Leaving Ashtabula
2 November 2023

It came on quick last night as we slipped our wires. Freezing wind careening in from the west.  I went aft to take my place on the stern and call spots as we reversed out of the tight slip.  The Canadian flag on the transom pole was blown rigid and snapped angrily above my head.  The gargantuan reverberations of the main engine shook the deck greatly and were channeled through my feet and body and made my inner ears tingle.  Not ten minutes earlier I had complained that I’d dressed too warm and now, suddenly, I found myself woefully underdressed.  I trained my eyes astern but try as I might I could barely muster twenty feet of visibility.  Our powerful floodlights had the reverse effect.  Refracting off the sideways snow and creating a blank wall of swirling nothingness.  

‘I can’t see much back here,’ I told the captain over the radio as the ass end of the ship moved slowly out into the harbour. The wind let up for a moment and I was just able to make out one of the flashing green buoys that demarcate the way through the piers and to the open lake. 

‘I’m not sure this is going to work,’ said the captain as the full length of the ship entered the open harbour and he struggled to get the old girl turned around.   The radio’s mic was inches from my ear, but I could barely make out his voice above the ship and the squalls deafening caterwaul.  The bow and stern thrusters cranked to full-thrust fought hard against the tremendous force of wind and water. The generators struggled and the stack belched black smoke against a blacker sky.

Finally the captain got the ship pointed in the right direction. The engines settled and I felt a palpable relief of tension as I walked forward to secure the anchors. Without the shelter of the aft superstructure the wind was savage on the main deck.  The snow felt like tiny plastic BBs pelting my face.  It was tough to keep my eyes open, so I tucked my chin into my coat and hobbled blindly on.  

The thing about winter sailing is, in those mellow summer months, we forget what a beast she can be.  Sooner than later we’re reminded and surprised by her vitriol.  But it was a brief salvo.  Just as quick as it came on us, it was gone.

‘That was a shitty little squall at the worst possible time,’ said the captain as we cleared the piers and made our way out into the open lake.  ‘What date is it anyway?’

‘October 31st,’ said the first mate from his spot up forward.

‘Halloween,’ said the captain.  ‘First snow.’

After a week at anchor, it felt good to be underway again, regardless the weather.  We’d all grown antsy waiting out the strike.  I chalked up 60 km’s running up and down the deck but that wasn’t enough to stop me climbing the walls.  From the navigation bridge we noticed the seasonal change.  The sky disappeared and became cloud, horizon to horizon, for days at a time.  The colour of the lake darkened.  I played pranks on one of my long-suffering colleagues to pass the time.  I had strange dreams.  I dreamt I had a two-foot-tall pet giraffe that I doted on.  And then I dreamt that I wrote the Tom Petty song ‘Depending on You’ in a single sitting to woo a woman.  Petty’s is a mighty oeuvre, but said song is a minor entry in his canon, and I wonder what flaring in my sleeping synapses chose that particular tune.  The woman, tellingly, was unimpressed.

I steered a six hour stretch up the St. Claire River this morning,during which the captain and I listened to a podcast on vexillology (the study of flags).  I’ve never been one for waving flags.  In fact, patriotism, like sports fandom, has always been a mystery to me.  An indecipherable alphabet.  Even as a child, as much as I longed to fit in, I balked at any kind of herd mentality, and it seems to me, that like religion, allegiance to a flag is as problematic as it is good.  Short of my love for people in it, and some of its geographical and cultural features, I feel no special affection for the country of my birth, or the countries of my parents’ births, though I am inextricably linked to them all. And before the men who grow misty-eyed on Remembrance Day work themselves into a lather, I am fully aware how lucky I am to be able to live in any one of them, and that I have the right to express myself however I choose without fear of censure or harm. But it doesn’t negate the fact that I’ve always felt a sense of unbelonging, and increasingly cynical about national identity.  An outlier if you will.

Just like Brian Wilson, I know perfectly well I’m not made for these times.  As quick to laughter as I appear. As ready as my smile may be, a brief glance at my newsfeed these days fills me with a mixture of bafflement, anger, sadness, and dread.   As I steered up the river, I scanned its east and west banks and the many flags fluttering on their pristine white poles, above the green, uber-maintained lawns of monied Canadians and Americans.  The vexillologist reminded me that a flag flown upside down is a traditional signal of distress.  In more modern times it has become an act of protest.  And a flag at half-mast is, of course, a universal sign of mourning.  

At this precise moment in time, there is ample cause to adjust our flags for all of the aforesaid reasons.  But for the life of me, hard as I looked, I couldn’t see a single one in either configuration.