Monday, February 2, 2009

Moby-Dick revisited

Paul Caouette rowing his dinghy over to pick up a dinner guestPaul and Honey Caouette enjoy hosting dinner parties. While I was with them in Miami aboard their Valiant 40, Wild Iris, they invited people over for dinner almost every evening. This was no easy feat since the boat was moored about a hundred yards from shore. They would have their dinner guests call from their cell phones when they arrived at the dock, and Paul would row the dinghy over to pick them up while Honey worked her vegetarian magic in the galley and I did little else but set the table and pour the wine.

Our guests at the second dinner party were Randy Boiko, a local marine surveyor who had done the survey on Wild Iris, and Matt Hennings, a marine mechanic who had done work on Wild Iris's diesel engine. Once the wine started flowing, Matt launched into stories about his experiences with delivering boats and working on fishing boats, where he learned his current trade out of sheer necessity. For a guy in his mid-twenties, he had already had some serious adventures.

One story Matt told reminded me of a key scene from Moby-Dick, the one where Pip the cabin boy falls overboard and almost drowns. Matt was working on a large fishing boat bottom trawling off Georges Bank near Nova Scotia. They were working around the clock and hauling in the nets every three hours. He was on deck at night when the boat's crane brought over a full net. A young man who was new onboard was trying to release the net's contents into the hold, but he was short and needed to jump to reach the catch. He slipped and fell overboard into 35-degree water. Matt said he didn't even think about what he was doing and went right in after him. He was able to grab the young man and swim him back to the boat before they were both overtaken by hypothermia, but they were both badly shaken by the event. Matt said it took him almost eight hours to stop shivering, whether from the extreme cold or from the adrenaline. He said the young man basically shut down, that after he recovered he would not return to work and wanted only to get off the boat and never return.

Moby-Dick's Pip reacted similarly to his near-death experience. It put the insignificance of his life into horrifying perspective and drew him into himself, to the extent that his shipmates thought him insane.

Matt is far enough removed from the experience now that he can chuckle about it and strong enough in his constitution that he can be humble about saving a life and yet exuberant that he is alive to tell the story.

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