While binge drinking in a nameless dive bar, on a particularly frigid winter day, I met an intrepid Australian sailor who was overseas on business. He regaled me with tales of stormy seas and heart-pounding moments, wisps of salt-tinged air and endless horizons, and the discomforting comfort of the open ocean. He had no way of knowing, but that boozy conversation would lead me to a warm San Diego dock only three years later, kicking off the adventure of my life.
I spent those three years learning the ins and outs of sailing with one ambitious goal in mind; sailing solo from San Diego to Hawaii, a thirty-day voyage across notoriously unpredictable waters. Not a single one of my friends or family believed I could successfully accomplish the trip, and they did everything they could to talk me out of it. Undeterred by their increasingly desperate attempts to reason with me, I forged ahead like a stampede.
Through frugal habits and self-denial of certain amenities, I had saved enough to purchase a 23 ft. sailboat with a comfy cabin. I’d christened her the New Horizon, both as a literal and metaphorical representation of my journey to Hawaii.
Stepping onto the bow of the boat, I took one last longing look at land before setting off. A brisk breeze escorted me into the open ocean, and in the background, the city lights dimmed into nothing.
Before sunset on my first night of sailing, I passed a stalled motorboat. I was shocked to see such a vessel this far from shore. The ship itself was in a state of disrepair, the engine rusted and chipped. Green algae had accumulated on its left side, creeping along its hull like jungle vines. I breathed a sigh of relief, supposing the boat had accidentally dislodged and floated into the ocean without any passengers.
At that moment, a diver bobbed just above the surface, waving and then extending his hand into a thumbs up. The diver was giving me the signal that everything was okay, no matter how hard that was to believe.
With some trepidation and confusion, I continued on my way, leaving the odd diver to whatever business he had. As darkness fell over the ocean I could still see him in the distance, floating listlessly next to his decaying boat.
About a week later, the weather took a turn for the worse. Storm clouds quickly overtook a pleasant day, blotting out the sun. A torrential rain soon followed, blowing sideways due to the high winds. In a frenzied state, I bounced from the bow, to the stern, to the helm. On several occasions, as the boat heeled, I almost lost my balance, the churning sea waiting to swallow me whole
In the midst of that panic, I spotted a jet-black object floating amongst the crashing waves. It buoyed on the surface, unmoved by the raw violence of the ocean. My attention was drawn away to a fluttering sail, far to loose for comfort. After fighting to regain control, I turned around to see the object was now much closer.
The turbulent waters made it difficult to see clearly, but it looked like a diver was out in the thick of the storm, resting just below the water. I knew what I was seeing was impossible, and that my mind was likely playing tricks on me, but it still caused a wretched shiver to trickle down my spine.
By the time the winds had dissipated, and the sun shined meekly behind translucent clouds, whatever it was had disappeared. Not that I paid it much mind, I was completely high off the adrenaline rush of battling the ocean. I spent the remainder of that day gazing wistfully into the distance, dreaming of what was to come.
The following night, a repetitive knocking disturbed me from my sleep. It echoed ominously around the cabin, accompanied by the creaking of the mainsail. Having been dragged into consciousness, I was in a slight state of befuddlement, unable to decipher where the knocking was coming from. It was only when I felt the vibrations against my feet did I come to the horrifying realization that something was pounding heavily against the bottom of the boat — my heart began to pound in turn.
Shaking, I grabbed a flashlight and several flares before tip-toeing onto the deck.
A crisp breeze and salty air greeted me, the moon casting a faint glow over the water. The night was still and beautiful, the silence interrupted only by the irregular knocking echoing from below.
The flashlight was barely able to penetrate the darkness of the ocean, but I wasn’t able to see anything directly below the surface. Igniting a flare, I threw it overboard and watched attentively as it sunk; its glow visible, but faint. As the flare reached about fifteen feet underwater, an elongated shadow was cast across the surface of the water. The shadow resembled a figure in full diving dear, hand swinging back and forth — each swing followed by an ominous knock.
Fear dripped down my spine, collecting in a pool at my feet. Despite the mild temperatures, I began to shiver as if it was below zero. Terrified, I retreated to the safety of the cabin, lodging a chair against the door. The knocking continued unabated until the crack of dawn, at which point I succumbed to sleep deprivation.
When I finally awoke, it was just past midday and a gaggle of seabirds were chirping excitedly. A puddle stood just in front of the cabin door, which I almost slipped in. In fact, all around the boat were a trail of puddles. I spied them suspiciously, praying it was just the ocean spray.
A splashing sound diverted my attention to the starboard side. In the full light of the day was the diver, waving happily at me. He remained for only a moment before submerging into the depths of the ocean. As it was a clear day, I could see him descend for almost a hundred feet before disappearing completely from view. The image of him sinking into an endless void of water haunted me for days after, like a grainy vintage movie.
For almost two weeks, I sailed without incident. The weather was unusually stable and the winds were steady and frequent. The sky remained relatively clear and the diver became a not-so-distant memory, but distant enough that I was enjoying myself without worry. The ocean was a mysterious and dangerous place, and I couldn’t question what it threw at me, no matter how unexpected — that’s what kept me sane.
Just as most good things do, my streak of stress-free sailing came to an abrupt end. Black, looming clouds rolled in with gale-force winds from the south. In minutes, the sky had darkened and heavy rain was falling.
Battered by wind and rain, my boat rocked violently in the water. Waves repeatedly crashed onto the deck, spume rushing around my ankles. That’s when he reappeared, his body pressed against the helm of the boat.
Having to work tirelessly to maintain control, I watched helplessly as the diver swam to the bow, slowly pulling himself onboard. He flopped onto the deck like a fisherman’s catch, wriggling around wildly in his wetsuit. His tank clanked against the deck so hard I was worried it would crack the wood.
In a sudden shift, the diver grasped on to the jib and steadied himself. Algae wrapped around his legs in tight tendrils and barnacles dotted his body, but his wetsuit was in pristine condition. Thick, tinted goggles obscured much of his face, reflecting my wide-eyed look of terror. Footsteps loudly slamming against fiberglass, the diver crept closer and closer, the wind growing fiercer. Despite the boat rocking back and forth, and his awkward movements, he remained perfectly balanced.
The ship was on the verge of capsizing, and my best efforts were seeming far from adequate. I was caught in-between two converging, and menacing forces, seemingly bent on my demise. I could have fled to the cabin, escaping the diver’s outstretched arms, but that would have almost certainly led to the ship sinking and a watery grave. Knowing that option was no option at all, I gripped onto the winch and waited until the diver was only feet away, an overpowering rotten stench emanating from his body.
Just as his ice-cold fingers brushed against my chest, I let the boom swing free — it slammed into the diver with a sickening thud. He was sent flying into the sea as the sailboat sped away, leaving the diver in its wake. As he sunk below the surface, the wind and clouds dissipated, the sun shining brightly once again.
A week later, I sailed into a small harbor on the northern edge of Hilo, Hawaii. Stepping onto dry land after almost thirty days on the ocean is a feeling I could never hope to describe properly — but it was truly wonderful. I promptly booked myself into a three-star hotel adjacent to the harbor. Checking into my room, I immediately collapsed into comfy satin sheets.
The next morning, I groggily stumbled out of bed. Brewing a cup of instant coffee, I headed downstairs for the continental breakfast, stepping into a large puddle of salty-water waiting directly in front of my room. A trail of soggy footprints led down the hallway, abruptly ending at an open window — looking out over the harbor.
That was almost ten years ago and I’ve never been within a mile of a body of water since. Despite this fact, no matter where I go or how many times I move, the ocean always finds a way to find a way to crash upon my shores.