My Ship of Fools


"I had a Dominican girl there in Gonaives, and she come over to the boat and told me about this pig. I said, `A pig that look like a human?' I wanted to see that, because I'm curious, you know. I got some other guys to go with me. There were about three of us. And really, I saw the pig, you know. They had it in a fence. He would be walking around in circles, and half of him, the back, was pig. From the middle of the pig forward was like a human. His hand was like a human hand. I never did hear him talk, though. I waited a long time for him to say something, and he never did. But there's a Nicaraguan captain in Miragoane - where we're going right now - who some Haitians turned into a cow. You can see him. He has gold teeth, and he will talk to you. He'll say he's from so and so place and he has a wife and two kids. You see, this captain had sex with a little Haitian girl, and then he left her and went with a whore. The girl's parents turned him into a cow."

-Edward Scott, chief engineer

Miami was slipping below the horizon when the engine slowed gradually and then failed altogether. We were twenty miles out in the Gulf Stream at sunset and everyone on deck was pleasantly drunk. Charles Clinton Crawford, the second engineer, had been telling me about his divorce and his kids in Cleveland. We discovered we had grown up in the same place and were slapping each other on the shoulders and cuddling Charlie's white-and-tan bull terrier, who answered variously to the names Spot, Sport, and Spuds. It was Spuds's first ocean voyage, and he was still getting his sea legs. Even as we were teaching our little mascot to drink imported German beer, I had been noticing that Spuds's master got louder and louder the more he drank. I remembered someone telling me that on the last voyage the captain had found it necessary to beat Charlie stupid with a chair in a bar in Miragoane. At the same time, I was noticing that the low rumble coming from the engine room had been ominously decreasing for some time and finally seemed to have quit.

"Charlie," I said with a friendly smile. "What happened to the engine, anyway?"

"What engine?" he said, pitching a bottle into the swells.
"You know, the engine," I hinted.
He pricked up his ears. Then he offered a string of profanities and made a hobbling dash for the engine room. Charlie is a large and sturdy fellow, but he was born with one leg a weak and shrunken partner to the other. He made it halfway down the stairs from the bridge, tripped, and smashed his face against a bulkhead. At the same moment, Scott, the chief engineer, appeared from his cabin, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

"You sack of shit," he said, standing over Charlie and whacking him in the stomach with a flashlight. "You deaf, or what? We going to eat that dog for supper and then drop you on the first island we see." Scott disappeared down a ladder, and Charlie began crawling after him on all fours, bleeding from the mouth and nose and making strange noises.

The light was dying. The five-foot swells we had been riding for the last few hours were now throwing the engineless ship around with considerable vigor. Water was breaking across the deck, and the chains that held down a big refrigerated delivery van midway between the wheel house and the bow began to groan loudly with each roll of the ship. The cook, a black Carib from Honduras named Estanislao Zuniga-Glores, came up from the galley in an apron and muttered something in Garifuna. Adolfo "Rongo" Maybet, the second mate, explained: "Cookie say he sick. He say the refrigerator fall over and break all the eggs. Eggs all over the floor. Refrigerator still rolling around down there with all the pots and pans." The announcement set off an explosion of laughter in the captain. He lit a Newport and twirled the huge stainless steel rudder wheel pointlessly. The cook leaned over the side and threw up, then began a long coughing attack that sounded suspiciously tubercular.

Captain Joe stopped laughing abruptly and ran screaming out of the wheel house onto the bridge. Taking aim with a half-full bottle of Beck's, he pitched it long and high toward the plunging foreward mast. There, observing Captain Joe cooly, and not in the least impressed by the bottle that whizzed past its roost, sat a large, shadowy bird. Captain Joe squawked and flapped his arms for a time, then came back inside, resigned. "Fuck, boy! We doomed now for sure," he said, opening another bottle of beer with his teeth. "That's the worst kind of bad luck you can get, have a owl come and sit on your mast."

He was right, too, because fifteen minutes later, while Charlie and Scott were trying to pump 30 gallons of water that had mysteriously entered the starboard fuel tank, they blew out the electric generator. The cabins below and the pilothouse above went black. The running lights disappeared. With the generator gone, we pondered our situation in a dead and eerie silence. The Helena Sea was turning slowly in circles, drifting north in the Gulf Stream with no lights and no engine. We could see a big cruise ship coming toward us out of Miami.

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