Rocking the Boat
by Shirley Liao and Mengyou Wu
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley, Invictus
John Wilson, “Captain John” to the residents of the Duke Marine Lab, possesses a face weathered by sun and storm, burnished like a bronze idol. When he takes off his sunglasses, the lines around his eyes deepen as he smiles.
“Jump right down,” he says, with a broad gesture of his hand, inviting us to take the leap, so to speak, across the foot of space between the dock and the deck of the Susan Hudson. The aging boat bobs gently in the water. The hull, a pristine white, shines brightly under clear sky and sun. In contrast, the water, dark and indolent, churns in the gap between the two surfaces, a vague, constant threat to two college students more familiar with grass and solid land. It is with trepidation that we jump the distance from our steady world into his of unfamiliar motion.
We settle into our sea legs on the deck of the Susan Hudson, making small talk about the bright weather, our classes, and the boat beneath us that Captain John has been piloting for several months. He seems comfortable on the water, rocking easily with the movements of the ship and speaking of the Susan Hudson with an offhand fondness. “It’ll be getting a new layer of paint today,” he says at one point, visibly cheered at the fact, “first time it’s been painted in twenty years.”
John was not born into a seafaring family, and despite growing up in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, he had little interaction with the ocean. It was a series of articles in the National Geographic about Robin Graham, a teenager who sailed around the world, which opened his eyes to sailing. “I was just fascinated with this idea about living on a sailboat, crossing oceans and visiting exotic places.” Captain John says. “I just thought that that was what I wanted to do.”
Years later, John would fulfill his childhood fantasy, but only after a convoluted path that took him from high school, through a stint in the military, to an undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina and acceptance to UNC’s medical school. While on a surgery rotation in Germany, however, John grew disillusioned with medicine when a military widow with pancreatic cancer was given an unnecessary surgery simply as practice for American medical students. “She could have had a fairly comfortable few months of life and what we did give her was a pretty miserable few months of life. I know the training is necessary but I felt that it was wrong.” John reported the incident to his medical school but received no response. Angry about this injustice, John took a leave of absence in the fourth year of medical school and never found his way back. “A lot of people were disappointed: ‘Look at what you walked away from,’” John says. It was a decision not many people would have made, but for John, there was no ethical alternative.
After a couple years in a microbiology lab as a research technician, John made another life-changing decision. His childhood fantasy of seafaring, put aside for a more conventional job, reemerged. “There was a point where I thought: if I sold everything I owned, I could buy a boat suitable for crossing oceans,” John says, without any indication in his tone that this was an out-of-ordinary idea. “And I did.” It is this decision that would tie him to the sea for the rest of his life.
When asked how he gathered the courage to go against the norm, he merely gave a small shrug and replied, “The thought of ‘oh this is the one thing you really wanted to take the chance and do and now you’ll never do it?’ That scared me more than selling everything.”
That first sailboat, which he had sold everything for, was small and sturdy but possessed no refrigeration, running water, or room for much more than necessary items. Traveling from Hawaii to California was a meager existence, further strained by the ferocious and fickle nature of the ocean. John recounts how the strong northeast trade winds forced him to head north for two weeks before he was even able to turn toward California. Sailing directly into the wind meant that the boat’s movements were often sharp and pounding, and maneuvering the vessel was as difficult as roping a headstrong stallion. His days at sea alternated wildly between tempestuous, when the waves were so violent that it was impossible to set a drink down, and completely calm, when the boat did little more than bob in place. When every decision he made could have life or death consequences, John was forced to adapt to these two extremes and become self-sufficient. Captain John’s descriptions of his journey are simple, yet vivid. “Mostly, it was a daily routine feeding myself, cleaning the salt off of everything, and just managing the time. I loaded up on paperbacks and read all of them twice.” He took a position fix at noon every day, comparing his boat’s position to that of known landmarks in order to chart his slow progress. John smiles slightly as he explains. “It got to where I really looked forward to that.” Eventually, however, the distance covered in a single day seemed so minute in the grand scale of the journey that John began to only take a position fix every three days in order to buoy his spirits.
