By bar standards, the conditions are tame. It’s March: the deadly winter season when the pilots earn their reputation (and their $180,000 payday, in a solid economy) is nearly over. Still, as the Fragrant Island reveals itself in the dying light, the mood inside the Columbia tenses.
Fastabend begins communicating with the captain, asking him to adjust his speed. “If something goes wrong,” he tells me gravely, “stay clear.” He throws on a float coat, which is equipped for flotation and visibility in these forty-degree waters, but not for warmth. Dooney puts one on, too. Minutes ago, he was telling tales and goading me into throwing up, but now he grows quiet, as if sending up a silent prayer. Then he tells Fastabend, “I’m leaving my book here, David. You mind bringing it back for me?”
The book is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study of the hero archetype throughout history. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” Campbell writes in the introduction. “Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Dooney moves out the aft door, around the cockpit, and positions himself on the port bow. Fastabend matches the speed of the Fragrant Island and steers against its hull, gently and repeatedly ramming the black-and-red wall of steel, the tides moving us up and down as well as side to side. From the air, the Columbia must look like a tiny dog humping a skyscraper.
Synchronizing his stance to the sway of the ship, Dooney makes to step onto the Island’s ladder. A wave smacks him off balance. He resets himself, anchors his feet, tenses, and then launches himself toward the ladder.
One leg on a rung, the other still on the Columbia, he swings all his weight toward the hull of the enormous vessel. A tick on the side of a mastiff, he begins to climb, whitecaps swarming at his feet. If he fell now, he could easily be killed. But he does not fall. He climbs. Hand over hand, foot by foot. At the top, his legs disappear over the railing of the Fragrant Island.
The hero ventures forth.