I rubbed my eyes to force them to focus. They were burned from weeks of sunlight reflected from the polished surface of the sea. Salt streaked my cheeks, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin was peeling from my fingertips. The lights of a ship were visible, rising above the Eastern horizon. It seemed on a collision course. In all the vast Pacific, seven million square miles of ocean, what was the likelihood of two vessels occupying the same coordinates at the same time a thousand miles from shore?
In the darkness of the moonless night the stars were common as dust in the sky, shoals of stars so thick it seemed we might run aground. The only other light was from the binnacle illuminating the compass card. We were steering north by west to circumvent the doldrums in the heart of the Pacific High, the route followed by ships in centuries past before the wind no longer mattered, only the machinery.
I was exhausted. We had been standing watch-on-watch since the Hawaiian Islands. With a small crew we stood watches alone, three hours on, six hours off. The watch below was called on deck whenever the wind became boisterous and the sail needed to be reefed or the reef needed to be shaken out. Sleep deprivation was cumulative. Sometimes I found myself sitting at the helm having been asleep for minutes with my eyes open wide, snapped awake when the boat rounded into the wind and the sails began luffing, shaking the rigging like a dog with a bone.
Hardest were the night watches when even the sameness of the sea wasn’t visible, only the stars if not obscured by cloud and the binnacle casting a puddle of light in the cockpit. There was nothing to see but the compass card, nothing to distract the mind’s attention from itself, nothing beyond the boat that had any substance…until the lights rising on the Eastern horizon.
Same bearing, decreasing range—the definition for risk of collision used by centuries of Admiralty Law. The red and green running lights carried by every vessel underway help determine its heading and ultimately its bearing in relation to other vessels. All I could see were bright white lights everywhere. Nothing at sea is so extravagantly lit as a cruise ship. They carry generators the size of locomotive engines and squander tons of fuel to enable passengers’ illusions that they are still in the known world.
We were half way through a 3,000 mile passage, a professional crew paid to deliver a 40-foot sloop from Hawaii to San Francisco, half way through three weeks of singular isolation—no communications, no radio, no electronic navigation, eventually not even batteries for our music. We sailed in the center of a circle less than 3 square miles, the visible horizon from the deck of a small boat, immensity viewed through a vanishingly small lens. We sailed across fields of waves regular as rows of corn, each wave separate but common as dirt, beneath clouds all formed at the same height above sea level, evenly spaced like tufts of cotton drifting on the Trade Winds.
Joseph Conrad aptly named his biography The Mirror of the Sea. He served on sailing ships most of his career, square-rigged ships manned by full crews. Even more so alone on the deck of a small boat, the sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of patterns. It is a burnished mirror that faithfully reflects. Most are unprepared for that reflection.
In fact, most people living in modern society have never experienced solitude or silence. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. A long ocean passage strips away the distractions and the noise, enforcing solitude. It’s an unraveling. For the first time they hear the background chatter that occupies their thoughts. For some it’s a disconcerting experience. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
We were making four or five knots on an easy breeze. It’s a speed typical of a sailboat or a brisk walk. Five knots wasn’t enough to make much difference trying to avoid another vessel driving ahead at 20 unless I could accurately determine her course and turn early to steer clear. All I could see were white lights getting brighter—decreasing range—but still no colored lights to determine her bearing.
They might not see us on radar, lost among the sea clutter, if the officer on watch bothered to look. It was an empty ocean far from shipping lanes and expectations of traffic. They might not even feel the impact. A brief tremor, a momentary change in the deck’s vibration, not enough to cause a misstep of the passengers dancing in the ballroom or register on the bank of engine instruments, and we’d be splintered wreckage left in their wake. Every year small boats go missing, presumed lost. It happens even to ships, 29 on average each year, tankers to passenger ships. The ocean is an unforgiving place.
The Collision Regulations required I turn to starboard. Always right, never left, unless turning right would cause collision. It was an elegant Catch 22.
I began to panic as the ship’s lights filled the Eastern sky. It seemed enormous. It was on top of us. I thought of calling the mate on deck but I was the captain. If I couldn’t make a decision about the proper course, how could the crew trust me? I felt like a goat tethered as bait in tiger country. Where the hell were they heading?
And then in a moment, like one of those figure-ground diagrams popular with Gestalt geeks, the background reversed and I recognized what threatened us. I recognized the ship for what it was. We were on a collision course with the moon.
*Written as the first assignment for MIT open course: Taft, Cynthia. 21W.730-3 Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu