-old brother. “After all these years, I still have some things in
Her gloominess struck a chord with me. I could think of nothing worse than
losing my home.
“I was awfully sad when you left last year,” she added, now looking at me.
“We didn’t have a choice,” my father said. “You should’ve left with us.”
“I’m here now.” She didn’t sound happy about it.
My grandmother’s queasy face and frequent cough all but guaranteed another
bout of seasickness. It didn’t stop her from helping Jessie arrange feathers on
a square of plywood, scrounged from a dumpster in Hiva Oa, our first port of
call in the Marquesas. They ranged from delicate colorful feathers from small
tropical birds to straggly, long feathers from sea birds. My sister even had a
huge albatross wing feather someone had given her.
Jessie was quick to draw our attention to a Great Frigatebird, black as night
with a seven-foot wingspan, and a long, forked tail. There was a splash of
crimson under its long hooked beak. It soared close to the waves, veering
away at the last moment. Ben barely glanced up; we’d seen so many since
departing South America.
“Fregata minor.” With my grandmother’s help, he’d mastered Latin
pronunciation in two weeks. Now, she was teaching him Greek for good
measure. “It’s a male,” he added, as if we cared.
“They eat flying fish right out of the air.” Jessie had my brother’s enthusiasm
“Because they can’t land in water.” Ben was the voice of authority on anything
My grandmother turned to watch the bird swoop down over swirling water. All
of a sudden, she gulped air and swallowed, making a wry face. I hated the
taste of bile even more than the actual throwing up.
“Try some of Jessie’s ginger,” my mother suggested, although it seldom
worked for my sister.
“I’m fine, really. Just a little bit nauseous.” My grandmother coughed with each
passing wave. She handed me the pin jar, her face green, like an olive. “Be a
dear and help Jessie with her feathers. I’m going to lie down for a while.”
My mother and Ben went below too. My father watched Caroline Atoll
disappear behind the waves. “About 30 miles to the shipping channel,” he
reminded me. “It shouldn’t be a problem. It runs north-south, and not very busy.”
“You have to pin both ends so they don’t fall off,” Jessie said as soon as he
left. “I want the pins straight,” she added after I bent the first pin.
“You want to do it?” I pulled out the pin and inserted another. There wasn't
much room left on the board.
“It’s loose.” She wobbled the pin from side to side.
“The wood’s too tough.” I tried again, pushing until the head of the pin hurt my
“Stop doing that,” Jesse complained.
“You’re doing it like your thumbs are broken.”
“You want the pins pushed in or not?” I snapped.
“Mine don’t do it.” Jessie pressed her thumb pads together. Hers were
straight. My thumbs bent back.
“Josh’s got hitch-hiker thumbs,” Ben called from the cabin. “Double jointed is
recessive.” He was studying eighth-grade science, two years ahead for his
age. “No one else in this family has them. It proves he’s adopted.”
“Ben!” my mother barked from the galley.
I’d finished pushing in the rest of the pins, mostly the way she wanted, and
returned to my book before my grandmother popped her head through the
“It’s so stuffy in the front room.” She inhaled deeply, savoring salty air. “I
opened the skylight, but it’s much nicer up here.”
The ‘skylight’ was the forward hatch—she’d opened it all the way. I should’ve
told her my father’s seventh rule for safety at sea: ‘all hatches and ports closed
and locked.’ The sea was so calm it wasn’t worth worrying about.
“I think the sea air agrees with me.” She handed me my history book. “I hear
you have a big test tomorrow. “If you tell me what to do, I’ll be lookout and you
can study, Alex.”
Except for my grandmother, my real name was never used; and then it was
quietly. It was as if my early years didn’t exist.
I grinned back at her and gave my version of my father's ten-points on keeping
watch. “Just stay on this heading and don't touch his sails.”
“What if I see something?”
“If it flies or swims, call Ben. We're 22 miles from the shipping lane, but if you
see a ship, take a bearing on it.”
“What on earth is a bearing?”
“The compass direction.” I showed her how to sight over the compass. “If the
bearing changes, we’re not going to collide.” As seafaring rules went,
constant bearing-decreasing range (CBDR) was spot on, which was why my
father said not paying attention always preceded collision.
“You’re the same as your father and uncle. More information does not make it
easier to understand,” she teased.
While my grandmother kept watch, I studied Russian history, a long march
through wars, tyrants with impossible names, court intrigue, and social turmoil.
The late afternoon sun grew steadily stronger, heating up the air under the
awning until my clothes prickled. The wind was a hot humid breath sucking out
my energy. By 1905, I was ready to revolt too.
With no ships on the horizon and nothing else to do, I took off my T-shirt and
stretched out on the cockpit seat with my arm blocking the sun. My
grandmother went below to see about dinner.
It seemed like only a minute later when she shook me awake. She pointed
into the sunset and said quite calmly. “I’m not sure, but I think a ship is coming