Cape Horn: A Short Story

Ibrahim shook his head and laughed. He was too smart for him. He would not take the dare. He was already three shots of rum in, and the fourth might be the end of him.

“No, it’s your turn, he said, “unless you’re afraid, that is.”

The Englishman glared at him. He could abide many things on a long voyage, but a snickering challenge from a Bahamian galley-slave was not one of them. He felt  his head swim—six shots of rum to Ibrahim’s three—but he was certain he could meet the challenge. Certain as a dead man could be.

“Give it here,” the Englishman snarled. He grabbed the half-empty bottle from Ibrahim’s hands. A cold, low stare rose in Ibrahim’s eyes as he watched the Englishman swallow the rest of the rum.

There were three weeks’ wages in the bargain if he could drink and walk—all the way to the end of the bowsprit and back. It was no mean feat. The seas around the horn were up that night—way up. Curling gray beards of foam spit at them from waves out in the darkness. Thirty feet high, the ocean rose, and thirty feet down, the ocean fell, with each rolling swell.

The wind screamed like a mad man, but there was no man on the water that night madder than the Englishman. The rest of the rum now in his gut, he took his balance on the bowsprit of that ship, heaving in the swells, and began to walk—unsteady at first, then with more confidence as he found his legs beneath him. Two steps . . . Five steps . . . Ten more and he would be all the way there—all the way to the end of the sprit and back again, safely on board, where he would be the richest bastard among the crew with his winnings.

He had once said that seven was his lucky number, but his luck failed him that night, for it was the seventh step that brought his doom. At that moment, a great black wave—more like a mountain than a thing made of water—rose from the deep and swept him off his feet into the abyss, like a speck of dust. All that Ibrahim could see of the Englishman was the glow of his teeth from the light of the moon as his body flew away. He was looking back at him.  He could have been smiling, or he could have been screaming, but it didn’t matter. Either way, he was gone.

© 2014 by M. C. Hurley

I wrote this story on October 9, 2014 as part of an exercise at the Thursday night Writers’ Group meeting of LILA, Charleston’s Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts. Deborah Bernard, LILA’s executive director, was the moderator of the general fiction group I attended. With no advance notice to anyone, including me, Deborah opened to a random page of my novel, THE PRODIGAL, and read the first line she saw, which began, “Ibrahim shook his head and laughed.” We were all then given 19 minutes, exactly, to write a story flowing from that line. There were some wild tales told, and this was mine.  As readers of THE PRODIGAL will recognize, this story and the setting of Cape Horn have nothing to do with the plot of the book. It is instead a complete lark in another realm of fantasy, entirely. That was Deborah’s intention in the exercise, and that’s what made writing it so much fun. 

I want first to thank Deborah for forcing me to write something that gives readers of THE PRODIGAL a completely different perspective on the character of Ibrahim. I also want to highly recommend LILA and these groups to all writers. They’re a great way to connect with other writers and improve our craft. For more information about LILA, of which I am a proud new member, go to their website at



Money and the Muse’s Underwear

I was at a writer’s conference in Charleston, recently, where I had the pleasure of paying a great deal of money to listen to another interminable speech about the ongoing revolution in the publishing industry. Book publishing, it seems, has been revolting and revolving so much for so long that it must surely be about to come full circle. When it does, I hope to climb back aboard.

My ears pricked up when the speaker started to ask the audience for a show of hands according to those who wrote in particular genres. A forest of arms, most of them quite lovely, shot up when the romance genre was mentioned. There was a nearly equal but hairier showing of science fiction writers, and there were small but enthusiastic contingents of authors who wrote for the young adult, adult contemporary, Christian, crime thriller, mystery, and historical fiction markets. Finally, in a moment reminiscent of a child being the last one picked for the dodge-ball team, the speaker mentioned literary fiction. I was about to raise my hand when some smart aleck across the room shouted, “Do they even recognize that as a genre, anymore?” Laughter erupted. Cowardly, I kept my hand at my side.

It’s true. Literary fiction has become the red-headed stepchild of an industry increasingly driven by sales rankings and competition to fill diminishing shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores with bestsellers. But the obscurity of literary fiction is also partly due to the fact that it does not lend itself so easily to definition. We know what romance and science fiction are, but doesn’t every author consider his fiction “literary”?

My own view is that, whereas genre fiction tells a story, literary fiction paints a picture. Genre fiction is typically a linear tale in which characters are towed along from Point A to Point B by events in the plot. Literary fiction is often circular or stationary, with the story emerging largely from the inner life of the characters—what they think and say and desire and fear, moreso than what exciting or horrible events befall them. Genre fiction seeks primarily to entertain the reader. Literary fiction seeks variously to challenge, infuriate, confound, intrigue, or incite the reader. Genre fiction is an ice cream cone—simple, delicious, and loved by all, but not particularly memorable. Literary fiction can be either the most heavenly chateaubriand you ever tasted or the bad Chinese take-out that had you throwing up all night—either way, you won’t soon forget it.

Most genre novels today are what publishing guru Jane Friedman calls “commodity” fiction. As she observes, readers buy these books by the bag-full and read them voraciously one after another, like eating candy or potato chips. The point of this kind of reading is not to admire the language or the imagery or the symbolism of the story but to get to the end of the story as quickly as possible. Reading great literary fiction is, on the other hand, like taking a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You don’t sprint past the European Masters, and you don’t race through F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I read these lines in Tender is the Night, I had to put the book down until I was no longer too distracted by the imagery to pay attention to what came next:

Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.

. . . .

Out there the hot light clipped close her shadow and she retreated—it was too bright to see. Fifty yards away the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine; below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive.

. . . .

