Friday, April 20, 2007

Waves of Warning 19

Chapter Nineteen – The Orientation

[ 19 - Orientation.pdf ]

Jack Richards hit the brakes just inside the OSOM parking lot.

“Maybe I should park out on the street,” he said, apparently not wanting to flaunt his wealth for the first time L.J. Merrill could ever remember.

“That won’t make any difference, Jack,” replied Merrill with a sigh,

“There’s a space.”

A somewhat chastened millionaire squeezed his chrome-trimmed SUV in between a ’61 Ford Falcon and an ’82 AMC Eagle. They were barely able to open the doors and slide out sideways. Out of habit Richards beeped the doors locked and set the alarm.

“Ain’t wealth wonderful!” Merrill muttered under his breath. The two men walked through the front doors of the lobby to the front desk. Chip Bell gave them a friendly greeting and had them sign a clipboard.

“You guys are a little early, so if you’ll just have a seat, Captain Atkins will be with you at ten sharp. Good morning, OSOM, how may I - -, oh - -, Top of the morning to you, Frank! Ah, no, not yet, but as soon as he gets here I’ll - -, wait a sec, here he is . Do you want to talk to him?” Bell paused, and then laughed, “Ok, bye.”

Richards and Merrill turned to see Kenneth Bucher walking in the front door and straight towards them as Chip Bell answered another incoming.

“Hello Mr. Merrill! Ken Bucher. You may remember me from the trip to Baja four years ago.”

“Of course I remember you, Kenny. You were caught inside the whole time, but looks like you can paddle through just about anything these days!” said L.J., noticing the young man’s full shoulders and long arms, “Good to see you again. Let me introduce you gentlemen. Kenny, this is my long time friend and client, Jack Richards.”

“Maybe we should go sit down over here,” said Bucher and he steered them away from the reception desk.

“What brings you here, Kenny?” asked Richards as they walked past a scale model of an Alba_Sword.

“Same as you guys, I guess. Ship out on an Alba_Sword in this year's Roaring Forties Regatta. But first we gotta make it through today’s tests.”

“Yeah, and then there’s the shakedown cruise tomorrow,” said Richards.

“Well, that’s only if you make it through today,” smiled Bucher.

Jack Richards instinctively decided to roll him, just as he’d done dozens of times to get inside information from company employees before making investments, planning a takeover or filing a shareholders’ lawsuit.

“Wow, Ken, here we are on Saturday morning and it feels like we are taking the SAT or something,” he said, forcing a nervous laugh, “And you know the guys who wrote the exams . What do you think it’ll take to pass?”

Ken Bucher stared at the floor for just a second. Then he looked Richards in the eye. “Well, I’m pretty young, and this is a rite of passage for me, in a way. Not that you guys are old or anything, but maybe it will be something different for you. Like they used to say on the old ships, I'm coming up through the hawsepipe. I'm green and laying my keel, so to speak. But you guys, well, my dad once said that the older people get, the harder it is for them to change.”

“Sure, Ken, but I was just wondering - -”

Bucher ignored the interruption.

“That’s the only thing he’s ever said to me about people trying to get a berth on an Alba_Sword. Other than that, he’s never talked to me about what it takes to join the Order. I guess he wants me to learn certain things on my own. Does that answer your question?”

Richards frowned. He did not know if Bucher was being sarcastic or not.

He had trouble reading young people given the way he had raised his own children. L.J. Merrill saw Richards’ reaction but could only smile at Bucher’s words. He was relishing the personal challenge of making his scheme work by going through what promised to be an ordeal. It would make the revenge that much sweeter, and he didn’t need any insider tips or shortcuts. And for an instant, Merrill thought maybe he didn’t need Jack Richards after all.

“Nice weather we've been having lately,” he said with a reproving look at Richards. He turned to the son of OSOM’s founder. “Been surfing much, Ken?”

Before Bucher could reply, double doors opened at the far end of the lobby and two people walked towards the three men.

“Candidates Bucher, Merrill, and Richards," said Charles Atkins as he shook hands firmly with them. “May I introduce Mariner Patricia McRane.”

Standing next to him was a clear-eyed, muscular woman wearing a pony tail and a smile that was strictly business. They were both wearing black jumpsuits with the OSOM coat of arms over their hearts and a pattern of endless waves running around their waists.

McRane extended her hand to each of the men.

“I’ve been reviewing the information you’ve submitted and so far, there are only a few problems. Mr. Bucher, you’d better clear up those parking tickets at school. They’ll start going to warrant next week.”

“Yes ma’am. Will do.”

“And Mr. Richards, do we have the coke under control these days?”

“Absolutely,” he said without skipping a beat, “Not an issue. Can I give you a blood sample?”

“That won’t be necessary for the moment. And Mr. Merrill, why does Customs always red flag your passport?”

Merrill’s face didn’t register even a hint of surprise. He knew the drill. When it comes to people with access to government data, there is only one thing to do and that’s to tell the truth.

“Too many trips to too many countries. Their computers track every time

I use my passport. I guess they assume that I’m in the commodities trade, so to speak. Of course I was, but instead of bringing drugs to customers, I brought the customers to the drug.”

That brought a scowl to Richards’ face but Charles Atkins let out a laugh.

“Quite refreshing there, Merrill. I’d never quite thought of surf guides in those terms . Ok, gentlemen, let’s hope no more anomalies turn up, or we might have to ask you to withdraw your candidacies.”

“Of course, you may also choose to withdraw voluntarily at any time during today’s activities,” said McRane, “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some calls to make to the references listed on your apps.”

She exchanged nods with Atkins before turning away to walk back through the open doors. He watched the eyes of the candidates to see where they went. During past orientations, those candidates whose eyes had followed the striking figure out the door were the eyes of men who washed out sooner as opposed to later. This was not a time to be distracted. Atkins was glad to see not one of the three failed this telling test.

