Monterey Bay Funeral at Sea

Haflidi Jonsson
Copyright, 2009
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"Are you ready to go out tomorrow?” The voice on the telephone was Cap'n Bob’s. He sounded excited, but slightly inebriated. That fit, it was 7 PM, the end of happy hour at the Fish-House bar in Monterey where often he had only beer for dinner. But this was Friday, two days early for our usual Sunday sail.

“There is a nun here,” he explained,” and she is looking for a boat to take out tomorrow to scatter some ashes.”

“Well…eh…sure,” I said, not knowing what this entailed.

“Great! Show up at eleven; we leave at noon.”

By noon the next day we had his 26-foot Windrose sloop ready. The only snag was we were a bit low on gas for the 9 HP Honda outboard. But we figured we would have enough if we only motored out of the marina and set sail outside the breakwater.

The funeral party arrived in pairs, two men first and then two women. They walked solemnly down the float dock towards the boat. One of the men was a tall, stout gentleman, near sixty, with a round face and graying hair combed back in a ponytail. He was wearing corduroy pants and a sport jacket, and he carried a gray box about a foot on each side. The other was in his lower thirties, average height, with short hair. He wore jeans and a tee shirt, and his arms were covered with tattoos. He handed me a plastic bag containing two Styrofoam lunch boxes. On one he had written “Captain Bob;” on the other “The Swede.” Being Icelandic, not Swedish, I thought this strange, but under the circumstances bearable.

The ladies walked arm in arm. One of them was an older lady, dressed completely in black, with a black fishnet veil covering her face, and a black purse on her arm. She inspected the boat from the pier and murmured: “I expected a bigger boat.” But Cap'n Bob wasn’t paying any attention to her. He was perched up at the transom, his gut sucked in, chest ballooning out, and a smile on his face so big that little of his face but teeth was showing. His eyes were on the younger woman who was wearing blue jeans and a skin tight jacket, and showing curves belonging on a mega yacht.

He noticed my curiosity, winked, and whispered: “This is the nun.”

The cockpit was too small for six people, so I ushered the gentlemen below. Cap'n Bob gracefully assisted the nun aboard and seated her on the port side aft in the cockpit. Obviously, he was going to keep her close to himself. It looked like he was going to kiss her hand as he set her down. “He must be wearing a corset,” I thought to myself. The widow couldn’t climb aboard. I locked my arms around her, yanked her over the freeboard, and dropped her down on the starboard side forward, by the companionway. I couldn’t see her face, and she said nothing, but I felt heat emanating from under her veil.

Ponytail had produced a deck of cards from his pocket, and a lively card game was underway in the cabin when gentle NW breeze and light, rolling, swell met us outside the breakwater. But as I set out to raise sails, I noticed the widow had latched both hands onto a stanchion and held onto it as if her life depended on it. Her entire body was frozen solid and moved with the boat as rigidly as the stanchion itself. With the traveler at her feet and the genoa winch behind her, she would have to be thawed out and moved if the sheets were to be worked. That did not seem likely.

The Captain had noticed this too. A deep wrinkle had formed between his eyes. His lips projected something toward me without any sound. I couldn’t make it out, but it looked laced with four letter words. I stumbled aft to hear him. Worried, he whispered, “We’ll have to hope we have enough gas.”

On the way back to my place in the companionway I heard a grunt. The widow was having spasms. She still hung onto the stanchion, and she still held down her food. Her head turned to me, and although I couldn’t see her face I sensed she was begging for help. I interrupted the card game below searching for a bucket or a bag. A supermarket paper bag turned up. I placed it in her lap, and her face immediately sank into it. I pulled up her veil. She vomited.

With her breakfast now ballasting the bag in her lap my hands were free again. I placed one on her forehead for support when she went through the worst convulsions. In between I told her to try to look up and fix her sights on the horizon. “Watch the horizon, watch the horizon” echoed from the nun back at the transom. For some reason she kept repeating this. “Watch the horizon.”

“SHUT UP!” The widow’s head came out of the bag, and that heat was coming off it again. “You keep repeating this, SHUT UP,” she shouted. Then she fell sobbing back into the bag. Cap'n Bob’s face had turned ash-gray by now.

The deceased had asked his ashes be scattered about five miles north of the harbor. He had enjoyed his time on the coast there when he was in the military. We were only a mile out, but it was clearly time for some serious reconsideration of our commitment. I stumbled aft again for a consultation with the Captain.

“She won’t make it?” I whispered.

“F*&%, WE won’t make it,” he whispered back. “We are almost out of gas.”

“Watch the horizon…” The nun interrupted. She was singing to herself, her head rolling back and forth, her eyes out of focus. She was drunk!

“Let’s get this f*&^%$ thing over with,” said the Captain, chest fallen, gut hanging, teeth gone. “These people are from the f&%^$@ east coast and don’t know where we are going. Anyways, the current will take the f*# *&^ ashes the rest of the way.”

Hesitatingly I took stock of the situation. The party-dressed nun was in a daze and mostly gazing skyward. The widow was in the bag, barfing and sobbing. The men were playing a loud, laughter filled game of cards below, oblivious to what was happening in the cockpit.

“OK,” I agreed, “let’s get this over with.”

Cap'n Bob climbed upon the transom to make space for the guys while yelling “we are there.”

Ponytail came up and sat down aft of the widow. But Tattoo, upon standing up from the card game, shook himself, wobbled, and said, “Oh…. I’m not sure I’m going to make it.”

He made it though, but once in the cockpit he bent over a lifeline and threw up. Afterwards, he sat down, shook himself, swore, and then took what thereafter became a permanent position, forward of the nun, with the back leaning against the cabin and the head hanging over the side, convulsing.

“Where are the ashes?” the Captain asked. I found the gray box beneath the cabin table and with a screwdriver from the ship's toolbox opened it. Inside was a plastic bag containing the light-gray, dust-like, remains. I handed the bag out through the companionway, but nobody took it. I positioned myself between Ponytail and the widow and started pouring the ash in the water. Most was captured by the wind and carried away from the boat. Ponytail searched his pockets, and brought up a small yellow sticker-pad note. He read a poem off it, from which I gathered he was the brother of the deceased. When he finished, the widow came out of the bag for a moment, fumbled till she found her purse, and pulled a small bloom on a branch out of it.

Without saying a word she tossed it over her shoulder into the water, and quickly glanced at it floating away, then she fell back into the bag, convulsing and sobbing. With that the ceremony ended.

We motored back to the marina on the gas we had. In silence we watched the family stumble back up the dock, mother and son arm in arm, nun and her uncle behind them. We secured the boat and afterwards went to the London Bridge pub for a beer. The conversation was scattered, but reflective.

“We shouldn’t have done this,” I said, ”most of the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Professionals do this sort of thing.”

“Yeah . . .” said the Captain, absentmindedly.

After a long silence, I said “She is not a nun.”

“Oh yeah, she is,” answered Cap'n Bob, “Her convent is up in the Bay area,”

“Then you shouldn’t fall for a nun,” I said.

“She is a nice girl, but she got in trouble and became nun to get away from the law,” he said with distant stare in his eyes. “She used to live here in Monterey, you know. I knew her then.”

As we parted I thought to myself, “it will be a while before we do this sort of thing again,” but then I heard Cap'n Bob mumble to himself: “Son of a bitch, I should have brought more gas.”

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