The sponsor of the story was a white-haired woman in full evening dress, obviously a relic of the previous evening, for a tiara still clung to her head and a discouraged orchid expired from her shoulder.

Just as I contemplated these lines for hours—days, even—some might sit and admire a single painting at the Met for a lifetime. But if you have ever watched a bored twelve-year-old slowly being towed through the Winslow Homer gallery, you have a pretty good idea of how some bloggers who are used to reading commodity fiction feel when they are handed a work of literary fiction to review.

An old friend of mine is now a rather famous and wealthy author of genre romance novels. He readily eschews any notion that what he is writing is literature, but his books literally fly off the shelves and into movie theaters. So successful has he become, and so hounded by his millions of female fans, that he now lives in a fenced compound guarded by $80,000 German shepherds specially trained to attack when they smell fear. I would visit him, but I am terrified I would stink up the place and quickly die a horrible death.

One unintended consequence of my old friend’s phenomenal success is that women occasionally drive by his estate and attempt to throw their underwear over the high fence. Some have stronger pitching arms than others, which I can only assume makes for an interesting decorative effect at the entrance to his house.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is long dead, and publishers aren’t likely to be throwing a great deal of money at writers of his ilk anytime soon. It’s simply not what the public is interested in buying anymore. I am undeterred by this and intend to soldier on among the happy few who still hear Fitzgerald’s muse. I have no gated mansion, and the Irish terrier who mostly sleeps in my front yard will welcome friend and foe alike with impunity—the smellier the better. But I wish to serve notice, here and now, that should any woman attempt to throw her underwear in my driveway, I intend to throw several pair of mine right back.

The Coming Thermal Inversion in Publishing

What will fundamentally change the publishing industry is not the rise of self-publishing or e-books but the rise of the non-reader.

One of my many useless theories about the future of mankind is that the publishing industry as we know it today won’t exist thirty years from now. Never mind for the moment that absolutely everyone, these days, is saying the same thing.  My theory is different.

First of all, I don’t keep quarter with those who believe Big Publishing will go the way of the buggy whip and the telephone booth.  On the contrary, companies like Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster are robustly profitable today, and the rise of e-books has only added to their largesse.  Profits are mostly up and will likely head higher in the near term. But there is a demographic flaw in their business model, and as with all demography, over time it will increasingly declare itself.  When (or more accurately, as) that happens, big publishers will have to adopt a vastly different model in order to survive. Rest assured they will do so.  Some have already started. The changes ahead will be more qualitative than quantitative.   Here’s what I mean, and why:

Publishing has historically had more in common with the auto industry than, say, the business of making great art or fine wine. You can’t go down to the local dealership and buy a new minivan made by a guy in his garage. The design, tooling, manufacture and distribution of automobiles are processes too complex and costly to be accomplished on anything but a grand scale. So it has been with books.

Until very recently, publishing a new book and bringing it to market meant a substantial investment in design, layout, typography, printing, warehousing, distribution, shipping, and returns.  Printing the first book cost just as much as printing the first five thousand books, which meant that in order to recover those costs and make a profit you had to find a way to distribute, market and sell thousands of physical copies. If you were an unknown author—even a very good one—you were not only dependent on irascible bookstore owners to stock your book, you faced the daunting task of getting thousands of their customers to pay the same price for a book by an author they’d never heard of as they would for the blockbuster displayed at the front of the store. The likelihood of commercial success with any debut author was low to the point of despair. Henry David Thoreau, a few years after financing the publication of his first book and seeing most of the copies returned unsold, famously lamented: “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head.”

For decades, big publishers have enjoyed economies of scale that individual authors and smaller publishers did not. The big publishers lost money on most books, but the few that did make money made enough to grow their business and build demand for those profitable authors who then became part of the publisher’s brand.  Authors needed publishers to reach readers, publishers needed bookstores to sell books, and bookstores needed books by popular authors to attract customers. Thus began the codependency among publishers, authors and booksellers that continues to this day.  So, why would this ever change?

If you are a writer or follow the publishing business, you’ve been hearing for the last five to ten years about how the revolution in e-books and print-on-demand technology is empowering authors to become self-publishers, transforming the bookselling industry, and “leveling the playing field.”  All that is true—to a point.  You can publish a professional looking book today in paperback and e-book format, sell it on Amazon alongside bestsellers for absolutely zero investment, and start making money off the first copy sold. Yet despite all the hype, don’t bet on David beating Goliath anytime soon.

Most of the revolutionary chatter comes from the cottage industry in “author services” that has grown up like kudzu around the new self-publishing technologies. These are individuals and companies whose survival depends on stoking the demand for book design and layout, copyediting, marketing and promotion, writers’ conferences and workshops, editorial reviews, distribution, and publicity. Yet despite all the hopeful talk about a proletariat revolution in publishing, it seems to remain stubbornly “just around the corner.” The average self-published book still sells only about 50 copies—mostly to longsuffering friends and family.  Unless large numbers of readers are searching for it specifically, one book among the twenty million for sale on Amazon can be even less visible in the digital marketplace than a single copy shelved spine-out on the bottom shelf in the back of a bookstore. What is it, then, that threatens the hegemony of big publishers in the trade fiction market?

Um, nothing.

Sorry—if you were expecting a vision of the future in which the president of Hachette sells books out of the trunk of his car while limousines full of self-published Kindle millionaires cruise past him on Fifth Avenue, you’re lost and looking for Hugh Howey’s latest book in the science fiction section. That’s not the kind of revolution I’m talking about. What will fundamentally change the publishing industry is not the rise of self-publishing or e-books but the rise of the non-reader.