“Gentlemen, I commend you for having the character that would bring you here seeking a berth on an Alba_Sword. Today, however, we will begin to see if your reach exceeds your grasp, and for many people that has been the case. If the past is any guide, by three this afternoon at least one of you won’t be here. This isn’t written in stone and I’m not here to purposefully wash out any particular candidate. But I can tell you being cocky will not serve you well today. If anything, let me suggest humility as a far more appropriate emotion. To that end, will you walk this way, please?”

He directed the men through the open doors. Richards walked ahead of the others down the hall towards another set of double doors that were closed.

He put his hand on a crash bar to open one of them when Atkins stopped him.

“Not yet, Mr. Richards. And who knows, maybe not at all. Let’s start in here, please.”

He opened a side door marked with a simple brass plate. The Chapel was a small room with a center aisle between a few rows of short, wooden pews.

Richards quickly sat down in the first pew on the left. Merrill sat across the aisle from him. Ken Bucher went down the aisle and sat in the front row.

The side walls were covered by plaques of various sizes and shapes.

Merrill looked at them carefully and saw that each one was engraved with the image of a ship, her crew list, and a date. Richards looked off into space, while Bucher stared at the stained glass wall in front of him, with daylight glowing through the transparent panes of ocean blue, gold, amber and turquoise, swirling around a centered circle of white translucent marble.

Atkins closed the door and walked to the wall of light. Standing ramrod straight, he established eye contact with each man before beginning his sermon.

“Ye men who would be mariners in the great ocean of the south! Hear now the invocation of the souls resting beneath the seas where ye would voyage.” He closed his eyes and turned his back on them to fully transform himself into a man of the cloth.

“Dear Lord we ask You to send us a host of shipmates to look upon these men who would sail upon Your great waters. Let the souls of the departed come and measure these men here today with their weather eye. Let them come and stand a watch as guardians for them. Fill their hearts and minds with wisdom, and help them search their souls , so that they will not share the fate of those shipmates forever lost in the eternal dark of the endless deep.”

Atkins turned back to the candidates to gauge their first reactions. Ken Bucher was looking him right in the eye, as Atkins had expected from the son of OSOM’s founder. L.J. Merrill was looking at the plaques on the walls before he, too, met Atkins’ gaze with respect. Jack Richards had “What kind of bullshit is this?” written all over his face.

“Hear now, candidates! Welcome the souls who've sailed the great waters before you. Let them enter your innermost thoughts as you are tried and tested today. Hear their words of encouragement – but ignore at your peril their words of warning.

“You are here today because you have imagined yourselves voyaging across the blue deep, with roaring winds at your backs and huge waves beneath your hull, and excitement charging the very air you breathe. You are here because you have set a course, but a sailor never speaks of setting a course as if he could just draw a line across a map of the seven seas. No, the wise mariner only shapes a course toward his goal, knowing there is no certainty in life, and to assume such is to tempt the fates.

“Candidates, this chapel is your first port of call if you would voyage across the Southern Ocean. Here we honor the mariners whose tall ships once put to sea from this very port to make that same voyage a hundred or more years ago – and who never stepped foot on land again. In recent years, many have sought to voyage with the Order, captivated by the so-called romance of the sea. They hoped to find it by becoming an able-bodied passenger on an Alba_Sword or indeed joining the Order. Yet more than a few came to their senses in this very place. And no harm done. They went home to their loved ones and a life made more real by admitting their folly.”

Atkins glanced at Richards and knew he had his full attention.

“You’ve seen the pictures of the majestic ships with clouds of sails running before the wind. They embody the romantic notion of the seven seas, do they not? Yes, the sea is a beautiful thing to a landlubber. To a wise sailor, however, she is a siren who lures the unwary to their deaths.”

L.J. Merrill shifted uncomfortably in his pew.

“Picture in your mind’s eye a tall ship tied to a wharf. Up the gangplank comes a raw-boned country boy. He has always dreamed of becoming a sailor and seeing the world. Now his chance has come. He steps on board and is immediately reprimanded by a gruff voice of authority. It is the first mate.

“’Stop right there, boy. First I want to know who you are. Then state your business, and then ask for permission to come aboard. If given, THEN ye come aboard.”

“The boy steps back to the gangplank.

“Tom Blake. Looking to sign on as a sailor. Permission aboard, sir?”

“’Permission granted, Looking to ship out, are ye?’

“Our young man nods his head. The mate knows they are short-handed, and though a landlubber, the country boy looks strong enough. Soon he signs the ship’s articles and then turns away full of pride. He cranes his neck at the masts rising hundreds of feet to the skies above. He scans the decks of his new home, walks aft to the wheel and then forward to the bow.

“There sits an old salt carving a model ship from a hunk of hardwood. The greenhorn introduces himself. Says he’s signed up for their voyage around the Horn. The ancient mariner takes his measure and nods in token recognition before returning to his work.

“Then the intrepid young man asks, ‘Sir, do you think we’ll see the graybeards?’

“The old mariner hears excitement in the question and pauses in his work because, candidates, our young man knows not whereof he speaks. The greenhorn is excited about the prospect of seeing waves as tall as the masts above him, rolling from the horizon, one after another for days upon end, with crashing white water spilling down their faces like beards on old men.

“But the wise mariner knows the greybeards are older than men, aye, much older. He knows they have roamed the seas from time immemorial and make no mistake, they do so to this very day. Age has not weakened them. They are not bent and stooped by the centuries. Their strength is reborn with every storm that sweeps across the Southern Ocean, and God have mercy on those who meet them in their full fury!”

Atkins’ voice filled the Chapel as if he was calling down hellfire on the heads of unrepentant sinners. He paused and looked at each of the men in the Chapel, before continuing in the voice of the ancient mariner.

“‘Do I think we’ll see the graybeards? Aye, there’s a chance they’ll be wandering across our path. Is that what you want? To see the big waves?’

“The mariner looks up to catch the greenhorn squarely in the eye. The young man hesitates, and then nods, as if courage is expected of him.

