The sea drives truth into a man like salt. Hilaire Belloc.
I wrote last time the latest of a string of posts about how I ended up in a sailboat without a motor just leaving the passage between Taiwan and the Philippines, headed across the entire Pacific Ocean for California with the boat totally stuffed with twelve thousand pounds (five and a half metric tonnes) of the finest Thai weed.
From the Straits of Taiwan to California it’s about 7,200 miles. At a hundred miles a day, we were looking at two months plus of sailing. What’s not to like?
Since the beginning of the trip, we’d been navigating by the sun. Roy taught me how to do celestial navigation, my eternal thanks to you for that, bro’, wherever you are today.
In celestial navigation, you measure the angle between the horizon and either the sun or a star in order to determine your location. You use the instrument shown below, called a “sextant”, to measure the angle. Roy taught me how to handle and care for the sextant, and how to get the most accurate results from it.
Roy had also taught me coastal navigation by horizontal sextant. For that kind of navigation, you flip the sextant over on the side and measure the angle between two landmarks on the shore, or between buoys and other landmarks. From the measured angles, you can determine your position with extreme accuracy. I had the great good fortune to learn navigation from a real pro.
Roy started teaching me navigation while we were in Hong Kong and also in the Philippines. So I started the main trip with some small knowledge. Early on in the trip, once we knew my sun sights were good, I went on to learn to do star sights. Once I was proficient at that, we split up the celestial navigation. He did the sun sights, measuring the angle at mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon. And I did the morning and evening star sights. We also did what is called “dead reckoning”, where you estimate your position from your course and speed. We made a sport of it. We trailed a mechanical log behind the boat, called a “Walker Log”, that measures distance traveled over the water. Here’s a picture of a Walker Log. It has a kind of a propeller that’s shown at the top in the photo below.
It gets towed on a (much longer) rope connected to the meter shown at the bottom in the photo. The meter counts turns by the propellor and converts them into “knots”, the usual measure of distance at sea.
We’d say where we thought we were based on our estimate of our average course and the log-measured distance over the water before we calculated and plotted the star or sun sights. That way, we were constantly cross-checking our position.
Because of my navigational duties, I did the dawn and dusk watches so I could take star sights. We had four people in the crew—me, the Captain, Long John, and SEALboy. With four people, that makes for workdays of three hours on watch, nine hours off. That’s easy because you have nine hours in between watches to eat, sleep, and do chores.
So I had the great pleasure of closely observing sunrise and sunset each and every day for months at sea. The very stars and I grew friends, I knew them all by name. And I got to revel in being outdoors to watch the weather in all its forms and changes.
It never got too cold, because it was late summer and we stayed south of forty degrees north latitude. Above forty degrees, things change in a more polar sense, and it can get quite nautical. Below forty north, it was an endless summer.
One day, the wind died entirely. We decided it was a good time to scrape the barnacles and seaweed off of the underside of the hull of the boat. At that point, we’d been at sea for a couple of months, so the hull was getting fouled with growth. We did the scraping with a regular putty knife, using just mask, snorkel, and fins.
So I was hanging upside down underneath the boat, scraping the hull. Suddenly, without warning, I was facing a horrible sea monster, so big that it filled up the whole lens of my dive mask. It had big waving legs and spikes and claws, it looked huge. Without conscious thought, my body galvanized into insane action and streaked for the surface …
… and meanwhile, my mind was uselessly screaming “You idiot, that wasn’t a big monster far away! Stop panicking! It was a small crab walking across the lens of your dive mask, you fool!”
In the event, my body paid absolutely no heed to my mind, and I was unable to stop clawing at the water until I broke the surface panting from the sudden exertion …
Shaken, I caught my breath and calmed my breathing. Then I started diving and scraping and diving and scraping again. I was merrily scraping the boat hull on one dive when the putty knife slipped from my grasp and started sinking.
I chased after it, but as the old-time swabbies said, “A stern chase is a long chase”, so it took a surprising length of time to catch up with the sinking putty knife. I was way deep down in mid-ocean when I finally grabbed it.
And when I turned to go back to the surface, I stopped, entranced … I was floating in the middle of a graduated blue universe, shading slowly from light blue above me, to cerulean blue around me, to blue-black depths below me.
And impossibly far above, the underside of a boat floating on the surface with the sun behind it, casting a long narrow shadow down into the depths of the darkening ocean below … aah, my friends, the world is truly full of wondrous things.
More to come, of course, it’s a long slow sail from one side of the Pacific to the other.
My very best wishes to every one of you,