Publishers in general and big publishers, in particular, thrived in the past because a substantial portion of the public was interested in what they were selling, which by and large were works of serious literary or artistic merit. Books by writers like Sinclair, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wilder, Orwell, Conrad and Fitzgerald did not become classics because The New York Times decided they should be. These books sold millions of copies because everyone from professors to housewives to plumbers to truck drivers to policemen to schoolteachers to welders wanted to read them—and did. For the post-war generation, the “viral” books were works of meaning and importance like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Catch 22, and Trout Fishing in America. The publishers who signed these writers gained not only profits but, more importantly, the literary street-cred that attracted the most talented new authors to their fold and the next bestsellers to their catalogs.  This model is now shifting in response to fundamental changes in American readership or, more to the point, the rise of the American non-reader.

The grim statistics are everywhere:  In 2011, SAT reading scores for American high school seniors reached the lowest point in nearly four decades. (That’s forty years for you recent graduates.) According to a study entitled “To Read or Not to Read,” released by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007, the average American spends two hours a day watching television but only seven minutes reading. “Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure,” the study found, adding: “Even when reading does occur, it competes with other media. This multitasking suggests less focused engagement with a text.”  The rise in non-readers is not confined to the adolescent years. The same study found a 7 percent decline between 1992 and 2002 in the number of 18 to 44-year-olds who had read a book for pleasure.

All of this bad news seems to be a function of a broader coarsening and dumbing down of American culture. The examples of this are depressingly numerous, but this one suffices for me: In 2006, a survey by National Geographic found that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate the State of New York on a map. (If one excludes the survey respondents actually living in New York, the percentage must be quite a bit more than half.)  In January of 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that 23 percent of Americans had not read a book of any kind in the past year. In 1990, that number was 16 percent. In 1978, it was 8 percent—a steady three-fold increase in 36 years.  The Atlantic reported the story in an article entitled, “The Decline of the American Book Lover.” If this trend continues, by the time the last Baby Boomer turns 80 in 2044, more than half the country will be non-readers.  (I realize that the trends I have briefly noted, here, pose far more serious and worrisome consequences for American life than the decline of the publishing industry. This article is written solely from the viewpoint of those who might wish to sell the country a good book to carry in its hand basket on the way to perdition.)

Big publishers that built their bones on such meaty fare as The Good Earth, The Yearling, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gone with the Wind are are increasingly forced to subsist on cotton candy like Fifty Shades of Grey.  These thinly drawn works, populated by two-dimensional characters who serve mainly as props to drive the relentless plot-action, are (not surprisingly) similar in content and pacing to the video games the majority of younger readers grew up playing. The authors of these books dare not risk exceeding the reader’s ever-shrinking attention span by spending too much time fleshing out the inner lives and motivations of characters before moving on to the next explosion or seduction scene. The result is a book as mindlessly enjoyable as a stick of Double-Bubble and about as memorable after you’re done with it.

I am hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon. In an article entitled “The Death of Literary Fiction?” posted in September 2012, reported on several recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels that were struggling to stay in the top 100,000 in Amazon’s rankings. Forty years ago these books would have been in the top 10. In May of this year, an article by Will Self in The Guardian entitled, “The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” reported, “Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”  The writer’s pessimistic conclusion? “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.”

If you don’t believe these doomsayers, go to the Random House website and use the search interface to generate a list of that publisher’s all-time bestselling fiction. Books in the Fifty Shades series claim the top three spots and six of the top ten.  Still not convinced? Go to the list of the “100 Best Novels” compiled by Modern Library—a Random House imprint. These are the most respected works in western literature according to editors who should know. There is not a single novel published later than 1983 on the list.

What I believe will become of venerable, old school publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins is something comparable to “thermal inversion.”  In its common usage that term refers to the process of lake water “rolling over” as the layer of cooler surface water from melting ice sinks and warmer bottom water rises.  The forces that cause this—seasonal changes in air and water temperature—build slowly, but once they reach critical mass the process of inversion occurs all of a sudden. To people visiting the northern lakes during the spring thaw, one day the air will inexplicably smell of rotten eggs. Natives know that the sulfur gas once trapped in warmer water deep below the ice has risen to the surface.

How and why will a kind of “thermal inversion” happen to Big Publishing? Currently, telling someone that your next book is being published by Random House is akin to saying you lettered in crew at Harvard. The name alone says something about a writer’s intelligence and talent because of the kind and quality of books published by Random House.  However, big publishers must make money to survive. As the years wear on and demography demands its due, “survival” for big publishers will require them to devote an increasing share of their catalogs to novels about alien invasions and women being abused with whips and chains, because that apparently is what the next generation of adult readers is most eager to buy. Smut and banality will float to the top of the market and thrive; works of meaning and originality will sink to the bottom and languish there, mostly unseen and unread. As this trend continues and grows, it will become harder for publishers to justify spending the money needed to purchase and publish serious novels. Even more importantly, serious novelists will be less interested in becoming associated with their brand.

Something very similar has already happened to the film industry. Today, you’ll hear excitement about a new film of serious, artistic merit coming soon, only to discover that it’s not being released in your town, or if it is, it is being shown for only a limited engagement at a few art house theaters. If you’re over fifty, you remember the days when major Hollywood studios regularly produced  phenomenal works of artistic merit for the silver screen nationwide.  The Bridge on the River Kwai, 12 Angry Men, Peyton Place, and Witness for the Prosecution were all nominated for Best Picture in a single year—1957. All of these films are regarded as classis of the genre. Today, we are surprised if the major studios produce a true classic every five or ten years. Great dramatic works are still being produced, but more often by smaller, indie filmmakers and for niche audiences on television. Cable TV has created a market for theatrical content that is balkanized according to the income, education, religion, race, creed and class of the consumer. When Hollywood wants to make money selling something to wide swaths of the American public, today, it gives us another sequel to The Hangover and Jackass.