“The mariner’s eyes return to his work, and as his knife once again carves into the hardwood, he but speaks these words of admonishment.

“‘Son, once you see those waves, you’ll never want to see them again.’ ”

Charles Atkins let a minute of silence elapse before speaking his final words in the Chapel.

“I will now leave you here with your own thoughts and the names on these walls. Let the souls of the departed shine a light on your true reasons for being here. Make your peace with them, and then decide if you would still dream of voyaging to the Southern Ocean. Take as long as you like, for your time is your own, even as your life belongs to no one but you. I will await your decision.”

Atkins turned once more to the wall of light and said a prayer that could not be heard by the candidates. Then he walked out in silence, leaving the candidates alone with their thoughts.

The Chapel door had barely closed when Jack Richards emerged and locked eyes with Charles Atkins.

“Ok, I’m ready. What’s next?”

“Your shipmates, Mr. Richards. We wait for them.”

Richards narrowed his eyes briefly before looking away and walking slowly down the hall towards the doors to the lobby. But he stopped just short of them and leaned against the wall to wait.

Five minutes passed before Kenneth Bucher came out of the chapel.

“Ok, Uncle, I mean Mister Atkins. I want to keep going.”

Atkins had been pretty sure the young man would understand the visit to the chapel in no uncertain terms . Just to be certain, he spoke a few words to test the young man’s concentration.

“It got really good out there after you left,” he said in a low voice.

Bucher was caught off guard and his response was pure instinct.

“I had more important things to do than surf more waves. So I didn’t really miss anything, did I?”

The young man winked at his godfather and stepped aside when L.J. Merrill came out of the Chapel.

“Captain Atkins, I want to thank you for what we just did. It gave me a lot to think about, and reading the names of the crews lost at sea - - -”

“No, Mr. Merrill. They were not lost at sea. Those plaques commemorate crews whose ultimate fates were never known. Those sailors are simply missing. Theirs was a fate feared most by sailors, because nothing was ever found of them or their ships. Therefore, their loved ones never found closure, if you will, and suffered endlessly with grief. We honor them as best we can, although we really don’t know what happened to them except neither they nor their ships ever made it home.”

L.J. Merrill thought of his parents as he heard the words deep in his heart.

“Mr. Richards, are you with us?” called Atkins down the hall.

“Of course, CAPTAIN Atkins. Let’s get going!”

This time Jack Richards hit the crash bar without breaking stride.

They entered the Shed and were confronted by the fully exposed hydraulic cylinders, hoses and heavy duty fittings of the Alba_Sword simulator. At the other end of the shed they saw four fully-rigged Alba_Swords. Working on the pair closest to the huge open doors were two groups of men and women in OSOM uniforms . The easy banter and laughter of a relaxed working atmosphere was in stark contrast to the menacing machine directly in front of them. Charles Atkins walked around the simulator to a tall room divider attached to the wall. It unfolded easily like an accordion as he stretched it across the smooth concrete floor, blocking half the candidates’ view of the vessel preparation work zone. When it was fully extended, he went to the other side of the building and repeated the process. Before securing the two sections together, he poked his head into the work zone.

“Hello, Charles Atkins here. Ok, we’ll be starting up in a minute. As you all remember, it gets pretty loud. You saw the notice on the bulletin board, I hope!” he said to the dozen or so people working on the Alba_Swords.

“What notice, mate? That dinky card with yer name on it?” came the crackling Aussie voice of Brad Farmer, engineer on the Alba_Sword Eden.

“Zhats ok, Atkins, ve Russians saw ze notice! Ze Auzzies can’t read, you know!” said watch leader, Rudolph Velelov.

“Read good enough to know yer behind schedule, Rudy!”

“Zhat’s ok, Mr. Farmah, ve are ready right now,” said Misha Yevgenev, navigator, “You Auzzies, you are zee ones need more time!”

“We could sail tomorrow and sink you in our wake!” Helen Cooper, the captain of the Eden, was not going to give an inch.

Several of the Russians and Aussies started jawing at each other good naturedly, giving Atkins a chance to close the doors quickly before they turned on him for the sport of it.

He walked back to where the candidates were waiting, but the divider was not soundproof.

“Zay, Atkins!” boomed Velelov, “Ve agree vith Farmah. Ve zid not zee da notice. Zere was no notice! But ve git za message. Ve all agree you owe us for our, how do you say, yes, for our inconvenience! Ve all eat lunch on your tab in ze mess hall, okay, Atkins? Yes, done deal.”

“And we eat steak, mate! Training for the tug of war tomorrah!”

“You vill need more than steak, you Vickies! You need whole cow!”

Atkins smiled and shook his head as he walked around the simulator. He stopped smiling upon hearing the last of a remark by Jack Richards.

“- - - the chapel, now he puts up a veil between the novitiates and the devotees,” Richards muttered, “What is this, some kinda religion?”

Atkins didn’t hear all of Richards’ words because Richards didn’t want him to hear them. In and of itself, that was more than sufficient grounds for a sharp response and a challenge to the candidate.

“You got a question, Mr. Richards? Or something you’d like to share with all of us?”

“No, not at this time.”

“Richards, you sure you want to do this? Maybe you’re worried you don’t have what it takes. Is that it, Mr. Richards?”

“No, that’s not it, Mr. Atkins. I’ve got what it takes, you’ll see. I was just wondering what kinda cult you got going here, SIR.”

Merrill and Bucher blanched at Richards’ words. Atkins didn’t even blink.

“Well, we haven’t asked you to drink the kool-aid yet, have we? And you can leave any time you want. So Mr. Richards, if you’ve got something to say about what we’re doing, I want to hear about it. Is that clear?”

“Yessir, Mr. Captain, sir.”

Atkins’ glare was met with Richards’ obvious defiance. Atkins had seen this before, after leaving the Chapel, in the attitudes of candidates who hadn’t touched matters of the soul for a long time.