“Like a lot things,” he concludes with a dry smile, “reading about sailing can sound so wonderful, so romantic, but the reality is a little bit different. I learned pretty quickly that I didn’t like sailing.”
Despite his disappointing initial foray into seafaring, John would later return to sailing. After his one-man journey drew to a close, John eventually founded his own internet company. It took only three years before the company had grown successful enough that he could sell it and make a comfortable profit. By then, John was already married to Jorja, a racing sailor he first met at the dock in California. Financially unburdened, they decided to embark on another sailing trip in the Pacific. “I really didn’t like the sailing,” he admits, “but it is a great way to travel.”
While his first sailing trip had opened Captain John’s eyes to the grueling realities of the seafaring, the second allowed him to discover that sometimes the destination and the people there made the discomfort worthwhile. Unlike the hundreds of tourists who arrived in Hawaii everyday by cruise ships and yachts, John and Jorja found that their small sailboat was met with curiosity and a warm reception by the communities of the island inhabitants. John tells us of wave after wave of tourists who never ventured much further than the beach, never spoke with the islanders except to buy trinkets. By traveling on a sail boat, John and Jorja showed that they were letting go of the support systems of civilization, allowing them to relate easier to the island communities. “When you arrive on your own small boat, it shows that you worked to get there,” John explains, “If you do that and show interest, it goes a long way.” Upon arrival to Fanning, a small coral atoll between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, bearing supplies from Honolulu, John and Jorja were embraced into the lives of the inhabitants. A celebration was held in their honor, complete with long ceremonial speeches and music from a boom box as the finale. “They have some strange sweetly scented talcum powder that they put on everybody and you just dance.” He laughs at this memory. “We ended up helping people build houses there…they taught us their cooking.”
These experiences, from different cultures to natural phenomenon, he imparts to us in bits and pieces, leaning forward as he speaks of seeing the first speck of land after months of open ocean, nights where the water is blanketed by green phosphorescence, and the wonder of a sky so clear, it seems to be smothered with stars.
John asks us if we know what a “Green Flash” is. “When you’re at sea and if the conditions are just right, watch the setting sun go below the horizon and the upper limb of the sun, just as it crosses below the horizon. It only lasts a moment, but you get this bright emerald flash.” He smiles. “The first time I saw that I just thought that I had arrived.” The rarity of being able to catch a glimpse of this natural occurrence seems to be a point of pride among sailors, a mark of many years spent at sea and a true familiarity with the ocean.
“When you spend eighteen years with your face four feet away from the water, you see it differently. The ocean’s indifferent. It makes you take whatever came your way and deal with it.” From the accumulation of his experiences, Captain John sees the ocean in ways which are beyond the understanding of most people. “If I’m walking down these docks, I’m forever looking at the water and seeing which way it’s moving. Or looking at which way the seagulls are facing because they almost always point into the wind.” On the same docks, he informs us with a regretful shrug, there are some people who have lived on their boat for more than a decade and but have never cut the cord. They remain in the bay, bobbing in an ocean they have no connection to.
In the end, the ocean proves to be a dangerous but moving force, one that pushes sailors to the limit and draws them forever back into the dark, chaotic waters. John Wilson has seen and traveled that dangerous ocean. He has touched and been touched by the harsh realities and great beauties of the sea. Starting from a child merely dreaming, to a young man courageously pursuing his goals, and finally to the knowledgeable sailor sitting calmly across from us, John has been changed by the ocean. He is an example of a man who acted on his ambitions where many others never would, forever excusing themselves by putting it off for the “right time.” “Before you know it, you’re 72 and the time is never going to be right. That point where Jorja and I said now, I don’t regret that.” And he shouldn’t.