No one died. And yet, that time immediately after rejecting Steal Away felt like mourning.
During the survey, I spent the better part of five days discovering, thinking and planning aboard my new craft. I would eat here; I would sleep there; tools on that shelf. A dash to the mast for a reef would start by a grab at the rail here, my right foot there. Sit here to grind in the jib; there to adjust the main sheet. I’d begun to learn the boat and in so doing had grown attached. Vessel in hand, my imagination shifted; my mind moved to the Figure 8 course, wind, spray, an Albatross, that infinite undulation called ocean.
With the purchase, the project would finally manifest, the idea would have bones made of steel to hold its beating heart and onto which I could form the flesh. Now, and at last, there would be things that needed doing. Amen!
Without the purchase, all reverted again to the abstract, the hypothetical—pretty pictures and imperfectly rendered thoughts free floating in the Cloud.
Then my wife pointed to the tally of readers and friends who shared my disappointment. The sum came to exactly zero, the refrain, “wait for the right boat.”
The right boat! What on earth is that? Slocum did not choose Spray for her perfections; rather, she was free and could do the job. Likewise, Matt Rutherford’s St. Brendan, nearly as ancient as he and not much bigger, was all he could afford. At some point, said Phil Hogg in one of his emails, it’s more about the man than the boat.
In my ear Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whisper, “Go. Go now. To wait risks failure.”
Lately I have been reading Roland Huntford’s biography of Ernest Shackleton and have been amazed to discover that Sir Ernest, this intensely driven man of action, a hero by many measures and a giant among polar explorers, had a rather intuitive and haphazard approach to planning. For example, he never learned to ski, though Nansen and others had already demonstrated skiing’s advantages over traveling ice and snow on foot. Scott’s party, of which Shackleton was a member, made its first attempt at the South Pole with skis; that is, they carried them tied to the sledges that they man-hauled, and one could argue that Shackleton’s inept use of these skis on the long return—when he was ill, feeble and unable to walk—saved his life. Yet he did not incorporate skiing into either of his polar expeditions, a decision that probably cost him the prize.
Just so, dogs. Eskimo’s had been speeding over northern wastes with dog teams almost since the time of the first freeze, and Scott had sledge dogs in company, but none of the party knew how to drive them. Shackleton’s try at managing a dog team was a dismal failure and convinced him that dogs were not a polar solution. Instead Shackleton chose ponies, thinly furred, pointy-hooved animals, to pull the sledges on his first expedition, and the antarctic cold and crevices simply gobbled them up.
In stark contrast is Shackleton’s peer and competitor, Roald Amundsen, who studied the science of high latitude travel from a young age, poured immense amounts of energy into planning, and who bettered, with skis and dogs, Shackleton’s best, heroic efforts with an easy and dull efficiency.
So, when Sir Ernest swears to me that action is everything, I will quote him back with this:
“The … secret of [Roald Amundsen’s] success … was that … he acquired knowledge … and then bought his ship, instead of doing what most … explorers had done, bought the ship first and then acquired the requisite information.” (Shackleton, Roland Huntford, P. 159.)
Finding the right boat—that is, clearly defining scope, working through, in advance, the problems surely to be encountered, imagining every conceivable contingency—is at least as creative a part of this project as that which is to come.