“Gentlemen, let’s begin.” He turned and climbed cat-like up the rope ladder to the deck of the Alba_Sword simulator. He cut an imposing figure looking back down at the greenhorns. Ken Bucher was first in line.

“Well, candidate, what do you say when you are about to step onto the deck of a ship?”

“Permission aboard?”

“Not quite. First identify yourself. Then state your business, then request permission aboard.”

“Ken Bucher, candidate for able -bodied passenger. Permission aboard?”

“Permission granted.”

Bucher went up the ladder and his example was not lost on L.J. Merrill.

“L.J. Merrill, sir, candidate for able-bodied passenger. Permission aboard?”

“Permission granted.”

Richards looked up at Atkins with a wry grin.

“Jack Richards. Looking to sign on as a sailor, sir. I want to see some graybeards, SIR. Permission aboard?”

“Permis sion granted, MISTER Richards. You strap in over there, in the co-pilot’s seat. Mister Merrill, remain standing and take the helm. Mister Bucher, right here in the engineer’s seat.”

Richards breezed past Atkins, his attitude unbowed. This whole thing was now a takeover bid, and Jack Richards had that skill set wired. He’d never lost when “take no prisoners” was a best management practice. He wasn’t going to lose now. He started with a snide comment to L.J. Merrill when Atkins turned his back for a moment to pull up the rope ladder.

“Hey, L.J., you seem pretty comfortable around here. Maybe OSOM can be your new drug,” he whispered, “You know the kid’s gonna make it, so if I end up the odd man out, you can try and sweet talk these guys into taking you to your reef. Is that it, bro?”

Bucher knew something was going between Richards and Merrill and ignored them. Atkins didn’t.

“Ok, Richards, what’s your beef now?”

“Not a thing, MISTER Atkins! Just telling L.J. what a great time I’m having!” he said evenly. Atkins saw right through him, as intended, but L.J. Merrill said nothing because he knew there was some truth to what Richards had said. In the Chapel he had repeated the vow to his parents that this would be his last surf trip. When he said the words it occurred to him that joining the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners was an idea that would meet with their approval, and no matter what happened to Richards, he’d still have a chance to settle his score with Ian Clark.

Atkins stepped over to a console with a clear view of the three candidates.

“All right gentlemen, let us begin. Candidate Merrill, helm hard to port.”

It took Merrill a moment to remember which way to spin the wheel, but when he did the cockpit began to rotate.

“Helm hard to starboard!” said Atkins when they had done one full revolution.

Merrill spun the wheel in the opposite direction, and the simulator reversed its motion.

“Set your course for true north!”

Merrill looked at Atkins with a big question mark in his eyes.

“The compass in front of you, candidate! Steer by the compass!”

The simulator was revolving, as was the compass rose in its brass case.

Merrill quickly adapted to the situation. He slowly reversed the wheel. The simulator came to a stop and so did the spinning compass rose. Then he brought her back around and was back on course in no time.

“Well done, Mr. Merrill. Bucher and Richards, your turn at the wheel will come later. Call out the course, helmsman!”

“Zero degrees north, captain!” said Merrill in a confident voice. It was all Richards could do to keep a smirk off his face. Bucher was all eyes and ears, noticing the response lag between the wheel and the motion of the simulator.

“Gentlemen, let us proceed.”

Atkins pressed a button, and the sound of wind filled the space around them, creating a sense of floating isolation in the cockpit. On the screen, spray began to appear before turning into waves spiraling around OSOM’s insignia on a pennant snapping briskly in a gale force wind. Then the wind died slowly into silence, the flag disappeared, and the waves were replaced by two lines of plain text.

The Order of Southern Ocean Mariners
Able-Bodied Passenger Orientation

“Candidates, let us first mark the last known positions of those gone forever missing after venturing out into the Southern Ocean.”

The display changed to a map of the Southern Hemisphere to graphically impress upon the men just how little land there is below the equator and the immensity of the Southern Ocean. A timeline appeared at the base of the display stretching across the centuries from 1400 to 2000. A pointer began to move through the years. Slowly, one at a time, black crosses appeared near coastlines, and then farther and farther out into the empty blue spaces of the map. Each cross marked the last known location of a sailing ship, starting with the sinking of a Portuguese caravelle off Good Hope in 1484. When the display advanced to the 1800s, the crosses multiplied rapidly. A zone southeast of Cape Horn became blacked out: thirty-five crosses were added there in 1905 alone. The appearance of crosses slowed in years when sail was increasingly replaced by steam, and then diesel. Yet the crosses continued to pop up until a final two marked the last locations where human life had been lost during a recent yacht race through the Southern Ocean.

Charles Atkins had conducted the orientation many times, but never once did he find himself inured to what was on the screen. The timbre of his voice was not that of someone just going through the motions.

“Now gentlemen, let us take a closer look at what may have happened to a ship of good men a long time ago.”

All the crosses disappeared except one about two hundred nautical miles east southeast of Cape Horn. The map dissolved to a black and white image of a square-rigged, four-masted cargo ship on a calm sea. The timeline disappeared. Text began to crawl across the bottom of the screen:

Glenburn, Falmouth, England, launched April 10, 1886.
Five thousand tons. Crew of twenty four.
Built for the grain trade with Australia.
Loaded timber March 1, 1893 port of Glasgow.
Destination Adelaide, Australia.
Reported overdue July 21, 1893.
Declared missing. Lloyds December 16, 1893.

“Candidates, the cross on the screen marks the last known position of the Glenburn, but in reality we know not where she sank. And as for her crew, there are no tombstones to mark the final resting place of their corpses. Their souls were released at the bottom of the sea. Candidate Merrill, will you please read their names.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

L.J. Merrill began to read the names as they crawled across the bottom of the screen from right to left.

