On the third day of our sail crossing, from Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles to Santiago de Cuba, the wind died. It had been falling off all the previous afternoon and night, from 20 knots to 12, 10 and then 5 by dawn, the sails — jib, main and mizzen — all flapping uselessly in the breeze. By midday it was dead calm, the seas laying oily and unruffled, the sails hanging limp.
The nearest land, the southwestern tip of Haiti, which we had been warned to avoid because of pirates, was perhaps 200 miles away, and it was a day’s travel under full sail to the Panama Canal shipping traffic in the west. The last gull had wheeled around and flown back the previous afternoon, and the water here, the maps told us, was close to three miles deep. We were somewhere approaching the middle of nowhere, that spot on old maps that would be blank except for the head of a sea serpent rising out of the water.
None of this worried us. We had an 85 horsepower inboard diesel and over 750 gallons of fuel, enough to carry us straight to the Howard Johnson‘s on Miami Beach, if that’s where we wanted to go. And after staring dumbly at the calm for a time, we fired up the motor, regained steerage and resumed our crossing, making a steady 6.5 knots to the motor‘s steady mechanical thrum.
There was little actual sailing to do under such conditions. The boat steered itself by auto-pilot. A small handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) instrument beamed our latitude and longitude, within 30 meters accuracy, down out of the sky, and also tabulated distance covered, distance remaining, average speed, etc. The thrice-daily weather report, which usually could be counted on to provide endless detail on troughs here and ridges there, had been reduced to “no significant features.”
For hour after hour we droned on through this world-without-definition, suspended between the towering emptiness of the sky above and the dark ocean below. We were trailing two fishing lines behind, but nothing bit, and given the depth of the water, the excuse of checking the hooks for weeds and other debris wore thin. Expecting rough weather (the wind had been blowing 25 to 30 knots when we pulled out of Bonaire), we had pre-cooked meals ready to eat. Even my wife’s spectacular seasickness, which filled the first night with moaning, had subsided.
So we paced up and down the decks. We read. We practiced Spanish out of a phrase book. We frightened my mother with talk of Haitian pirates. We consumed our ration of beer and broke into the rum. We dangled our toes into the water to cool off and speculated grimly about what would happen were one to fall overboard at night. We searched the horizon with our eyes in a show of keeping watch, but there was nothing out there. Nothing until late on the third night.
I kept watch alone while the others slept, standing in my usual perch behind the cockpit, arms slung over the boom gallows. Then I saw it, ahead, just off the port bow, closing fast. As we drew alongside I could make out the distinct hard edges of its outline: a box! A white box! Floating high and upright — clearly waterproof, to judge by its buoyancy. Well-sealed. Cube-shaped, 2 and a half feet to a side, nice square corners. Not wooden — no visible seams. No markings, labels or other identifiers. And then it was gone, slipping past the stern into the black.
I briefly considered wheeling the boat around and going after it, then remembered our discussion about losing someone overboard at night. When the others woke up I told them about my sighting. Really, they asked, a box? Yes, I assured them, a white box.
The next day, around noon, we spotted the lumpy outlines of the Sierra Madre, then the rectilinear shapes of Santiago, the land unfolding and revealing itself to us. But the box, unexpected and unknowable, remained a mystery.