Category Archives: Sailors

Abyss

A ground swell rolled from the horizon, an old swell that had sorted itself across hundreds of miles into rows as regular as corduroy. It rolled across an ocean patterned by sunlight and cloud shadow, an ocean empty except for a single boat surrounded  by a thousand miles of solitude.

We were steering north by east, two weeks underway, circumventing the doldrums of the Pacific High on a passage from Oahu to San Francisco. I was alone on deck, the crew asleep below. Professional delivery crews are necessarily small to remain profitable. There were only three of us to sail 3,000 miles, each standing our watch alone, watch on watch, daylight and dark, week after week.

My skin was the color of Honduran mahogany from weeks of exposure to the sun. Salt streaked my cheeks like tears, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin peeled from my fingertips. Salt crusted the winches, the hand rails, the running rigging. Salt crystals glinted in the sun. Fresh water was too scarce to waste on washing. Thirst is an especially hard way to die.

It was a quartering sea that passed beneath the boat obliquely, stern to bow, in a complex dance of forces, a sailor’s jig of pitch, yaw and scend—fore and aft, side to side, up and down. Despite the regularity of the swell it was not an entirely predictable motion. A subtle cross-swell from the northwest created an irregularity that would tumble you ass over teakettle if you were unwise enough to trust the rhythm without a secure handhold or bracing against a bulkhead.

Even in a calm the sea is an infinitely complex interference pattern of wave trains that may have traveled halfway around the world without obstruction and without losing much energy. The patterns are complex but consistent enough that Polynesian navigators could feel their way across vast distances. They were taught young to lay in the bilge with their eyes closed and recognize the patterns from pitch, yaw and scend. They learned to map the patterns to their body—kinetic navigation. A capable navigator could stand with legs braced, eyes closed, and plumb his location by the swinging of his testicles.

It’s a skill now mostly in disuse. Global positioning requires less mindfulness. Even those first men who crossed unimaginable distances in open boats were not native to the sea. There were no tribes, no people who lived far from shore. At best they traveled quickly and with trepidation between landfalls, praying for safe passage.

The sea is an alien and inhospitable place for human beings despite the fact that our blood tastes of seawater. It is utterly regardless of humanity. There are no rutted roads or even footpaths to mark our passage, no cairns piled high upon hillsides to mark our dead, no smoke rising from chimneys to mark our living. Even the wake of a boat is soon lost among the wavefield, unremembered. It is a world without root or branch, without hearth or home, the native place of nomadic species who build no tools and have no possessions. It is a place old beyond knowing and violent beyond comprehension.

Joseph Conrad, a man who spent much of his life at sea, wrote that if you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. It is the first face of the world, the oldest face.

The violence of a storm at sea is greater than anything imaginable ashore. The wind is unobstructed by mountains or forests or the obstinate earth. It can rage without restraint. Goaded by the wind, waves achieve their own mountainous topography with peaks and transverse ridges and ravines where white water roars like a rock slide. A breaking wave can exert as much as one ton of pressure per square foot, enough force to shatter a boat. There are storms no boat can survive, no matter how well-found or competently crewed.

Storms are most dramatic but solitude is most unnerving. There is perhaps no place on Earth more alone than the deck of a small boat making a long ocean passage. The sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of waves. The horizon is a perfect circle that encompasses three square miles. The trade wind clouds form at a uniform distance above sea level, sailing downwind like a fleet of Velella. In the silence and the distance thoughts become deafening. Many people, maybe most, have never heard themselves think. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. The real sea strips away the distractions and the noise. It enforces a monk’s solitude. It’s an unraveling of the everyday in the presence of vastness. For some it’s deeply disquieting. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

The tropic sun polishes the sea to the brilliance of a mirror. In that mirror I saw myself reflected for the first time, the self concealed slyly beneath the noise and distraction and misdirection of my conscious life. In the silence and solitude I heard the constant criticisms echoing from my childhood still bouncing off the walls of my skull, the brutal and belittling comments of an abusive father, the physical violence thinly disguised as discipline, the inherited rage. I heard my father’s abuse endlessly repeated in my own voice. His words had become my own.

I felt the successive betrayals of parents who were still angry children themselves and a religion more intent on power and politics than a candid exploration of spirituality and a government that sent a generation to war against a rural country halfway around the world for no good reason they could admit without revealing their callous abuse of public trust.

I heard the continual monologue that occurs inside my head, the bilious, accusing, belittling vomit of words that had first belonged to others but had become my own, endlessly whispered in the darkness, a poisoned stream of words at the root of consciousness.

It was a staggering experience, the realization of how I had internalized the harm done to me as a child helpless to defend myself against the very people who should have been my defense.

Perhaps that is the gift of wilderness, the solitude necessary to see ourselves clearly, the silence necessary to hear the voices inside our heads. It’s arguable that the unexamined life is not worth living but it’s certain that the unexamined life has brought us where we are today, willfully participating in our own destruction. It’s a hard truth confronting your shadow self, the reason we readily flee into distractions and entertainments that waste our time but occupy our attention. Until we know ourselves we remain adult children—the terrifying power to ignite the sun on earth in the hands of petulant children. Ironically, the place that is least human may be the path back to our own humanity.

This is a second draft of an exercise that began with Mirrors for the MIT open course Writing and the Environment. The purpose was to write a detailed account of a particular natural (outdoor) setting that would enable the reader to envision a place they have never seen and to understand my reaction to that place.