As it has become with serious theater, so it will be serious literary fiction. The authors who once flocked to big publishers for the prestige and the money will flock elsewhere once the prestige and the money are gone. These authors will give self-publishing and indie publishing cache similar to indie filmmaking, artisanal cheese making or craft brewing, either because traditional publishers are less interested in them, or they are less interested in traditional publishers, or both. The revolution will come full circle when the National Book Award goes to a self-published title that Barnes & Noble initially refused to stock in stores and that previously sold only 189 copies on Amazon.  It could happen.

Why won’t the rise of self-publishing, generally—including novels like Fifty Shades, which was originally self-published—spell doom for big publishers?  The fact that Fifty Shades has since made millions for Random House provides the most obvious answer to that question, at least in part. Big publishers will offer to buy the rights to the few self-published works that break out, go viral and sell. Most of these emerging authors will be happy to take their money, because a traditional publisher’s bigger megaphone can only magnify the viral nature of their success.  When you see a phenomenally popular book and hear that it “used to be self-published,” this is why.

But what about the continued attrition of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Barnes & Noble’s own projections call for closing 20 percent of its stores in the next ten years, and the percentage of smaller stores without BN’s deep pockets that will close in that time is likely to be much higher.  Once bookstores are removed as gatekeepers to the distribution of physical books and big publishers have to compete entirely online, won’t that be the beginning of the end?  Not likely. Regardless of the sales arena in which big publishers are forced to compete for readers’ attention, they will always be bigger and better funded competitors than you and me. What they can’t control, however, and what is likely to change their culture if not their profits, is the evolution of the American reader.  Bubba don’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Big Publishing needs Bubba a lot more than it needs Gatsby, no matter how Tender is the Night. What Bubba wants Big Publishing is sure to give him, because what Big Publishing fears most is becoming Small Publishing.  And it’s likely to smell a little funky in the end, just you wait.

The Deal

Hlt9tslegJqGlDegJ7wxfOsI80wOver a crackly cell phone connection this afternoon in an Atlanta Bread Company cafe in Charleston, amid whirring blenders and grinding ice machines, I could hear just enough of the three-way conference call with producer Diane Isaacs and editor Kiffer Brown to know that we had come to terms. “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin'” as Billy Preston would say, and nothin’ but a dream is exactly what I’ve got at the moment. But when your dream is shared by people who are in the dream-making business, well, that’s really something.

Diane Sillan Isaacs is the Hollywood producer who has taken a shine to The Prodigal and today agreed to take on the job of bringing it to a movie theater near you.   She is the former head of Green Moon Productions in Santa Monica, the film company started by Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Some of her notable producing credits include Imagining Argentina, starring Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, and Crazy in Alabama, starring Melanie Griffith, David Morse and Lucas Black.

Crazy in Alabama Theatrical Trailer.

Diane and Griffith were friends as children.  After film school at NYU and a stint with the David Letterman Show, Diane answered Don Johnson’s call to help out on Miami Vice, eventually becoming associate producer of the show that helped guest actors like Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis rise to stardom.

Today, Diane is out on her own and living in the Pacific Northwest, where she ran across Chanticleer Reviews editor Kiffer Brown at a cocktail party. Chanticleer just awarded The Prodigal the Somerset Prize for mainstream fiction. Diane asked Kiffer if she’d read any good books lately, and here we are.

Which is to say, really, in La-La Land.  I for one am refusing to be infected by Diane’s enthusiasm even as I am cheering her on, simply because I am not eager to claim my star on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Whenever an unknown author tells you he expects his book to be made into a movie, you should mentally add the words, “and also expects to be an astronaut.” One is about as likely as the other. There are more movies languishing in “development” than there are souls in purgatory.

But dreams are funny things.  They appear from nothing, refuse to die, and have the strangest habit of coming true at the darkest hour, when all seems lost.  Sounds like a novel I know.


Tinseltown Dreams

Well, it’s officially unofficial.  The call from the west coast came today at 3:29 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time: The Prodigal is in play for a Hollywood movie deal and being shopped around by a Real Live Producer.

Of course, that little bit of news and $4.25 will get me a ridiculously overpriced cup of something at Starbucks (where I never go unless someone else is paying). Carly Simon would tell me that my movie dreams are just clouds in my coffee, and she would be right, but they certainly are cheaper, less fattening, and longer lasting than a salted caramel latte.

Why am I mentioning this now? Why trade on hypothetical, wannabe fame and not wait for my fifteen minutes of actual fame on the red carpet? Apart from the obvious answer—the relentless care and feeding of my enormous ego—the reason is statistics, my friend.

The good news: only one percent of all novels are ever optioned for film.  (Yay Prodigal!)  The bad news: only one percent of books optioned for film ever make it out of “development” onto the silver screen.  (Boo Hollywood!) Very likely the most I’ll get out of this whole flirtation is the fun I’m having telling you about it, right now.  If I’m lucky, maybe the buzz will sell an actual book or two and I’ll be able to afford my own salted caramel latte.

The details are super secret (of course), but what I learned just today from my “contact” (also secret) on the “west coast” (sounds cooler than the actual town) is that a producer with several feature films to her credit starring A-list actors YOU WOULD DEFINITELY KNOW has convinced a no-fooling, two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter who wrote  the scripts for several blockbuster movies YOU WOULD DEFINITELY KNOW to be the consulting scriptwriter for the project to bring The Prodigal to film. She (the producer) is starting to line up the money people and angling to get a major Hollywood heartthrob YOU WOULD DEFINITELY KNOW to play the male lead. I was told that an “MOU” (I had no clue this meant “Memorandum of Understanding” until I Googled it) is coming my way to clear the path for all this to happen.

