After days with my head in Mo’s bilge or the now typical 3 a.m. wake-and-worry, I sometimes need a pick-me-up, a reminder that this part of the process does, in fact, lead to the launching of a ship into that wild blue yonder, a thing for which both ship and sailor yern.
In years past, I would have reached for a much-thumbed copy of The Long Way or Ice with Everything or any of a number of friendly volumes just to the right of the chair. Recently, however, I’ve been rereading my logs from previous voyages.
While this seems oddly self-referential, it also serves to refresh distant memories, personal proofs that passage-making and the world one encounters “out there” is a reward worth pursuing, is the reward, and not because one is driven to encounter his own heroism but because it allows one such easy access to wonder.
The below excerpt is from Murre and the Pacific, my first set of solo passages in a 30-foot ketch. No storms, no mast down or half sunk ship, no fighting a huge fish over the rail or suffering from days of thirst. Rather, it’s just a normal day, in this case, day 20 of a passage from Tahiti to Hawaii, in which I’m trying to work around a bit of what meteorologists would call “unsettled” weather.
October 18, 2011
Noon Position: 17.15.21N by 150.47.90W
Since last noon: 129
Total for passage: 2283
Miles to Hilo: 279
That great wall of cloud we had been tracking for two days dissipated in the night, I thought. The sky was dark and full of stars. I shot Vega, Deneb, and Fomalhaut and got, after considerable head scratching, reasonable results. I found Cassiopeia, that inverted, laddered triangle, the simple hook that is Ares, the cup of Perseus with Mirfak brightly in the middle. Deneb led to Cygnus and Kochab to a confirmation of the North Star (Ursa Major being well below the horizon). It was a productive evening and I went to my bunk feeling satisfied. Each time I rose, new arrivals presented themselves, but I was too sleepy to greet any but Orion with confidence. And I smiled, looking forward, for the way was clear.
I rose with first light and the great wall of cloud had not dissipated, it had grown leviathan and we had approached. Somehow we had snuck up. Now it had the definition of a mountain, high, white elevation–I had to crane my neck to see the summit–and low curtains of lead pouring rain covered our way from horizon to horizon. I listened for thunder but heard none. Against this grayness, the black silhouette of a frigate bird flapped its paper wings to make distance between it and the great wall. Flap flap flap–awkward in a bird built for soaring–but it was desperate to flee. It was the only other creature. This did not fill me with confidence.
But our choices were to stop and wait or go, and one does not stop and wait for mountains that fill the horizon. So I made another cup of coffee, donned oilies, dropped the mizzen, and at 0800 we went. Inside was all rain. Winds jumped to 15 knots immediately, but not much more, and we frothed along for a time. Then they eased to almost nothing. Then rose again and then eased again so that I had to take the wheel from Molly before she ran us the other way. Rain gushed off the main boom but mostly missed the bucket I’d placed at the gooseneck for catchment. Fresh water poured off the edges of the upturned dinghy. It poured out of the scuppers. Then all the pouring stopped and there was silence. Between squalls, the cloud ceiling vaulted like that of a cathedral. Then all closed in and another squall released. This was the pattern inside.
At noon we exited almost as abruptly as we had entered. The way ahead was not clear, but it was blue and white and there was no gray. And then I thought of the mountain more as a river of cloud and rain flowing west, and we had forded it, swimming.
Earlier in the same passage, I’d encountered a ship. This turned out to be the only human thing I saw on that whole run.
October 4, 2011
Noon Position: 06.52.55.S by 148.38.15W
Since last noon: 117
Total for passage: 604
One gets used to being alone on the ocean, except for the company of birds. It’s a big place. Water goes by and by; the sky is blue and the sea bluer and a sense of ownership develops over one’s temporary province, such that sighting another craft is a thing to notice with alarm.
I rose at midnight after my hour interval of sleep to check the horizon expecting to see, as usual, nothing. But two points to starboard was a glow brighter than a rising planet. I watched it for a time, and as it did not change, I reset the alarm for fifteen minutes, and went back to my bunk, hoping the glow would drop back into darkness. Two intervals of short sleep later, bright white deck lights began to pop above the waves, but I could not discern navigation lights, so the vessel’s direction was not clear. My ship warning device (AIS) shrugged but said not a word.
I put on my jacket (Murre is still throwing water at me) and propped myself in the companionway hatch for a good long watch. Stars upon stars crowded the moonless sky, taking the stage from usually bold Orion and the glittering Scorpio, and I gazed upward, wandering aimlessly until my neck hurt. It wasn’t until half past one that a red light began to show on the ship, and its full length visible in lights. For a while, I thought it stationary. But ever so slowly our courses converged, it became brighter and more distinct, and everything suggested that Murre was passing it–a truth difficult to believe.
My first thought upon sighting a ship is to take evasive action. Even if it is miles away, I want to heave to or change course or do something that immediately resolves the question of collision in our favor. But this tactic, I have found, can prove troublesome if the actual course of the other vessel is unknown–an evasion can go bad if one runs the wrong way. So on this night, I decided to wait. I like to say that the odds of hitting anything out here are nearly nil. So prove it, wise guy!
After a time white bow and mast lights became distinct, the red running light, very clear, and white deck lights blazed almost like fire, even though the ship was several miles to windward. And ever so painfully slowly Murre did indeed pass it. By three in the morning, the ship was mostly astern, and suddenly, and as if she’d just spied us, she made a hard turn to port and was below the horizon by four.
The phrase “two ships passing in the night” conjures an image of purposeful, almost mythic, obliviousness, but fails to capture the fearful maneuvers in the mind of the captain on the **smaller** ship.
It’s these so usual unusualnessess that I look back on when I need inspiration to move forward.