Letter from the Pacific

by Jason D. Westenburg


“What ya thinking about?” Nick said with a yawn.


“Oklahoma? Why?”

“Cuz, this reminds me of Oklahoma,” I answered.

“This? Bru, we’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Sailing across the ocean blue takes time. Oceans
of time, some have said. And in that time, you start to think about things. And the people who sail with you, your crewmates, do a lot of thinking, too. Things get thought out. And for some reason, you begin to talk slower and shorter, and sometimes with a drawl you never knew you had.

I am steering a sailboat. Nick, the skipper, sits beside me, watching the sky.

“You been to the Midwest?” I asked.

“Yup. Twice. Boring as hell,” replied the California native.

“Why boring?”

“Flat. Nothing to see there.”

My eyes scan the horizon. Nothing but blue water: the deepest, bluest blue water ever created.

And it’s moving. It’s heaving, breathing, and swelling into 15-foot mounds that roll us up, let us see from high above, and then gently put us down again as waves of white water tumble onto our decks. The motion is a lullaby.

“And the Midwest pace, it’s too slow,” Nick continued.

“Dude, you’ve done nothing but eat, sleep, and sail for the past 11 days.”

“Yeah. It’s nice out here.”

We are a thousand miles from the nearest chunk of dirt. We are on our own, out here in the great wide open where the trade winds blow a steady 16 mph. The breeze is warm—it feels like a soft blanket.

I am sailing in a race from San Francisco to Hawaii, across 2,000 miles of uninterrupted sea. I’m a Midwest kid—born in the corn and raised in the flatlands of Nebraska and Oklahoma. I am steering down the faces of 15-foot swells at 15 knots, which, in a 20,000-pound pitching-and-yawing sailboat taking waves at 17.5 MPH and the wind blowing 30 MPH through your rig, is like descending a hill without a brake pedal.

We inch across the map. I sometimes wonder how I end up in the places I end up.

“Howzit look, Nick?” I asked.

“You got an Indian coming, at about 7 o’clock. Be here in 10.”

“ ‘Zit look wet?”


Behind me, spread across the sky, is a posse of Indians. In reality, they’re tropical rainsqualls, but we call them Indians. We do so because in the old Hollywood westerns some horseback hero leads a group of settlers through a dangerous valley while high up on the ridge, sitting tall and proud on their ponies, a local Indian tribe waits in ambush.

Our little sailboat is a wagon. The Indians are the rainsqualls that rise up on the horizon and sweep down across our stern. The tom-toms sound their war tune. My hands tighten around the wheel and my butthole puckers. They attack. They bring rain and gale and mayhem. And then they are gone. The refrain is repeated through the night.

* * *

“Fish on, fish on!” I shout at dawn. “Yes! … Wait! Indians on the stern!”

“What about the fish, Nick?”

“Leave it. We gotta get out of this squall. Down, drive down!”

The dark cloud passes. We are soaking wet from the rain. Steve opens the hatch from below and darts to the fishing line trolling off the back of the boat. The fish is gone. It had been a mahi-mahi, the biggest one I’d ever seen. I swear it was five feet long. I swear.

* * *

The morning watch is over. I’m tired. I go below and climb into my bunk. The boat is rolling and pitching and creaking, and voices above are shouting at the Indians, but I don’t care. Sleep is close. My mind takes in all that I’ve seen and felt in the last few hours.

I close my eyes and the picture fades, and then it comes back clear but changed: There are endless fields of bright green winter wheat, breathing and welling in the steady south winds. The spring wind is warm, like a blanket. I see red dirt along the roadsides and in the creek beds, splashing up pink mud as the trucks roll through. I see fish in the streams. I see thunderheads on the horizon, glowing tall and proud in the setting sun, bringing with them rain and gale and a reminder that they were here long before the white man came in his wagons.

In the Pacific Ocean, I see Oklahoma.

Originally published in our December 1st Issue.