God, Chess and Einstein’s Dilemma

Tristan Jones once sailed to the Arctic Ocean in a converted lifeboat and the company of a three legged, one-eyed dog. Frankly, I think the dog was the only one he could convince.

Tristan_Jones Inevitably the ice fields closed around him and the boat was trapped in the lee of an enormous berg. The counterbalancing mass beneath the surface eroded and the berg shifted, positioning thousands of tons of blue ice directly above the lifeboat held fast by the pack ice. Throughout the arctic winter the odds were even whether the pack would free the boat first or the berg would turn turtle and crush it like a rotten melon.

Jones mostly ate burgoo, a loathsome layering of porridge, bacon, and whatever else was at hand, flavored with whiskey and frozen in a barrel on deck. Meals consisted of chipping off bits of burgoo with a hammer and heating it in a paraffin stove. The dog ate the same but probably enjoyed it more.

God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

Jones played chess with himself. A game with proper suspense required he forget his opponents’ strategy, a sort of self-induced schizophrenia. At first he had to wait several weeks between moves until he had forgotten the old strategy of what was now his new opponent. It was awkward.

Over time he perfected his ability to play without cheating. Not only could he bounce between players in the game, occupying the memories and strategy of one while forgetting the other, but a third personality developed, a meta personality that impartially observed both players, cognizant of either strategy, forming judgments and opinions but giving away no clues to the opponents. The lifeboat became rather crowded.

I wonder if God plays chess.

Before the first creation, before the spark that ignited the universe, God was pure potential, the sum of all possibilities but the realization of none. What’s the point of potential if it’s never actualized? I suspect God was like a kid with a new 12-gauge shotgun and nothing to shoot.

Of course it’s absurd to ascribe human emotions to something utterly beyond human experience. Whatever the impetus, God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

There’s a problem. A game is hardly interesting if you already know the outcome. God was faced with Tristan Jones’ dilemma: How do you play a game alone? I suspect God’s solution was the same—forget that all the players are yourself.

It’s an elegant solution if simplistic. Everything comes from God initially; everything returns. In the interim, everything forgets itself in order to play the game convincingly.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong.

Of course, it’s not my original idea. It’s been kicking about for thousands of years, probably first recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. God is insatiably curious. Curiosity is the spark that ignited creation. Of course God, being omniscient, already knew what would happen. But we didn’t. We’re continually surprised, delighted, appalled, enraptured, disgusted, intrigued, excited, depressed, disappointed, amazed. In short, we’re immersed and enthralled by the game.

And that may explain those people with near death experiences who don’t remain dead, their entire lives flashing before their eyes in exacting detail complete with emotional soundtrack played in a bubble of timelessness. It sounds rather like a data dump, the incredibly dense data of a person’s entire life.

Albert_EinsteinI find that thought oddly comforting. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. Every false start, every failed ambition is remembered. As well, every kindness, every selfless act, and every bit of wonder.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps God does play dice. Or chess.

Perigee Approaches

 NASA – Biggest Full Moon of the Year: Take 2

FullMoon_PugetSound 
Moon over Puget Sound. Photo attribution: PFLY.

This Saturday, January 10, the moon will be in perigee, it’s closest approach to the earth for the year. It will be a moon of magnificent size especially as it nears the western horizon at 7:39 Sunday morning.

For reasons still unexplained, the moon seems larger near the horizon. I remember a night watch onboard a boat we delivered from Oahu to San Francisco. We were a week into a three week passage, already a bit dazed from standing watch-on-watch. Because there were only three in the delivery crew, we stood our watches alone. There was no one to ask when, in the middle of the wide Pacific, a ship steamed over the horizon on a collision course for the only other boat in existence, a 40 foot sailboat making four knots.

It must have been a cruise ship. The decks were flooded with light. Amid all the back scatter, I couldn’t pick out its running lights, couldn’t determine its exact direction, but it was coming on fast. I seriously thought about turning on the engine but where would I steer? The ship seemed to fill the eastern horizon as if it were about to run us down. They wouldn’t even feel the collision. They’d even know to turn and look for survivors. There seemed no escape.

And then the ship’s hull cleared the horizon. Something in my head audibly clicked. What seemed a ship at risk of collision turned into the moon rising above an empty ocean, an enormous moon sailing overhead.

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Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People

Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine, was commissioned by the French king Francis to explore the new world in 1524. Verrazzano made landfall near Cape Fear in the Carolinas and eventually sailed north to the coast of Maine which he called The Land of Bad People. Seventy-eight years later another explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold, sailed south from Nova Scotia to the Land of Bad People looking for a cure for syphilis. He was under the misapprehension that sassafras was that cure.

According to the History and Epidemiology of Syphilis, the disease had been recently introduced to Europe and everyone was to blame. The English called it the French disease. The French called it the Spanish disease. Ironically, it appears to have been the American disease, first contracted by Columbus’ crew from Caribbean islanders.

Even though it had no effect on syphilis, the root of sassafras made a passable drink later called root beer—a passable soft drink but not much of a beer. It has an alcohol content of only 0.4% by volume. Understandably, it was most popular during prohibition. Sassafras is also street slang for marijuana but so is almost everything.

It may be an inconsequential bit of loosely related history but it what a great title for a short story: Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People. I should get Chris Furst to build a body of flesh around its bones.

Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors

Continuing with the theme Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors, there are numerous legends about the single most dramatic landmark of the Bay—the Golden Gate Bridge. I sailed under the bridge a lot teaching coastal sailing, heavy weather techniques, and damage control but I always kept a wary eye aloft, especially after hearing about the Monterey fishing smack.

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