strike the mizzenmast, we’ve hit the sandwich isle

2/21/12

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This story begins here, when we were kids. Left for weeks on end while our parents traveled the globe, Sean, Michelle and I used to do our own sort of travel in our bedroom: we’d slide Michelle’s crib over to our bunk bed, lash them together, and pretend we were on a ship sailing around the Hawaiian Islands.

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I had two things: the Fisher-Price Bowling Set (which acted as the steering controls) and an old Rand McNally map of the islands, which made me the captain. Sean worked the engine on the bottom bunk, and Michelle did whatever you did when you were three years old, mostly screaming in joy.

I was beginning to read vociferously of the world far away, mostly drawing from a National Geographic book of “Our World” that contained this picture of the lava eruptions at Kilauea:

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Lava fascinated me to no end – it was so dangerous, so beautiful, and so bizarre to think the Earth just belched up the contents of its interior whenever it felt like it. I could watch lava splash and harden for hours if there was footage.

Fast forward to last year, when a travel ad for Hawaii wordlessly pictured a small boat wandering along the coast in the evening, happening upon a spout of lava pouring into the ocean, as all the people watched breathlessly. I turned to Tessa and said “I want THAT!” When my mom’s birthday trip came together, Tessa, Lucy and I took a detour to the Big Island to make it happen.

Before you get on the boat, you have to look on the website and see what’s up – the volcano is in a pretty low phase right now, with nothing pouring into the ocean. But the company said there was lava on the hillside and humpback whales in the ocean, so we decided to err on the side of adventure.

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This has always been our mantra – all things being equal, do the more adventurous thing. It will likely still be our mantra after this experience. But we have been chastened.

The boat was a steel beast, able to seat about 22, with monster engines and a metal roof. It was the same size as one of those large tourist boats that cart passengers down the rivers of Europe. But the minute we launched into the water, we knew it would be rough. There had been weather warnings for days, and just getting past the beach coral, we experienced giant free-falls that were as stomach-churning as any roller coaster.

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However, we were up for the adventure, and simply held on through the worst waves, and held tighter when the rain started. The sun was still bright, we were going with the current, and the view was unlike anything you’ll ever see. It’s like God had a black candle, and dripped a coastline into place.

After 45 minutes or so, we turned around, but it wasn’t lost on us that we hadn’t seen any volcanic activity. One miserable old lady complained that she had been “promised lava” and made a disgusting stink about it while the tour guide tried to explain that he couldn’t control what the Earth was going to do on any given day.

As the sun set, we started going against the current for real. The winds started an ungodly howl, and the boat listed achingly side to side. As if on cue, someone shouted “there it is!” and sure enough, on the far hillside, a spurt of lava began making its way out of the ground.

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I tried taking pictures, but only one or two came out, since the boat was now violently throwing us around our seats. Lucy began to openly wish she was back home, and we told her we agreed, and it wouldn’t be long now.

But it was long. It was more than long. We hit one wave that threw all of us in the middle seats fully two feet into the air, coming back down on the metal with a horrible thud. Lucy was on my lap, which meant, basically, a sack of potatoes fell from a chandelier onto my balls.

Any guy who has really been nailed in the crotch can tell you that the first – and most pervasive – feeling is of overwhelming nausea. I kept a brave face, but Lucy was beginning a quiet little cry, and Tessa had the sense to move the three of us into the back part of the boat where things weren’t so violent. It helped, but not much.

I’m not a seasick-prone person, but once you’ve crossed that nausea threshold (and you’re on a boat that is being tossed around the Pacific), there’s no going back. I grit my teeth and commenced Operation Try Not To Barf, if only to show my little girl there was nothing to be afraid of.

The weather worsened. The sky turned pitch-black, and we lost the horizon. Monster 22-foot waves would suddenly appear like ghoulish black specters in front of us, and we’d brace ourselves, encircling Lucy with our legs, as the boat heaved over in sickening freefall.

We sang songs. Then we went through all the relatives that led to Lucy, going back to the 19th century. And then we could no longer talk. It was all we could do to keep breathing, as massive wave after wave threw the boat into oblivion. Then the passengers started vomiting.

The tour guide weakly said it’d be another 15 or 20 minutes, that they were battling headwinds, but that deadline came and went. It was 30 minutes, then 45, then an hour. We could occasionally see the light of some landing dock, miles away, but it never got any closer.

Perhaps I’m just a pussy, perhaps it’s luck, or perhaps there’s something I’m supposed to learn. 9/11, kidney stones, unfathomable pain, constant sickness… what do you take away from it? The boat trip back was an exercise in human endurance, actual torture. More than two hours in pitch black violent seas, no life jacket, soaking wet, trying to keep our 6-year-old (and ourselves) from flying into the side of a wave, all the while forcing ourselves not to vomit, through paroxysms of unbearable nausea.

When we finally got to shore, the captain, himself a shell of the man we’d seen when we came aboard, said it was the worst trip he’d ever known, and had contemplated turning around a few seconds after we started.

The other passengers, their legs like Jell-o, willed themselves down the ladder and wandered in a daze to their cars. A few of them, however, came straight up to Lucy and told her they couldn’t believe how brave and wonderful she was. And that is who I need to speak to now…

Lucy, since you were born, this blog has – in its own subtle way – been for you to read when you’re old enough to find it useful. A capsule of the time when your soul was taking shape. But it may also serve as a reminder of what lies inside you.

During the absolute worst part of that boat ride, as we were pitched far over and holding on for life, I could hear you humming. Humming! I don’t know what song it was, and you didn’t remember when I asked you, but it shows you possess an inner peace I have never had.

That experience wasn’t just the worst trip you’d ever been on, IT WAS THE WORST TRIP ANYBODY ON THE BOAT HAD EVER BEEN ON. And you looked at those gargantuan waves, felt your body rise into the air with no sense of when it would end, and you simply shrugged. And hummed.

You possess that in you. I want you to know that! And that’s only part of why, my little ice dancing, dog-training, soprano paleontologist, I love you so very, very much.

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