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Forward Lookout

Introduction by Maggie Ostler
Reflections by Billy Campbell

Maintaining a good lookout is a prime and fundamental tenent of good seamanship. Look-out is a condition. On the Picton Castle we assign a crew to be posted on the focslehead 24 hours a day in one hour shifts by watches. The Forward Look-out scans the seas and horizon for other vessels, shoals and odd things in the ocean that could damage our ship. Yet lookout is not only to protect our ship and crew but also to be on the look-out for anyone in distress. In 1986 the crew of the capsized Schooner Pride of Baltimore drifted in a liferaft off the Bahamas for four days and were passed several times -closely-by large passenger and cargo ships who did not see them for lack of a good lookout…in addition to being the forward eyes of the ship around the clock, Billy Campbell writes…

I love lookout. It blows my skirt up. When I’m assigned a trick on lookout, especially at night I’m thrilled. To bits. Lookout is the the quietest, most thought-provoking duty on this small, heavily populated square-rigger, and the fo’c’sle head at night is the only place in the open air one can feel almost entirely alone while-without fear of a hasty trip to deck-letting the mind wander and the eyes do the work.

It’s on lookout that things pop into my head (and I don’t mean flying fish across the rail); phrases or snatches of dialogue, ideas of poems, stories, letters to people I love (are there any other kind?), things I wish I’d done or said, should say or do. There, under the foot of the fores’l, I’ve been, not infrequently, as content as at any time in my life. More little ditties than I can shake a Chibley at, but here’s one:

There’s nothing like while at sea
To find with whom your heart agrees
For if, you see, your sight is true
If clear of eye and mind too
You a dearest friend may find:
And what a lucky one you’ll be!
To find your heart agrees with you

Wrote that on lookout last night, waxing moon, bright as hell, shining on the water. Balmy trade-wind breeze, stuns’ls set and drawing sweetly, all well with the world, this tiny floating corner of it anyway. Looked aft over the length of her, laughter bubbling up somewhere-probably the salon- (lot of laughter this time around); boats lashed in orderly fashion to her galley roof; countless stories being told (and formed) below deck; friendships growing, dividing, multiplying; the soft glow of light from the chart-house, the silhouette of the helmsman at the wheel; the ever vigilant watch officer nearby; and all bathed in the lustrous and otherworldly light of a sea-bourne moon, which to my eye was a giant wheel of yellow cheese set in black velvet, a handful of tiny diamonds flung over it by some insecure Hollywood billionaire. And then, wishing I could share the moment, it occurs to me that the last time I was standing here, I mean at this latitude and longitude, was five years ago, when my mom was still alive, and -at this hour-likely in a bathrobe sipping green tea up in her bed, dog at her feet, listening to the crickets outside, and just maybe wondering how her children were, or thinking about someone she could never bring back.

I love lookout. Especially night. Makes me feel close to things that are far away, and makes me so happy I sometimes cry.

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