THE HEADLESS SAILOR
I WAS TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD AND EATING A BIG, SLOPPY SLICE OF ANCHOVY PIZZA on the street corner next to the beach parking lot when I heard a group of five surfers talking about swimming past the buoy. I estimated it to be a hundred, two hundred, meters away from the sand.
I thought I was cool so it meant a lot to me to impress these random strangers I've never seen before so I walked up and was like, “Pfft! Yeah I can make that swim!”
They stared at me like, I don't know what, so I balled up the rest of my pizza, crammed it into my mouth, and chewed. Almost choked on the crust and burnt my cheeks with the cheese and sauce. Power move, am I right? But it took more than that to convince them of my supreme qualities.
They told to meet them on the beach at either one in the morning on the beach or at eight in the morning because both times some of them would be there to swim with me.
I wasn't necessarily that dumb so I didn't attend the night swim. I went to bed and woke up early. I showed up at eight. The sand was gray and cold. Fog was everywhere. After walking around in it my skin and hair felt damp and clammy. There were only four of them then. I didn't ask about that but I probably should have.
I was wearing a wetsuit. Them too. It was too cold in the morning not to wear one. I actually had been wearing one the whole trip. I couldn't even unzip to dry yesterday at noon when I saw all those guys in just square briefs and trunks.
We were all in wetsuits splashing our bodies in the shallows to prepare ourselves for the swim. It was freezing. My ears ached. My nose was running. I washed my face with icy ocean water to clean up so I wouldn't look gross. We walked slowly waist-deep acclimating. I would have buried my feet but the ocean floor there was covered in small, smooth rocks. It was cold, really, really cold.
One of them agreed to keep the time. He didn't have a watch and couldn't bring his phone so he was going to count by one thousands. That was going to be some responsibility.
“And if you guys look like you're not going to make it on the way back, turn around, and I'll run onto the beach and call for help,” he said, making a twirling motion with his hand and finger.
“Wait, what?” I thought that sounded extreme.
“After the chant you have less than three minutes to swim past the buoy and less than three minutes to swim back. If you take too long either way the Headless Sailor rips off your head.”
Another guy chimed in, “Yeah so when we're swimming back, and if you see the Headless Sailor's ghost ship then you got to turn around and go back to the buoy. If you can pass it he can't kill you.”
I laughed but no one laughed with me. “But I thought this was the beach where nobody ever drowned?”
“You can still die. You just won't drown.” He shrugged like he wasn't really sure.
Supposedly there hadn't been any drownings or even near-drowning incident for decades and it was because of a ghost. This beach saw a lot of tourism and I visited every summer but this was the first time I had ever heard of a headless sailor man.
“Okay,” I said. I decided I'd play along. “What does the Headless Sailor look like? When should I panic?”
“The Headless Sailor carries around a chunk of ambergris the size of a head. Sometimes he wears it on his bloody neck stump.”
Ambergris? I kind of knew what that was. It was whale vomit or whale poop. Whatever it was it was super rare and valuable.
“He rides up on a broken ship full of holes. You see the ship, you have to pass the buoy.”
They like, karate chopped the direction of the open ocean and then karate chopped at the buoy. Again and again to emphasize the point home.
I tried to imagine it. I didn't know what kind of ship so I imagined a nasty, algae-covered row boat. And I imagined an old dude in a rainslicker with some blood.
It just didn't sound scary to me. The chant wasn't scary either we went:
“Headless sailor, undead whaler,
Headless sailor, undead whaler,
Headless sailor, undead whaler,
Headless sailor, undead whaler,
Headless sailor, undead whaler.”
We dove at the same time and started swimming and swimming.
”...twelve one thousand!”
The ocean is alive with waves and currents so strokes and kicks have to constantly adapt. Your whole body has to meld with the water. Become a fish.
In the open ocean, the 'floor' could be twenty feet beneath you or a plunging twenty, thirty, forty feet. Each stroke felt like I was plowing through gallons of wet mud.
Then, something heavy crested the water alongside us. My heart pounded.
The water was dense. Heavy swells and swirls collided with my body from all sides. I knew something else was in the water with us. The pressure I felt increased the closer it got. I could feel the other swimmers leaving me behind so I flailed in panic. I was counting my own strokes so I'd know when to take a breath, but I quit. I turned my head and swallowed air through my mouth. I caught up somehow using shorter scoops of water.
”...hundred seventy-nine!” By now his voice was dry and raspy from shouting out the numbers.
We burst out of the water heaving and sputtering. Our hands grasped the buoy as we tread around it. The breeze cut me like a knife. I gasped. I looked, eyes burning, but I didn't see a ghost ship or a zombie with a hook hand or pegleg, whatever. My arms, my legs, my whole body ached. But the weight dragging me off-course was gone.
I heard, distantly, “ONE ONE THOUSAND!”
We hit the water again.
About midway, something bobbing in the water brushed against me and I instinctively kicked it. My hand trailed through some seaweed. It felt like hair.
I turned around and started swimming for the buoy. I had to.
The two closest to me sensed the change in direction so they followed suit. We made it to the other side of the buoy and clung to it.
There was one guy still swimming, by himself, and his friends were screaming at each other as he crawled through the water trying to make the shore.
“GO! GO! GO! GO!”
“STOP COUNTING! STOP COUNTING! GO! GO! GO!”
And I think I did see something. I was so scared I was crying. I couldn't breathe. Because it was daylight, I could see through the water. There was something in there following him.
He was so close to making it but he went down all of a sudden. The one guy stopped counting and scrambled to run for help. We're all screaming, 'no, no' but then we saw him safely roll out of the waves and stumble through the sand on his hands and knees.
We waited there huddled together, facing the sun, for warmth until we were rescued by the coast guard.
I've told this story a couple of times and some of the facts don't line up with the way the others tell it but I'm not lying. I really did count five guys outside the pizza parlor. But they said it was only five of us counting me.
I think I saw a ghost, but it wasn't the Headless Sailor.