I receive word via email that Barry isn’t doing well. He had another shoulder surgery and the recovery has been tough. On the morning of my thirty-first birthday, a few days later, I learn that Barry my dear friend, my environmental hero, the man who guided and empowered me to live my dream has passed away at eighty-seven years old.
I walk the lagoon shallows that day, heavy with the loss, watching small sharks scavenge the shallow waters. Mourning Barry out in the natural world where he always turned for inner strength and renewal feels most appropriate. I toast him under the stars that evening with the last drops of a bottle of sherry he gave me. His parting comes so abruptly; I need some sort of goodbye sign a shooting star, a whisper on the wind, a quick stop on his way to the other side?
That first night, I wait for a visit until well after midnight. Each night after, I look up at the heavens and think of him. I imagine him sitting at the wooden seat on the stern of my boat, wrapped in his black wool peacoat.
My Birthday Parting Photo Gallery
A week or two later, I sit in the surf alone after arriving at a new island. Since Barry’s passing, there has been plenty of action: I dove with hordes of sharks, ran a tidal river in Swell, landed a yellowfin tuna, and swam with wild dolphins. Still no sign of him. Not even when I had to go up the mast at sea to retrieve the head of the furler because the stitching on the top of my genoa burst and the sail fell into the sea. The lineup feels lonely this morning. The sharky waters and shallow reef seem scarier than usual, and I let a few waves go by as tears flow down my face. I watch them drip into the sea off my chin.
Just then I notice something moving below the surface. A tiny jellyfish. All at once Barry is with me. On our last visit together, we went to lunch at the yacht club in Santa Barbara like always, and he gave me a blog in which a tiny species of jellyfish called the Lizzia blondina is described. Edward Forbes the humorous and passionate biologist, a contemporary of Charles Darwin discovered the pretty little invertebrate, and named it after a crush. Barry found it amusing and had marked the page and saved the blog for my visit.
He was in a wheelchair that day, and as I pushed him down the sidewalk near the beach after lunch, a large sand flea leapt frantically across the cement, desperate to find its element again. Barry leaned over to help the lost creature find its way, but before he could, a bird swooped down and picked it up, swallowing as it flew away.
“Well, we tried, Lizzy,” he sighed. “There comes a time for all of us to get recycled back into the seams of life, my dear.”
The little jellyfish dances and twirls just in front of me. Jellyfish are a rare sight in these waters, and never have I seen this sort of miniature, tasseled species. “Lizzia blondina,” I chuckle. Something assures me the little creature is here to comfort me.
More tears fall as I tell Barry how much I am going to miss him his scholarly wisdom, unfailing support, and thoughtful approach to life. His wit, philosophy, and tireless backing of people and causes he believed in. His efforts to make the world better. Our letters and lunches. I tell him that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for his foresight, encouragment, and generosity. The jellyfish stays close, pumping its many tentacles beside me.
“How can I ever thank you enough?” I ask him, “I often wonder what would have become of me if we hadn’t met. I don’t know how far I will make it, but you will live on with me every single day, on or off Swell. Thank you for believing in me. I love you, Barry.”
When I finally stop gushing, I hear his voice clearly in my mind.
“Now, now, Lizzy girl. The pleasure was all mine. I will be with you on the darkest nights and wildest days. Carry on, brave one, and don’t give up the ship!”
The dark line of a set wave lifts ahead of me and the little jellyfish disappears into the depths. “Don’t go!” I say.
My instinct is to follow it, but I hear his words again, “My girl, I am in your heart.”
I turn my board and paddle, smiling and crying as I drop in.
The outer islands treat me well aside from a few annoying men. It seems lately that men of any age find it perfectly appropriate to hit on me. Is this what happens to women in their thirties? I’ve dealt with it from men closer to my age throughout the voyage, but this is getting ridiculous. A middle-aged Frenchman is following me around like a puppy, an eighty-year-old doctor starts telling everyone I am his girlfriend, and a local fisherman’s favorite fishing hole seems to be right under my boat.
Swell is tied to a town quay on an atoll with a population of two hundred, when a French customs boat bristling with mounted guns arrives around midday. They launch their tender, and a group of uniformed men comes speeding over. The captain scrambles out and storms over.
“What are you doing here?” he demands in French. “This dock is for cargo ships and official French vessels only!”
“I’m so sorry, sir,” I reply. “The villagers told me that the next ship wouldn’t be in until Thursday. I think we can both fit here if I move my boat forward.”
“Where is your husband?” he demands. “Tell him he’ll have to move this boat right now!”
“I don’t have a husband,” I reply.
“You mean you’re alone?”
His expression morphs from anger to surprise. Then his brow softens entirely.
“Yes, I believe you’re right,” he chirps accommodatingly. “We can both fit if we move you forward.” He waves over the other men, who handle Swell’s lines while I motor her against the outgoing current, and the dark gray boat pulls in behind me.
The captain comes over with a clipboard in hand. I run down to get my official paperwork.
“You’re welcome to join us for dinner on board tonight,” he says. “And here’s my phone number so you can give me a call next time you’re in Papeete. I’d like to take you out for an evening on the town.”
He tears a square of paper from the clipboard and slips it into my hand, squeezing my fingers for an uncomfortably long pause while looking me up and down. Without checking my paperwork, he turns and walks back to his ship.
I am tired of feeling vulnerable to men. I dress in raggedy, oversized clothes and try to send out the message that I’m not interested, but often it doesn’t deter them. Once in the boatyard, and another time in a marina, I woke to young men staring down at me through my forward hatch in the night. Luckily, I’d been able to scare them both away.
A few days later I receive an email from Rainui. “My four-month trial period is ending. What if I come back?” he asks. “Could we try to be together? Could I live with you on the boat and find a way to make it work between us?” He isn’t taking to the winter weather and doesn’t like his commanding officials or his unit. His morale seems to be plunging. I am surprised by his proposition. I didn’t expect him to change his mind about the army so drastically.
I have some trepidations about this I love him, but living and traveling on a boat is a whole new level of intimacy, and I don’t know him that well. But he’s a fast learner, tough and hard-working. It will be another cross-cultural dating adventure, but Polynesians intrigue me their laid-back style, generosity, and intimacy with nature. They don’t hurry. They respect their roots, embrace their elders, and know how to live simply. All of this suits me. And cruising through the outer islands with him would be so much safer, easier, and more fun! It’ll put these suitors at bay, too, and who knows, maybe it will work out for the long haul?