So, there you have it. All this and the Earth still remains firmly, inexplicably attached to my feet, and my phone stubbornly still refuses to ring.

What, me so vain? Not a chance, Carly.  But all this celebrity is enough to make a writer thirsty.  Say, Buddy, can you spare $4.25 for a latte?

17 Days Alone At Sea

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn May of this year, for a little diversion (and to deliver a new boat to my new home), I decided to sail to Bermuda. I set out from Annapolis and was headed ultimately to Charleston, a voyage of some 1500 miles.  I was alone aboard Prodigal, a thirty-foot ketch built in 1965 that I bought for less than the price of a rusted Ford Fairlane, unaware that the cost of fixing her up would come in somewhere north of a shiny new BMW (which explains why I am driving the cheapest Fiat I could find and coasting down hills).

As it turned out, I missed making landfall in Bermuda by forty-five miles.  After four days of sailing down Chesapeake Bay and six days out to sea, through nerve-wracking gales and insufferable calms, I came to the southwestern tip of the island. Right on cue, a nor’easter blowing out of St. George’s Harbor pushed me back out to sea and tore my timetable to shreds.  I could do nothing more than run before the storm in the direction of Charleston and the way home.   Before I came ashore at Masonboro Inlet in North Carolina (more about that unusual navigation, later), I had been at sea for seventeen days—thirteen out of sight of land. For many days at a time I saw no other ships nor a single, solitary thing created by the hand of man beyond the hull of my vessel.

I was of course disappointed not to come ashore in Bermuda—not because I pine for pink houses and brown beer, but because Bermuda is a long, long way from the East Coast and an even  longer way to come for no reason.  Except there was a reason and, as it turned out, a very worthwhile one.

Quite by the accident of weather, I got to spend the entirety of seventeen days in the sole company of the sea—that great, clarifying solvent of man’s uncertainties and self-doubt.  In my solitude, when I was not reading or sleeping, I was regularly employed in the two favorite pastimes of frightened sailors everywhere: prayer and penitence. As a result I learned a few things, and for what profit there might be in it for others, I want to share my experience.

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1). I have often wondered what the writer of Revelation meant in telling us that, in the end, something so lovely and beloved of humankind as the sea—our most reliable source of sustenance and means of travel—must one day be no more.  But after being at the ocean’s mercy for such a long time, I think I finally understand. 

The ocean is Death. 

That may sound harsh, but it is certainly the way I conditioned myself to look upon the briny deep during this voyage. What is death but an abyss, and what abyss is more inscrutable than the deep blue sea?

Since I first learned to sail under my brother’s tutelage on Chesapeake Bay and through a half-dozen sailboats of various sizes I owned in the years since, I had never ventured more than a day’s distance  from land and the promise of aid.  Bermuda would be different. I knew this when I set out, which is what made it at once so alluring and so terrifying. Getting to Bermuda meant crossing 700 miles of open ocean in the North Atlantic in a boat that, on a very good day with a favorable wind and gentle, following seas, can travel 125 miles.  Commit to such a voyage, and in a few days you have surrendered to something immovable, unpitying, and utterly indifferent to your vaunted sense of self-worth and autonomy.  You have subjected yourself to the capricious authority of wind and wave.  There is no mercy in that hall.  One misstep, one moment of carelessness, one instant of inattention will change the single-handed sailor’s world forever.  Fall overboard while your vessel sails on without you, and help, if it comes at all, will be days away.  Death from hypothermia, dehydration, and delirium will be hours away. When you’re Out There, you’re Out There.  For a long, long, long time.

And so I was.  Out there. 

I knew this voyage would require a mental discipline to which my life, of late, has grown unaccustomed.  I was delighted to discover that I did not despair, and that I found a well of faith and resilience that I had hoped but wasn’t sure I could draw upon in the darker moments. That well springs from something else I came to understand.

The ocean is Life. 

Charles Darwin and the writer of Genesis held this philosophy in common.  “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly.” (Genesis 1:21).  If we believe that the sea, through some unfathomable divine agency, “brought forth . . . every living creature that moveth,” we (like Darwin) must also accept that the sea is the material source and summation of all things. It was there in the beginning.  It will be there in the end. We cannot change it, stop it. contain it, or delay it.  It waits for no man. President Kennedy believed that man is drawn to the sea because the salinity of the blood in his veins is exactly the same as the salinity of sea water. Perhaps we pine for it because we somehow “remember” it on a molecular level.

What I discovered in my time at sea is that Life and Death are two sides of the same coin.  You cannot have one without the other. The sea is the germinator of both.  In this voyage I delighted at the sheer joy of a family of dolphins who lined up, some fifteen animals in a straight row as if they were on a starting line, until someone said “go” and they all sprinted to see who could reach my boat the fastest.  The victor leapt and spun in the air.  They were a vision of life lived for the sake of life itself, unbridled and untamed.  I loved watching them.  Yet one day the sea will devour their bones.  Flying fish thrill with speed and acrobatics, but each morning I would find one or two marooned on deck, stiff and lifeless. There is no sadness in this, only understanding.  Death is a certainty, not an occasion for despair.  It is the reason why we celebrate life and the promise of eternity.

On the voyage home, I was able to lay the rhumbline (a direct course) for Charleston for five days and five hundred miles.  With a push from that Bermudian nor’easter, I was making good time.  Then came the Gulf Stream and another shift in the wind to change my fortunes. When I was exactly 165 miles due east of the Charleston sea buoy, the wind veered to the west. Just as it had blown directly from Bermuda when I attempted to land there, now it was blowing directly from Fort Sumter and blocking my path toward the channel that would take me home. 