“Peter Lewis, 52, Captain, William Adams, 28, First Mate, John Bertram, 23, Second Mate, Michael Charing, 41, carpenter, - - -”

The sails of the Glenburn filled with wind and the sea began to rise. Within minutes she was heeled over, the very picture of adventure and gallantry so often associated with “the golden age of sail.” Then a very large rogue wave appeared and swept across the decks of the ill-fated four-master.

The point-of-view closed in, and sailors could be seen high in the rigging attempting to shorten sail. The wind began to scream and then one, and then another sailor fell from the ratlines. A spar broke, and the screams of eight men were heard over the wild wind as they fell a hundred feet into the exploding sea. A mainsail blew out, knocking more men into space. Another huge sail was torn from the mast, and then a wave almost a hundred feet high smashed into the wounded ship. The Glenburn began to disintegrate. Above the roaring wind could be heard the terror-stricken voices of drowning men gasping for their last breaths, and screaming the names of their loved ones, until they were silenced by another mountain of cold water that buried the illfated ship.


Merrill read the last of the names as the Glenburn sank without a trace.

Then Atkins’ baritone rose above the roar.

“Candidates! THERE is your romance, your nostalgia, your armchair adventure! A beautiful ocean? No, a KILLER of men! A proud tall ship? No, a SMASHED coffin! Brave sailors now CORPSES trapped in her sinking wreckage! Their wives now widows, their children never to see their fathers again. Let their black fate touch your souls - that you may now know, and will never forget, the truth of the Southern Ocean.”

The candidates stared at the screen. Their minds told them it was all computer-generated imaging. Their hearts felt something else altogether.

Merrill held on to the wheel with a death grip. Bucher was visibly shaken, and Richards’ once steely gaze was now reduced to darting glances from the display to Atkins and back again. The simulator began to vibrate from the sound of the screaming Force Twelve wind. It seemed the screen itself would be shredded to rags.

Then, slowly, the sound subsided and the raging ocean that destroyed men and ship became, once again, a placid sea. All was quiet, the candidates even more so. But not quite. The simulator was now matching the motion of the gently rolling surface of the open ocean on the screen.

“Excuse me gentlemen, but I have business to attend to. Candidate Merrill, you have the helm. Set your course for thirty one degrees north. I’ll return presently. Mr. Bucher, please store the ladder.”

Before he turned away, he pressed several icons on the touch screen panel facing Merrill. A small digital timer mounted on the console began to count down from sixty. Atkins tossed the rope ladder over the side of the simulator deck and descended to the concrete floor. Bucher pulled up the rope ladder and strapped himself back into his seat.

When the time reached zero, the calm on the screen quickly changed. The wind came up from the northwest. A large groundswell appeared from the southeast. The course announced by the Captain required Merrill to steer between the opposing forces. It was like a giant video game, perfectly simulating the motion of the waves and the minor shock as they “hit” the craft he was steering.

Richards and Bucher watched the screen and felt the effects of Merrill’s helmsmanship as if he was driving a four-wheel off road vehicle through an obstacle course. Of course, the “sea” was not that rough, but the sensation was quite real as the wind built up to a Force Three.

The simulation continued for almost ten minutes and Merrill found himself increasingly tasked by the challenge of wave after wave slamming into them. Then the simulator stopped its motion completely. The wheel in Merrill’s hands froze in place. It was another few seconds, though, before the three men realized they no longer had to be holding on tight.

Atkins climbed up the rope ladder so that his head and shoulders appeared over the railing.

“Gentlemen, Mariner McRane tells me that for now your candidacies can proceed if you so choose.”

The simple sentence shocked the men back to a moment of mixed emotions. They were relieved their documentation was accepted, and yet they felt a sense of dread at what lay before them, as if half-hoping they could go home without having to ever face what they now knew might await them.

“You can unbuckle yourselves now. If you are going to continue, follow me. Once we’ve had some grub for lunch, we’ll do the motion sickness and other tests this afternoon.”

* * *

Just after four p.m., and fifty miles up the coast, the founder of the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners was sitting next to his wife on a bluff near their home overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel. Frank Bucher knew the orientation had just ended. He pulled a phone out of his pocket, pressed a button, and was connected with Charles Atkins.

“What news, Charlie?”

“Good news, Frank. We will be shaking out to San Miguel noon tomorrow, and with a full crew, as it turns out. Richards was a bit of a pain in the ass, but in the end he kept his mouth shut and passed all the tests. Merrill did fine. As for the third candidate,” Atkins paused, “He seems to have the right genes.”

Bucher looked at his wife and nodded with a smile . But the smile was not returned, and she got up and walked away from him.

“May I assume we’ll be taking the sunset cruise towards the Western Gate,” continued Atkins, “Followed by a channel transit with a surprise or two to see what Jackie Wallet and the Soul Survivor are really made of? I think we already know about the other candidate.”

Bucher couldn’t help but grin at Atkins’ nicknames for Richards and Merrill until he thought of his son – and his wife.

“He did really well, honey,” he said to her, but she had her back to him and was watching the sun begin to set behind the growing clouds of the approaching storm front. A pang went through his heart when she didn’t answer. A moment later Frank Bucher realized he was still in communication with Atkins.

“Uh, yeah, uh, Charlie, I’ll meet you at Razorblades on the way up. It might be good to, uh, check their bonafides as surfers, and, uh, then head out into the Channel after dark.”

Atkins sensed what was going on between a father and mother now that their son was ready to become a man.

“Do you or Sophia want to talk to your boy?”

“No, just tell him to call home when he gets a chance.”

Bucher clicked off the headset and walked over to his wife. He knew she needed to be alone with her thoughts, and yet he knew she needed him by her side. He sat down on the dry grass beside her but did not touch her.

The wind was blowing hard out to sea. Pelicans were gliding in formation above the surfline. Small waves rolled through the kelp beds, their crests blown to spray as they crashed and died on the beach. For some the solitude and beauty were picture-perfect. But for a mother whose son was about to go to sea, the world was as bleak and lifeless as the moon. It was some time before she finally took her husband’s hand and put it to her cheek.

