There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea.
"Hey, you!" are the sea's exact words.
If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately. That's what I should have done recently when I was called to sea by my friends Hannah and Paddy, who had rented a sailboat in the Florida Keys. They love to sail. Their dream is to quit their jobs and sail around the world, living a life of carefree adventure until their boat is sunk by an irate whale and they wind up drifting in a tiny raft and fighting over who gets to eat the sun block. At least that's the way I see it turning out.
The only safe way to venture onto the ocean is aboard a cruise ship the size of a rural school district. Even then you're not safe, because you might become trapped in your cabin because of bodily expansion. Cruise ships carry thousands of tons of high-calorie food, and under maritime law they cannot return to port until all of it has been converted into passenger fat.
But on cruise ships you rarely find yourself dangling from poles, which is more than I can say for the sailboat rented by Hannah and Paddy. The captain was a man named Dan, who used to be a race-car driver until he had heart trouble and switched from fast cars to sailboats, which are the slowest form of transportation on Earth. Sometimes I suspect that sailboats never move at all, and the only reason they appear to go from place to place is continental drift.
Nevertheless we were having a pleasant day on Captain Dan's boat, the Jersey Girl, doing busy nautical things like hoisting the main stizzen and mizzening the aft beam, and meanwhile getting passed by other boats, seaweed, lobsters, glaciers, etc. The trouble arose when we attempted to enter a little harbor so we could go to a bar featuring a band headed by a large man named Richard. This band is called -- really -- Big Dick and the Extenders. We were close enough to hear them playing when the Jersey Girl plowed into what nautical experts call the "bottom."
The problem was an unusually low tide. Helpful people in smaller boats kept telling us this. "It's an unusually low tide!" they'd shout helpfully as they went past.
We'd been sitting there for quite a while when Captain Dan suggested, with a straight face, that if some of us held onto a large pole called the "boom" and swung out over the water, our weight might make the boat lean over enough to get free. I now realize that this was a prank. Fun-loving sailboat captains are probably always trying to get people out on the boom, but most people aren't that stupid.
We, however, had been substantially refreshed by beverages under a hot sun, so we actually did it. Four of us climbed up, hung our stomachs over the boom, kicked off from the side of the boat and noooooo . . .
Picture a giant shish-kebab skewer sticking out sideways from a boat 10 feet over the water, except instead of pieces of meat on it, there are four out-of-shape guys, faces pale and sweating, flabby legs flailing, ligaments snapping like rifle shots. We instantly became a tourist attraction. A crowd gathered on shore, laughing and pointing. Some of them were probably sailboat captains.
"Look!" they were probably saying. "Captain Dan got four of them out on the boom! A new record!"
Meanwhile, next to me, Paddy, a middle-aged attorney who is not, let's be honest, built like an Olympic gymnast, who is in fact built a lot like a gym, was saying, in an usually high voice, "We better bring the boom back now. OK? Now?
"Hang on!" Captain Dan was shouting. "It's about to move!"
"Please," Paddy was saying, very quietly now.
"I think it's moving!" Captain Dan sang out.
In fact the Jersey Girl was exhibiting no more flotation than central Nebraska. As I clung to the boom, listening to Paddy whimper, two thoughts penetrated my pain: (1) He was paying for this experience; and (2) If you have to die, you want it to be for a noble cause. You don't want it to be for Big Dick and the Extenders.
It turned out we didn't die. We finally got swung back onto the boat and began thinking about leading our lives without moving any muscles ever again. And eventually Captain Dan got the boat unstuck. He needed the help of a motorboat. I am certain this was also true of Columbus.