The immutable reality of a sailboat is that it cannot make way directly against the wind. It must tack to move forward, and so I tacked to the north.  I soon discovered that this change in direction, aided by the current of the Gulf Stream, put Prodigal on a collision course with Frying Pan shoals, eighty miles to the north of my position.  Hit those shoals, and the destruction of your vessel is a certainty.  The shoals lie within the Gulf Stream, with waves regularly above ten feet.  No vessel with her keel buried in the sand can long survive that kind of pounding.

So, I altered course to sail north around Cape Fear, giving up two days and a two hundred miles of hard-won progress. I also kept a watchful eye on the chart to ensure that if the wind shifted again overnight I could react in time to change course and still skirt the shoals by a wide margin.  Prodigal took a terrific beating in yet another gale and huge seas in the Gulf Stream, but in the end all was well.  On day seventeen I pulled into a secure berth at Seapath Marina in Wrightsville Beach to see my wife for the first time in a month before motoring the boat to Southport for the final sail to Charleston that I expected to take no more than two days.  I had made that voyage many times before.

The irony is not lost on me that, as I departed Southport on Memorial Day bound for Charleston, on a course safely inside the shoals, the wind shifted to the south and increased again to gale force.  I was again impeded in reaching my desired goal and again obliged to tack against the forces of nature.  After three days of fighting big seas and strong winds I was exhausted and had made only about eighty miles of progress.  I was near Wynah Bay and Georgetown, South Carolina, still forty-five miles from Charleston.  (The number forty-five loomed large in this voyage for reasons unclear to me.)

I had sought refuge from rough weather in Wynah Bay once before—eleven years ago when sailing with my son—but I had never gone all the way up the long channel to Georgetown.  I needed to go to Georgetown because my vacation time was up.  I had to find a port where I could leave the boat and hire a captain to motor it the remaining forty-five miles to Charleston through the ICW while I returned to work in Raleigh.  A hearing was scheduled in a case for one of my clients, and I couldn’t risk missing it.

There was a problem, however. I didn’t have a detailed chart for waters as far inland as Georgetown, and my GPS chart-plotter was not showing any marinas there.  I was still far offshore, and I didn’t want to waste the time it would take to sail for Wynah Bay and head all the way up the river to Georgetown if there were no place to leave the boat.   So I radioed the Coast Guard to ask for information about marinas in the area.

No one answered.  I was twenty-five miles offshore and apparently out of radio range—or so I thought.  After making this call I left the radio on and busied myself with some other chore that needed to be done.  Then a calm voice came over the speaker.

It was the skipper aboard another ship in the area.  He had answered a call sent from the Coast Guard in Charleston, which had received my radio signal but was unable to reach me because my radio receiver was not powerful enough.  The Coast Guard sent a message to vessels in the area to relay a message to me, and this man had responded.

He was extremely helpful, as sailors invariably are when one of their number needs even the smallest gesture of help.  He told me that Georgetown most certainly did have a marina—several, in fact—where a transient vessel might find a berth for the night, and he even gave me a telephone number of one to call when I was in range.  It was reassuring to know this as I headed toward Wynah Bay late in the day. 

When I was finally in range, I made contact with the Harborwalk Marina in Georgetown, whose friendly staff waited for my arrival and guided me safely into the channel.  Once I was secure at their dock, they found a local sailor with some time on his hands to take my boat down “the ditch,” as the Intracoastal Waterway is called, while I attended to business in Raleigh. I enjoyed a wonderful steak dinner that night at a local restaurant and the company of many fellow sailors eager to hear of my travails and flirtation with Bermuda. 

Like Tennessee Williams’ famous heroine I have, throughout my life, depended on the kindness of strangers. This voyage was no exception.  It was by design that I named my little ship Prodigal, for I have more than once felt an affinity with the son whose tale of woe met with unmerited kindness and redemption gives hope to us all.  We all wait on that heavenly hope, and we surely can rely upon it.  I know I did that long, tired day as I searched for a way home.  I recognized that hope by name as soon as I heard the friendly voice of the captain who responded to Prodigal’s call for help and reassured me that a safe harbor awaited me in Georgetown.  “This is the motor vessel Providence,” he said.  “I hear you loud and clear.” 


The Morning of Our Hope

Today is Easter, the highest, holiest day of the church year. Across the world, hundreds of millions of Christians will enter a sanctuary and recite a profession of faith that begins with the words, “We believe.” This is the start of the creed named after the Council of Nicaea, first convened in the year 325 A.D., whose purpose was to find consensus within the fledgling church about just what, exactly, “we believe.” The Nicene Creed settled that question for the early church, and through all the controversy and conflict of the succeeding seventeen centuries, it has remained remarkably, substantially unchanged. Catholics and Protestants, for all their differences, are united in the belief in “one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

That “maker of heaven and earth” part of the creed has always intrigued me. Notwithstanding the observable fact that species do adapt and evolve as nature selects the strong from the weak, few of us are intellectually satisfied with evolution as an explanation for the origin of things. The idea that the wondrously complex design of our physical world exploded into existence from a formless void and fell accidentally into a perfectly well-ordered whole, with the Earth settling into orbit at the perfect distance and angle from the sun and moon for the precisely correct gravity, temperature, pressure and atmosphere—and all this before the first tiny proteins mysteriously appeared and started rolling down the long, random path that would lead to Beethoven and Einstein—seems suspiciously unlikely. Most of us still leave the origin of things to faith—to God—because any rational attempt to answer the question of why we are here at all is too vastly improbable to accept. This is partly why more than a few notable progressives, intellectuals, scientists, and Hollywood celebrities who would never openly discuss their faith will skulk into a church somewhere today and return when the time comes to baptize their children. It is the reason why so many around the world recite the ancient creed that begins with the words, “We believe.”