* * *

Charles Atkins walked out into the lobby where the three men waited.

“Gentlemen, your candidacies may proceed. Please be back here at noon tomorrow if you wish to continue. You can bring your surfboards if you like. We might have a chance to surf Razorblades on the way up the coast.”

“Do we need to bring anything else, Captain Atkins?”

“No, Mr. Merrill, we have everything you need,” Atkins glanced at the gathering storm outside, “including foul weather gear.”

“How’d I do on the reaction time tests, Captain?” edged in Jack Richards.

“Within specs, Mr. Richards. In fact you all were within specs on today’s tests, else I’d be washing you out right now. Do not forget to maintain your motion sickness meds. It will be the real thing tomorrow. Mr. Merrill, Mr. Richards? Can I ask you to step outside for a minute. I’ll join you presently.”

“Ok, Kenny, see you tomorrow!” said L.J. Merrill. Richards just nodded at the young man, who politely smiled back.

The two men walked out of the lobby to where they had a view of the Tom Swift and the Serena. The afternoon had clouded over and a wind from the south was now picking up. The surf across the street was rough and ragged, ruined and unrideable by the approaching storm.

“Need any help, Uncle?” said Bucher.

“Ok, Kenny, you’re off duty as a candidate, I guess. Yes, in fact you can help me put away the simulator, and then you can swab the decks! And then there’s probably clean-up stuff you can do in the work zone, and then you can fix my board because I think we could get some good waves tomorrow. And when you’re done with that I might need some more help.”

“Well, I, uh - -”

“Too late, young man. You piped up, and your offer has been accepted. Besides, you want to come up through the hawsepipe, don’t you? This is how it’s done. The Captain keeps the new cabin boy busy until the poor chap drops from exhaustion. Then we splash a bucket of cold water on him and work him some more. Believe me, Kenny, you’ve got it easy compared to the real thing a hundred years ago. Now, where was I? My car needs washing - - -“

“But its gonna rain!”

“Pipe down, shipmate, and follow orders. You are lucky I don’t have you cooking me dinner. Well, now that I think about it, that’s not a bad idea at all!”

Kenny Bucher slugged him in the arm.

“So get busy while I have a few last words with the other candidates.”

“Gentlemen, we’ll be shipping out on the Tom Swift. She is the Alba_Sword closest to us. You are welcome to take a closer look at her, but you are not to go aboard without permission.”

Merrill’s eagerness was stopped short as Atkins finished his sentence.

Then a shot of anxiety jabbed his heart. He wanted to be in OSOM right now, but he couldn’t, and the junkie came down hard and fast. Then he chuckled at his little emotional loop-de-loop, and smiled deeply when he thought of how ridiculous it was to be so tightly wired to the toggle switch between euphoria and depression.

“Thanks, Mr. Atkins, I’m sure we’ll see more than enough of her tomorrow. Jack, we better get going if we want to beat traffic across L.A.”

“Yeah, thanks,” said Jack Richards, “Do we owe you anything for today, or is it part of the deal?”

“The orientation costs are included in the price of your passage - IF you do make passage. If you don’t we’ll subtract what you owe us from your money in escrow and send you a refund after the shakedown cruise. Of course, if you’re out right now, just say so. We have your mailing address.”

“No, that’s okay. Just checking,” said Richards, reacting quickly to the challenge he perceived in Atkins’ tone.

“Fine, then, gentlemen. There is one thing more I’d like to know if you’ll permit me. I have a question for you, Mr. Merrill, and your client. When was the last time you cried?”

L.J. Merrill thought for a second, and then smiled at a pleasant memory from long ago. “The last time I saw a local girl get her first wave on a board I gave her at a Geosurf resort in Samoa.”

“And you, Mr. Richards?”

“Uh, when, uh, it was, uh, I think it was when I and my wife, or no it was when my daughter told me she loved me and I was on a plane last year, or, uh, yeah I think that was it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Richards. See you tomorrow, gentlemen.”

Richards was about to say something, but Merrill raised a finger. Atkins turned and went back into the lobby. Merrill and Richards watched him walk away. They avoided each other’s looks, knowing they’d both lied.

Richards turned away first and started to walk across the parking lot.

“Fuck, L.J., why don’t we just get a room and stay up here? I don’t want to surf tomorrow.”

“You will if Razors is firing! Our boards are down in Laguna, and besides I want to sleep in my own bed tonight. Don’t you?” said L.J. Merrill, now a few steps behind. He stopped in his tracks, realizing he was following Richards and wanted to get out ahead of him again somehow. But nothing came to mind except a biting remark.

“And you can spend some time with the wife and kids!”

“Fuck you, Merrill. Let’s go.”

Not another word was said until they were sitting in the big SUV, its engine warming up while the first drops of rain touched the windshield. It had been a long day and there was a long drive ahead of him. The stress of the tests had taken its toll, and Richards’ patience was shot.

“Listen, L.J., don’t give me any shit. And I don’t like the way you treated me today, asshole.”

“Treated you? What are you talking about?”

Richards’ anger took over he drove out of the OSOM parking lot.

“Listen, L.J. you’d be holed up with mom and dad if it wasn’t for me and you know it. And - - -”

Merrill cut him off.

“No, YOU listen, Richards. YOU just went through a stop sign and you didn’t even see it. If a big rig had been coming, you’d be dead right now,” Merrill paused, “Well, maybe not. This thing does have side airbags, doesn’t it? Sure it does, the best that money can buy. But money can’t buy what we need, Jack, and you know it. So why don’t YOU shut up and just drive, ok? This isn’t the simulator.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up, Merrill. Just because you’ve found your new best friends - - -”

“Oh, THAT’S it. Now I get it. Now what would it tell you about a man to hear him say something like, ‘Your new best friends’?”

