Posted by: Peadar Ban | November 6, 2019


One of the things I most liked about sailing on a slow boat around the world a little more than half a century ago was sleeping out on the deck at night. I wasn’t the only one.  Many of my shipmates joined me there on cots we would put up on the covers of the holds at the rear of the ship; behind the mid-ship “house”.  The sea would gently rock us back and forth all night long, and the soft splash of waves, the hum of the engines below, and occasional bird calls were sweet sounds to go to sleep with.  These were old ladies, these ships we sailed on, old Liberties, or Victories from W.W.2; rust buckets, but faithful, and slow.  That was great.  No one was in a hurry.


Of course, before sunset there would be a little conversation.  But, most of the guys were interested in sleeping, especially the deck hands, who would be going on watch at intervals through the night.  The engine room crew, too.  I was different, working an eight hour day down below keeping things clean.  Talk was for the fantail, and, sure, muffled voices would be heard coming from there. Those guys were quiet, though.  Their mates were sleeping.


And, so, I drifted off each night counting stars and dreaming about them.  The link below will take you to a little video about some satellite exploring the Southern Hemisphere for NASA.  The nice lady will describe what you will be looking at.  I appreciated the narration almost as much as I appreciated the clip.  While I can remember some of the “sky”, I no longer know their name, nor can I for the most part find many of the constellations in the places I left them years ago.  But,  as she ticked them off, their appearance brought me back to those pleasant nights “back aft” far out at sea rocked gently beneath the stars like a child on it’s mother’s bosom.


It’s a very common reaction I suspect.


We recently spent some time at sea on a tour.  The ship was a monster, not much smaller in size and weight than the latest super-carrier.


I was only on one of those old ladies, long ago, with not much more than thirty other guys.  On this ship I was in the company of nearly 4,000 of my “best friends”, and the sea, that gentle rocking mother of younger days, was very far away.  Even for that though I was grateful; though there was no room back aft for a cot and a night on my mother’s breast watching the stars sway to the wind’s soft song; a whispered lullaby.


Anyway, I thought about those nights sitting here in front of my device and listening to the nice lady talk about all the names and places as the short “film” progressed.  I knew them all, and learned them growing up.  Before I was sixteen, a couple of years before I found myself on a cot on the Number 5 Hold somewhere in the Pacific, or a number of other places, I could have been the narrator of that thing.  Now, I had to pay close attention as she mentioned Betelgeuse, and Fomalhaut, and Orion.


These fellows I knew so well.  Still there.


My brother, Tom, was a sailor, too.  He spent much more time at sea than I did, and knew it well, too.  And when he died he returned to the sea somewhere off the coast of California.


I’ll not do that.  But in my own heart, I never really left it, the lonely sea and the sky, especially the sky at night.


On the way to bed at night, every night, I pass a small painting on the wall.  A friend did it at gave it to me, a little watercolor of a row-boat, waiting.  Below that boat I copied John Masefield’s lovely poem:


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Well, that’s good.  It really is.

But, these days my journeys are more on this level:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afraid are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
And Nod.

I remember my mother and father putting me to bed and softly reciting that poem to me as I drifted off rocked in their arms.





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