Sailing, at least sailing small boats long distances far from shore, is a technology often practiced in discomfort and occasionally fear, practiced in a realm of enormous forces that cannot possibly be controlled and sometimes not even survived. A sailor can manage risk by playing probabilities, by carefully choosing routes and time of passage, but the risks of sailing small boats across oceans are still significantly greater than vacationing onboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise line. So why do we do it? Why do sailors go to such expense and effort to place themselves in harm’s way?
In September of 2004, Hurricane Ivan approached the Gulf of Mexico. It was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph. In the offshore oil fields, 75% of the manned oil platforms (574 platforms) and 59% of the drilling rigs (69 rigs) were evacuated. When the storm passed, five rigs were adrift and seven sunk outright. Numerous platforms were heavily damaged. Seabed pipelines were shifted as much as 300 feet, many were leaking, and some couldn’t be found at all, buried beneath tons of mud that had slid down submarine canyon walls.
There are numerous fjords on in the Salish Sea—river valleys carved by glaciers and drowned by the rising sea—where summer freshets superimpose a layer of brackish water upon the dense salt water lying beneath. (Salt water has a higher density than fresh and consequently sinks.) Ships transiting these fjords have sometimes been dramatically slowed, losing headway with no opposing current and no explanation. Ships under sail and power were equally affected. Sailors, often as poetic as they were superstitious, called the phenomenon "dead water." The name suggested the sea itself clung to the ship like the dead hand of a drowned sailor. It was an oddly appropriate name.
In The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a sailor was cursed for killing an albatross. Fortunately, there is no penalty for merely startling one.
In fact, I’m not sure which of us was more startled. I was half asleep at the helm, alone on deck a thousand miles from shore. The light was failing. (Twilight comes quickly to the tropics.) A long, greasy swell was running after days of storm. The wind had followed the storm and we were becalmed, watch on watch, drifting without steerageway for days.
The existence of rogue waves has been common knowledge among sailors for centuries but the staggering size of the waves reported by mariners didn’t fit the statistical models endorsed by oceanographers. Scientists scoffed at sea stories of mountainous waves until satellites began sweeping the open ocean with radar. Now it seems waves of uncommon size are more common than the statistical models anticipated. According to several Brazilian scientists, they may not even be rare at all. And they are sinking ships at an alarming rate.
An amazing series of still photos capturing the mechanics of a boat capsizing. The sailboat is making for the passage between the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, a place notorious for standing waves and tide rips. The surf is breaking ten feet or higher. Once committed, there is no possibility of escape.
Traditionally Pacific Islanders have sailed vast distances without compass or instruments, steering by the stars, the flight of seabirds, the shivering air of thermals rising above islands, the green hue of a lagoon cast on the belly of a cloud, or the feel of the swell generated by familiar winds.