But as soon as he said those words, Merrill knew the answer right away: a man whose feelings had been hurt. He knew what that felt like and softened his tone immediately.

“Jack, we’re in this together, ok? Maybe I got carried away a bit today, but Clark fucked me over and it went pretty deep. So I’m sorry, but the only way to get even is with Bucher and Atkins, and you know why.”

“Yeah, I know, L.J. The permits and the predictions.”

“Right. Ian Clark and Wavelife have a lock on that reef. I know how Clark works because I worked for him. He got an exclusive to a hundred square miles of open ocean by telling the Tahitians he wanted to scout some reefs and islands and keep it secret from his competitors. That’s how we used to do it, Jack, but this time he cemented the deal with a ton of Mercante’s money so nobody could buy their permit out from under them. And if they get there first, the Tahitians will give ‘em a ninety-nine year lease and its all over.”

“Yeah, but you only found out about that deal last week!” said Richards.

“Listen Jack, I knew what the deal was going to be when I met you last January. I knew the only way to beat Clark and Wavelife is with OSOM. Bucher sails under the UN flag and he can go anywhere he wants.”

“Yeah, I know all that, L.J.,” said Richards as he carefully stopped for a yellow light about to turn red near the freeway.

“Well let me tell you something else, Jack, just so you don’t forget what we’re really doing here. Not only are we going to boat in with the most respected sailors on earth, but we’ll be riding the biggest waves of the year when we get there. That’s what these guys wait for, and they always get it when they run the Regatta. Geosurf uses WaveAlert, and those guys get it wrong all the time in the Southern Ocean. So Clark and Mercante might overamp and go out there only to find it shitty. But knowing Larson, he’ll want to wait until he KNOWS its going to be really big. So with OSOM, we’ll win either way. We’ll surf it bigger and better for sure if they’ve blown it, or else we’ll show up uninvited at their PR event and surprise the shit out of ‘em.”

Richards accelerated up the off ramp on to the southbound 101.

“Jack, we need each other to do what we want to do, and we need OSOM no matter what. We’re doing fine so far, and we’ll make it okay if we stick together. So let’s just both back off and cruise for a while, okay?”

A steady rain began to fall as Jack Richards headed up the grade and into the Valley. He switched on the windshield wipers. They swiped at the rain and cleared the glass for a second, only to have the droplets come back again and again. Richards kept trying to clear his mind with Merrill’s logic, but his heart kept raining thoughts without end.

Merrill’s shot about his family had hit hard, and Richards could not stop thinking about it. He reached for the wireless headset hanging on the dash, but then left it in its place, knowing he would just get an answering machine even if his wife and kids were home.

He thought back to a day during training when Merrill had been on his case about his paddling. He didn’t like Merrill’s tone, said something about it.

He couldn’t remember exactly what, but he remembered Merrill’s reply.

“Sure, Jack. My apologies. Just remember, you only know who your friends are because they are the ones who call you on your shit.”

He looked over at Merrill was asleep with his watchcap pulled down over his eyes. They were almost to the airport when traffic slowed to a crawl and stopped. Richards was so lost in thought that only at the last second did he slam on the brakes. The big SUV slewed sideways and he lost all control. He spun the steering wheel, luckily in the right direction just as the tires found some grip.

L.J. Merrill’s head bounced against the door window as the SUV came to a sudden and lurching stop with its front bumper only an inch from a big rig.

“Jack! What’s going on? Where are we?”

“Nothing L.J. We’re stuck in traffic, so go back to sleep.”

Traffic began to move again and the after-action adrenaline rushed through Richards’ veins. It brought him back to his senses, and a few seconds later he shook his head with a cynical laugh. He barged the big SUV into the
carpool lane, stepped on the gas, and switched the windshield wipers to high speed as the rain began to come down hard.

19 - Orientation.pdf

Saturday, April 07, 2007

For Whom The Bells Toll

Nick Carroll wrote a great retrospective on Bells for the The Age. Please visit: For whom the Bells toll

For whom the Bells toll 

FOR THE pilgrim, Bells Beach has always been about suffering.

Simon Anderson made his first trip in 1971, just before the era of pro-surfing arrived. "I was 17, a ding fixer at Shane Surfboards in Sydney, and was representing NSW in the juniors," the surfboard designer says. "I'd heard stories about Bells from older guys at Narrabeen: corduroy to the horizon, muddy car parks, all that.

"Nobody had any room for me in their cars, so I had to get a train from Sydney to Geelong via Melbourne, then a taxi to Bells. I had nowhere in particular to go, so I got the taxi driver to drop me in the car park at Bells. I just stood there with one board and a bag, in the mud, and the surf was one foot with four guys out.

"Ted Spencer (a well-known surfer of the day) came in and he gave me a lift back to Torquay … I stood outside the pub and eventually board maker Geoff McCoy drove by. He stopped reluctantly, like you do at a car accident, like 'damn, I suppose I've gotta do the right thing', and took me to his team house at Jan Juc."

Anderson won the juniors and thus began a complex relationship with one of Australia's most famous and temperamental surf spots. Last night Anderson was expected back again, along with some of the world's most legendary surfers, for a dinner to mark another milestone for the world's longest-running professional contest. This Easter, the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach — 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, on the Great Ocean Road — celebrates its 35th championship since the first professional Bells Easter event back in 1973, when Rip Curl joined up with jeans maker Amco to present a then-colossal $5000 prize pool.

Among those gathering this weekend at the Sands hotel in Torquay are Jeff Hakman, from Hawaii, the first non-Australian Bells winner, in 1976; Tom Curren, from California, who sealed his first world championship in a Bells semi-final in 1986; today's Aussie heroes, such as Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning; and, of course, the champ of champs, from Florida, Kelly Slater. 

