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  • The Floating Life
  • Sarah Cornwell (bio)

We cluster around the radio in the teachers' berth. I twist the dial to 16, the hailing and distress channel, and Dave holds a hand up for silence, even though nobody's talking. Most of the message is static, but it sounds bad. Ports are closed all along the northern coast of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Virgin Islands. The throaty, Spanish-inflected voice of the Coast Guard broadcaster tells us to switch to 22A, and we do, straining for specifics of the attack, or whatever it is. I can make out snatches only: stay at sea . . . hazards . . . we don't know . . . repeat stay . . . as it comes in. The distant sound of hip-hop drifts from the dormitory berths; the students are enjoying a normal afternoon belowdecks, unaware. The satellites are down. The computers and the handheld devices search endlessly for signals. [End Page 11]

Dave is trembling. He clamps one meaty hand over the other on the tabletop. "Do we tell the kids?" he asks. Dave is our history guy, but his graduate degree was in ethics.

"Tell them what?" I ask. "That we don't know what's going on?"

There are four of us down here, the core teachers: Dave, me and the two women, Beth and Audrey, who huddle together tearfully. Beth is a Catholic, and she stares out a porthole at the dark reddish line of the horizon, racked no doubt by fictional horrors—the four horsemen bearing down from the cloud cover. Captain Ho and the crew are above, engaged, I assume, in some immediately useful work. As a biologist, I can say that Captain Ho is a good example of evolved human behavior; he navigates, he adapts, he survives. His wife is the cook. He has everything he needs onboard the Demeter, our 140-foot steel-hull brigantine. We four are lesser examples, lonely men and women who for various reasons have chosen to live life afloat, teaching spoiled, wealthy children, none of whom we will know for more than one semester. This is our summer trip, a ninety-day southern odyssey. We leave in May from San Francisco straight for the Great Barrier Reef, head north to the Indian Ocean and then down the coast of East Africa, around the tip and across the South Atlantic to Argentina, then shoot back up toward home base in the Florida Keys in August. Most of us missed a mark somewhere: career, family, dream.

The hatch opens with a wet squeak, and Captain Ho appears on the stairs—his sockless boat shoes and the cuffs of his jeans. He climbs down, looking tired already, a sheen of sweat on his forehead, ham radio clutched in his hand. "Nothing," he says. "Nothing on VHF, nothing on single sideband or satellite, and this thing—" He smacks the radio down with a force that speaks of tightly lidded pressure. "Even this fucking thing. Nothing."

"So what do we do?" I ask him.

"What can we do?"


Our situation seems to me like an ethics test question, a hypothetical dilemma. If you were stranded on a boat full of high school students during some kind of catastrophe—say, terrorist attack, nuclear detonation, apocalypse—would you a, b, c or d? Would that Dave could offer us multiple choice. The unlimited field of options for response feels, right now, like no options at all.

At dinner, I watch the kids—thirty of them—shoveling canned peas into their mouths, cutting fat off the thick steaks we've been eating ever since [End Page 12] Rio. I can see in their easy conversation that end-of-semester shipmate bond, a weathered good nature that will surprise their parents when they tramp down the gangway at Key West.

If they tramp down the gangway at Key West.

Stop it, I tell myself. This is dangerous and weak-minded thinking, and I should stop. But Jesus Christ, what if we have to start a new race on an island somewhere, out of view of the aliens or al-Qaeda or whoever? I can't help darting a glance at Lisa, who is demonstrating something for the boy...


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pp. 10-22
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