Dark Passage: Night watch on the MV Columbia

Dark Passage: Night watch on the MV Columbia

Meditative Memories from New Year’s Eve and Day 2006
Deep thoughts for the time of longest night

It was pitch black darkest night.

No moon, stars, or lights on either side of the ship… just infinite black “velvet”.

After the MV Columbia left Sitka and headed south… tired, I’d slept through a midnight
stop at Petersburg in my cabin, then awakened around 2 a.m., dressed and ventured out
to experience the ship for the first time in these quietest hours.

Along the way to the forward observation lounge,
I visited port and starboard chilly decks,
where the only light visible came from portholes.

Back inside, the cavernous forward lounge was dark.

After a while my eyes adjusted only enough
to barely be able to perceive the aisle,
which had been low-spot-lit during daytime movies.

One careful step at a time, I edged forward,
seeing only darkness and darker shapes in the night,
feeling my way to the front row aisle seat.

Looking out, forward, two tiny pinhead lights, I guessed far off.

There was no depth perception possible
from any visible point of reference
to help know how far away each of them was from the ship,
or from one another.

As we got closer to a light, and passed it,
we proceeded onward,
heading to the next one,
which became brighter as we approached and passed it,
leading to yet another pinpoint of almost – illumination
off in the dark distance.
were lighted channel markers
(but could have been metaphorical events in a life-journey).

Remembering Coast Guard training:
“Red right returning – Stay to the right of red buoys at all times.
Conversely, stay to the left of green buoys.”

But, in these waters, (as well in life) what is considered returning
and what is considered outgoing?
Is this ferry headed south from Alaska to the lower 48 leaving,
or returning to where it was made?

The ferry, M.V. Columbia built by Lockheed
was Seattle area bound “returning”
(perhaps as spawning salmon return to their birthplace?).

A powerful spotlight briefly swept the area ahead of the ship,
then quickly winked off.
I inquired in a soft voice of the shadow figure next to me
whether the Captain has been lighting up often.

The young man had gotten on the ferry at Petersburg,
and was also headed for Seattle.
I never knew what he looked like, just his dark outline, and quiet voice.

“No” he said, as quietly: “that was the first time.”

We sat there in hushed dark silence watching
as the ship weaved its way slowly (about 7 knots per hour he guessed),
through shallow, narrow channels,
around small islands, unseen rocks, hazards, and peninsulas.

The ship draws 16 feet & we had only perhaps 21 ft. of water at times,
a safety margin of just 5 feet?!
Perhaps it’s as well that we could not see the close-by shore
of this narrowest channel.

There are 70 such markers in just 20 miles of navigation.
A mistake could be catastrophic!

We must make our way from one tiny point of light to the next,
having faith in the Coast Guard markers,
without making errors!

The captain does this lighting-up briefly,
as needed,
to check out possible hazards as they appear on his instruments.

It’s a mesmerizing, metaphysical, metaphorical experience,
progressing south through these lighted guide points.

We sat in darkness until there were no more markers
because the channel had widened to the point that
sonar and compass could now guide us through the night.

The young man had worked on a fishing boat in Kodiak all summer.
He was returning to his parents’ cattle ranch in New Mexico
where he worked as a hand, and could ski nearby in winter.

I returned to the small Spartan cabin, meditating.

Perhaps the ship that night was a metaphor for life,
for entering a new or dark time,
such as at winter Solstice, just before the New Year begins.
It is an act of faith and trust that
we’ll get through the darkness without harm,
and once again into light.

The ship’s pilot had our lives in hand.
Wise captains know that they, and we,
are all in the creator’s hands.

I remember that dark passage on the Columbia,
where we made our way from one tiny point of light, to another,
and did not fall off the edge of the world,
but lived to see daylight, great beauty, and home again.

There were no other narrow dark passages that trip.
In a way, we, passengers and crew, had come through a symbolic re-birthing.

The next night, and the next, wondrous live music was heard coming from the bar: guitars,
keyboard, accordion, singer, voyagers, all jamming spontaneously, splendidly, for the joy of it.

Strangers partied together to the sounds of live pickin’ folk and country music, drinking
Alaskan brews and other potions, in camaraderie, to the underlying rhythm of the ships
engines, through smooth waters.

We may not meet again,
but life can be unexpectedly sweet at times
in the company of congenial strangers.

May your life’s voyage through 2014 be safe, healthy, enlightening, peaceful,
beautiful, and filled with wisdom, light and love.

MV Columbia Ferry