The question though — for a remote, windy stretch of beach with a notoriously unpredictable swell — is why do they keep coming? The Bells area has bred many good surfers, and one bona fide legend in Wayne Lynch, but it's never been rich in ground-breaking surfing talent. Since the Bells pro debut in 1973, the event has never been won by a Victorian surfer. Bells winners come from places such as Sydney, Newcastle, the Gold Coast or overseas — from the warm, crowded waters where you can surf all day in playful waves and develop the fast-twitch reactive skills that make a champion.

By comparison, Bells Beach, with its cold waters, slippery red mud cliffs, wicked weather and lack of sheer surfing numbers, seems almost another world. Yet its distance is part of what makes it. In the 1940s, the local Torquay surfers had to hack a path to Bells through the coastal scrub with a commandeered bulldozer. Through its early years, the beach's remoteness from the nation's surfing population centres made it into a pilgrimage spot: for most young Aussie surfers, the first of its kind. The drive to Bells from Sydney was an initiation comprising bad meat pies, cold midnight hours near Albury and the long trip down into Victoria's flat glacial plain, to a kind of coast they'd never seen.

"It was definitely an adventure," says four-time Bells champion Mark Richards. "It was such a totally different feeling, driving past Geelong and into the scrubby land near Bells, and over the hill to see the swells lining up out to sea. It was a highlight, like going to Indonesia or somewhere is now."

But Bells Beach surf never comes easily. Swells show up late, early, or not at all. This can mean long drives out to Johanna Beach, past Cape Otway on the west coast, which can pay off in perfect surf or nightmare weather changes. Last year the swell showed at Bells — but with rain and winds cold enough to bring on hypothermia among the finalists.

Over the years, Anderson and his mates would rent a house up on Darian Road in Torquay, light a fire, and wait out the evil south-west gales, sometimes for weeks. "You're subject to the gods of the elements at any surf spot, but Bells more so than most," he says. "If you go enough times, you'll get good waves, but you've usually got to pay your dues in the process."

Every well-known surfer knows the feeling of paying dues at Bells. The 1973 event is legendary for a few reasons, one being the winner, Michael Peterson. The brilliant yet shy Peterson won the first of his three Bells titles that year, a win that tormented him so much he actually hid in the bushes behind Bells Beach rather than attend the victory ceremony.

Back then, surfers were not permitted to wear leg ropes and there were no jet skis to ferry surfers back to the line-up. Peter Drouyn, from the Gold Coast, famously lost his board and had to swim more than a kilometre past the neighbouring Winkipop reef break to retrieve it. He then scaled the cliff, convinced a couple who were cuddling in the back of a Kombi to drive him back to Bells and paddled out for the closing moments of his heat. The late Joe Engel, the 1983 winner, managed his victory despite having stayed in the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club bunk house with no heating and just an electric kettle for company. Four years ago, Kelly Slater and his close friend Shane Dorian arrived at Johanna with jaws agape and bits of kangaroo fur clinging to a smashed rental car's front end.

Mark Richards hated the famous car park mud. "I was never 100 per cent confident in my traction on the board, and once you stepped in that mud, no matter how hard you rubbed your feet clean in the sand, they still slipped off as soon as you stood up," he says. "I was cheering the day they tarred that car park."

Part of Bells' renown is also owed to its surf business community. If most of Australia's best surfers, surfboard designs and surfing techniques were spawned in Sydney or the Gold Coast, almost all its smart business heads thrived in a colder climate. The Sydney and Gold Coast crew got the glory, but the Torquay boys got the bucks. Chief among them, at least as far as Bells Beach goes, is Doug "Claw" Warbrick, Rip Curl co-founder and driving force behind the event since 1973. Warbrick is always there at his event's finish, making sure the winner gets to ring the famous event trophy — a brass bell suspended within a wooden framework. Warbrick's savvy marketing sense has led his company to push Bells' reputation even in pro surfing's modern era, these days of terrifying tropical wonderland surf breaks such as Teahupo'o in Tahiti. In 2000, faced with such dramatic competition, he had to argue hard for Bells to retain its status with the Association of Surfing Professionals as a Prime Wave Location on tour. He was vindicated in 2001, when two spectacular days of sunny big surf arrived for the finals.

"In the beginning, I think it was just us recognising that pro surfing would become a reality, a part of the surfing culture," he says. "We'd heard the talk about it and we were the first in Australia to move to a legitimate platform with the contest at Bells. I think that was pivotal."

Despite the growth of Torquay's surf business empire, Mark Richards says, Bells never felt like a corporate event. "It had and has a shitload of soul. You never felt like you were there just to promote Rip Curl. Plus it's got the only trophy that matters — the only contest trophy everyone wants to win. Once you've got a Bell on your mantelpiece, you don't need anything else." 

Underneath it all, underpinning the mystique, are the waves. When it really lights up, good surf at Bells is nothing like that of Australia's east coast breaks. Its flat, sloping reef lifts up Southern Ocean swells in sets of four or five broad waves at a time, often broken by long, vaguely disturbing lulls. Bells, like Hawaii, is about the space between waves, and the decisions a surfer makes in that space. Which way to paddle for position, and when? Do I catch the first or third wave of the set? There aren't the deep tubes of Tahiti or of Queensland's Snapper Rocks, which means no easy, obvious 10-out-of-10 barrel rides. Every good wave score at Bells is earned through technique, timing and persistence.

In 1981 Simon Anderson drove himself to Bells in his EH Holden, his boards in the seat next to him. He then spent a week surfing the local spots, Bells, Winkipop and Bird Rock, to fine-tune his surfing on a new board that would revolutionise surfboard design. Riding his invention, a three-finned creation he named the "Thruster", Anderson then dominated the biggest, cleanest day of Bells surf in all those 35 years.

"Well, it was definitely the cleanest," he says, with typical understatement.

In a nice piece of symmetry, Slater, last year's winner, took out the final riding one of Anderson's hand-shaped boards. Perhaps it's really those moments of connection, between surfers past and present, that make Bells worth the pilgrimage.

-- Nick Carroll is a surfer and writer who has been surfing at Bells at Easter since 1977.