Choosing the God of Abraham over the exploding-cigar theory of the universe is one thing. But believing that an obscure Palestinian Jew rose from the dead to save mankind, which is what Easter and Christianity are all about, is something else entirely. Nothing is more central to the Nicene Creed than the resurrection, but do we today truly accept that as a fact? We might have an intuitive sense that there is a God, but isn’t the whole idea of the resurrection altogether wildly improbable, seemingly unnecessary, and conveniently lacking in proof? As author Lee Strobel so aptly demonstrates in his bestselling book, The Case for Christ, to answer that question it helps to begin with the negative premise and work backwards. 

If it is false that Christ rose from the dead, a great many events and phenomena we know to be true would also have to be false. Some of what Strobel’s research has to teach us on that subject I have summarized, below.

We know it to be true that the apostles preached in the first century to people who would have been alive and present to see the miracles of Christ’s ministry and resurrection or who would have known living friends and family members who could report whether those events occurred. Scholars believe that the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians between 53 and 57 A.D., or approximately twenty to twenty-four years after the crucifixion of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul writes that, after the resurrection, Christ “appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” It would be pointless for Paul to refer to five hundred eyewitnesses if there were none, and it would be impossible to convince five hundred actual eyewitnesses to say they saw something they did not. It would be equally impossible to persuade them to report the identical illusion to all their families and friends, to continue to do so for generations, and finally to lay down their lives for the sake of upholding a charade.

We know it to be true that the apostles, based on what they actually witnessed—not what they were indoctrinated to believe or were asked simply to accept on faith—devoted their lives to a cause that offered neither wealth nor power nor safety nor status nor material comfort. With direct, personal knowledge of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, they chose to accept imprisonment, torture, and death rather than renounce what they had witnessed.

We also know, of course, that religious faith can be subverted and become a powerful self-delusion, as tragically proved by people who blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces in the belief that this murder pleases God and will be rewarded in paradise. But jihadists act on blind faith in a religious history twisted and taught to them by others who themselves have no personal knowledge of that history. The apostles acted on, and died for, what they had seen with their own eyes. As the risen Christ said to them, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Many people over the years have died for the sake of a lie they fervently and tragically believed to be true, but what man willingly goes to his doom for the sake of a lie he knows to be a lie, much less a lie that promises only suffering in this life and, because it is a lie, no hope in death?

We know it to be true that if the established political and religious orders of the day who violently opposed Christ’s early followers could have so easily dismissed the story of the gospel by showing it to be an utter fabrication they would certainly have done so, yet there is no historical record of any such official, factual rebuttal. On the contrary, the stories of the gospel were considered so credible by the people who witnessed the events they describe, or whose fathers and mothers and grandparents and friends had witnessed those events, that long before the letters we know as the New Testament were collected into one book, they were already the mostly widely circulated and copied documents of all time. Before the age of moveable type, much less the Internet, the Good News was bigger than any bestseller in history and more “viral” than all of the videos on YouTube, combined.

We know it to be true that, since the first Easter, the miraculous claims of Christ’s very public ministry, death and resurrection have not been publicly duplicated or even credibly alleged by a single human being. There are other religions with other prophets and creeds whose validity we need not question, because Christ’s claim to be not merely a prophet but the incarnate deity, backed up by a long resume of public miracles, has no credible corollary in all of human history. If it were possible for an itinerant vagabond of first-century Palestine to pull off such a monumental fraud, it would surely have been repeated by a long line of religious charlatans hoping for the same power and glory.  After all, Bernie Madoff is in prison not for a Madoff scheme, but for a Ponzi scheme. He was not the first, and sadly he will not be the last.  When fraud works for one, it tends to be repeated by others.  Who has repeated the life of Christ?

I was visiting my son recently in Dallas, where he moved to accept his first job after college.  The tour of his Spartan apartment took all of eleven seconds, after which we were looking for some touristy things to do together.  Kip, who was born in 1990, was only vaguely aware that the city where he now lives is forever associated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.  I decided he should see Dealey Plaza.

The site of Kennedy’s death, now more than fifty years distant, is still a shrine of public fascination. Even today, it seems impossible that someone who shone so brightly in our national firmament could have been taken from us in an instant by someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Tourists mingle everywhere in the Texas sunshine around the place where Kennedy died.  His exact locations at the time he was struck by the first, then the second bullet from Oswald’s rifle are marked on the pavement of Elm Street with two white exes.  The sixth floor of the book depository from which Oswald took aim is now a museum.  Hundreds of thousands visit yearly—still.  Kennedy is glorified today as an icon nonpareil of youthful, American manhood. His memory is cherished around the world, and his philosophical disciples in the media, the arts, the academy, and politics are numerous and powerful.  Yet if any one of them claimed tomorrow that John F. Kennedy had risen from the dead, no one would believe it.  The book describing his resurrection would not be copied and read by millions and billions.  No one would publish it.  No one would harbor such a faith.  No faithful would gather, no cathedrals would be built, and no movement of the risen John F. Kennedy would sweep the world and shape all of human civilization.  No such lie would ever have any such power.

People would not believe such a claim even though most of them were not alive at the time Kennedy was killed and could not refute the claim from personal experience.  Their parents and grandparents would tell them the truth. They would not believe it even though none of them ever saw the body.  Those of us who did live through those awful days would not believe it no matter how desperately we might want to piece back together the shattered world of Camelot.  None of the millions of friends and loyal supporters of John F. Kennedy could be united to recite a belief in such a creed.  Their sorrow and their incredulity would be too great.

And yet today on Easter, as on all the Easters for all the centuries since Christ walked among us, the chorus goes up from lips too numerous to count in churches across the globe, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,  the only Son of God”; that he was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”; that he “suffered death and was buried, . . .”

And that “on the third day, he rose again.”

We will never know the truth of the resurrection as a scientific fact, and that is hardly our goal.  It will not be on the news at eleven, and we cannot follow Geraldo into the tomb.  But we can know the truth by the power of faith given weight by the length and breadth of two thousand years of human experience.  This is why, “We believe.”

Happy Easter.

© 2014 by Michael Hurley

The Night of Our Despair

A curious figure of Anglican liturgy who has always caught my eye is the verger.  He is that somber fellow who comes into church ahead of the priest in the processional, dressed in black and carrying a rather severe looking baton capped with an equally unyielding, silver cross.  It is a weapon—a canonical billy club, for want of a better term.  The verger is the “heat,” the protector of the faithful, an historical remnant of what was once something like the priest’s Secret Service detail.  His ceremonial office derives from the not infrequent need in ancient Christianity for a stout man who would brook no nonsense from the crowd and use a stick carried in hand—a “verge”—to defend the priest against an unruly and unbelieving mob.

The verger entered the cathedral of Grace Episcopal Church here in Charleston for Maundy Thursday service, yesterday, carrying his staff firmly and confidently as usual.  But after the footwashing and Passion, in which the church annually remembers our Lord being led away to suffering and death and his disciples scattering in fear, the verger left the church empty-handed. The surrender of this weapon symbolizes those dark hours of hopelessness and danger for the followers of Christ, who had witnessed the  torture and death of their protector and feared the same fate for themselves.  Not for nothing did Peter deny Christ. None of them could yet imagine the power of the resurrection against the power of Rome.  All was lost. Their world had ended. Their shepherd was gone, and they were truly defenseless without him against the malevolent forces of the world.

So too today, Good Friday, the verger entered the darkened church carrying no weapon to defend us against those forces.  He led the priest to the empty altar draped in black—an image of the despair of death still so distant from the unimaginable joy of Easter.  Today, we as the shepherd’s flock are meant to feel our vulnerability and the precariousness of our situation. Without Christ, we are utterly lost.  We cower in darkness, powerless before the enemies of the light. We, like the disciples, are armed with only the thin, bending reed of our faltering faith.

But hope rises amid despair.  For in the kingdom of God, nothing is so formidable and so powerful as weakness. In weakness and humility do we find the invincibility of faith and the strong ally of grace. Through faith and grace did a homeless, itinerant vagabond of first century Palestine, abandoned by his friends and betrayed to a thief’s death upon a cross, rise to become the Savior of the World and the central figure of all human history.

“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”  —Pope Francis


I Can Hear The Ocean

It’s one month away, now.  By this time in May, I should be alone aboard Prodigal, a stalwart, thirty-foot ketch that was sailing the open ocean before I learned to ride a bike; before the Vietnam War really got going; before our hopes in Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were dashed; before the Orioles swept the Dodgers in four at the 1966 World Series. Yes, she is that old, and so am I. But thanks to the wizards in the shipyard at Ferry Point, she is new again. I am not, but there is no bolt or brace or sealing wax that can fix that.  No matter. In one month’s time we shall be finding our way together to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and heading, not south along the coast, but for the open ocean—seven hundred miles of it, to be more or less exact, between the mainland and St. George’s Harbor in Bermuda.

Why Bermuda? I don’t know.  Simple question, short answer. Maybe it’s just closer than Spain.  Maybe it’s just about as far as I can go for as long as I can go before having to return from that most real and elemental of worlds to the world of work and worry we have invented to fill our days. At sea I have a sure and simple heading.  On land I wander mostly lost.

I can hear the ocean already.  Imagining this voyage is starting to fill in and around my every idle moment, like a rising flood. I see myself alone on deck in a night sea, the dark waves rising all but unseen, the wind whispering its warnings. I shall shorten sail sooner, this time–easier to do with a ketch rig—and be damn sure to check the halyards for chafe.  I will make peace with the sea insofar as it is willing, and sail on its terms, not mine. I will do my very best, God help me.

I can feel the ocean.  The rise and fall and pitch and yaw of it, beneath the deck.  Let it come.  Nearly 2,000 pounds heavier  though two feet shorter than Gypsy Moon, with a deeper, narrower keel, the Prodigal cuts the seas like a knife and gives her crew a gentler, more seakindly ride.  The sailor must not lose heart and forget that the sea was “made to be sailed over,” Joshua Slocum wrote. I shall put the sea to its purpose, then, and the Prodigal to a voyage worthy of her name.

I can taste the ocean. It is the flavor of salt and Sargasso and the whole history of mankind. It was there, “in the beginning.” It is there still as it has ever been, its moods changing but its character fixed through all the long ages of the Earth.

“They that go down to the sea in ships,” the psalmist wrote, “that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”  I can see the wonders already. They fill my dreams, and soon comes that wondrous dawn.

Farewell to the Old North State

Well, today marks my last day as a full-time resident of the State of North Carolina. The movers come at 1 p.m.  I’m headed to the Holy City, where my bride has gone before me to take a fabulous job by which she intends to keep me in the style to which I have become accustomed—very likely to be necessary unless I start selling a great many more books.  In May, Lord willing, I will sail the thirty-foot, Allied Seawind ketch Prodigal solo from Chesapeake Bay to Charleston—perhaps by way of Bermuda if I can find my courage, this being my first foray into the blue mystery since the knockdown off Cuba.  When all is said and done and I’m home from sea and safe in port, new plans will percolate as ever they have, and new dreams will surely beckon.  In the meantime, I thought to collect in a photo album some fond memories of my days as a Tar Heel, lo these past twenty-two years. [easyrotator]erc_84_1394115230[/easyrotator]

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