Gilboy’s Quest

by Sam Ivey

Table of Contents
Foreword and Chapter 1
appeared in issue 217.
Chapter II
part 2 and part 3
appear in this issue.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter II : In Poseidon’s Crucible
part 1 of 3
“Alone on the raging ocean, alone in my craft I ride,
Alone on the foaming billows, in all their crested pride,
No man before hath ventured, alone, so far to sail;
Nor mind hath ever yet conceived a ship so small, so frail.”

Sydney Punch - February 17, 1883, Sydney, Australia


Gilboy in his schooner
Gilboy in the schooner Pacific
It was cold. It was cold and very wet on that Saturday morning when Gilboy awoke at 6:30. He could feel the chill in his bones and the ache in his muscles — the stiffness. And he lingered in his confined sleeping space, luxuriating — if it may be called that — in what little warmth it provided.

Actually there was no need to rise; he had made no plans to sail early on this day. In fact, his decision had been to wait until the afternoon when he would have the highest tide. That tide he would take at its ebbing, and endeavor to gain something of an entry into the Pacific — clearing the Golden Gate and establishing the point and time of his departure.

Nevertheless, after a time he finally roused himself, watered the sleep from his eyes and made breakfast, it being the remainder of last night’s chicken and coffee. If the warmth of the food had been appreciated last night, it was even more so in the cool damp of this California morning. And he thought of Buffalo as he ate, wondering how the weather there might be. Probably humid and hot, he decided, typical of a New York morning in August.

He was finishing breakfast when he noticed several small boats making for the ocean. Out for a day’s sail most likely, he thought, noting that many of them carried yacht club burgees — colorful pennants that snapped sportily from the shrouds. As he watched, the boats proved to be a catalyst, moving him to think that if he should decide to leave now, he might get as far as Point Bonita on this earlier ebbing tide. There he could anchor against the flood, then weigh and make for the sea on the afternoon ebb as he had originally planned. Besides, he reasoned, better to experiment with the boat’s seaworthiness early in the day, than to find one’s self limping back to port in darkness.

Invigorated with this new and impromptu strategy, he quickly cleared away the remnants of breakfast, hauled the anchor and hoisted the jib. Pacific began to gather way. And as soon as was practical, he raised the main and then the foresail. Then, with all of his canvas spread to the wind and close hauled, he beat to windward, riding the tail end of the waning tide and making excellent passage time.

As anticipated, by around 8:45 he had reached Point Bonita. Now he was of a mind to make one more tack out from the land before coming to anchor. In so doing, however, he made two tactical errors: he overstood the Point too far, and he overstood slack water time — the time between the tide’s flood and ebb. The result was inescapable: he found himself caught in the ocean’s forenoon landward rush.

For several hours he beat against that irresistible flood, a tiring, discouraging and fruitless exercise, as he made no headway whatsoever. Consequently, by the time of the tide’s turning, shortly after 3:00 o’clock that afternoon, he was nearly back to Fort Point, the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

The net result was that although he had been sailing forward, the entire body of water containing the boat had been moving in the opposite direction. He had quite literally been sailing backward for the last several hours. As depressing as this was, there was a certain minute satisfaction wherein he found considerable pleasure; he had discovered that the boat handled well.

Late afternoon now, and with the tide once more in his favor — the tide he had originally planned to utilize — he was seaward bound yet again. This time he was in company with three majestic square riggers, their yards braced hard around on a starboard tack, their canvas bellied out like great sheets of metal as they hammered up against the crisp northwest wind. Two of them were ship-rigged and one was a bark.

Along with them, a pair of steamers was capitalizing on the out-rushing tide, their great stacks belching acrid, black smoke into the sun bright air. From their bows came brilliant white streamers, creaming away to rush along their rust-spattered sides. While in their wake, the screws churned the water to a greenish-black, topped with foam. In among these behemoths, Pacific appeared Lilliputian.

By six o’clock that afternoon he was clear of the land, and he had laid his course to the southwest. The wind had backed a piece and was now blowing from the west-southwest, a fresh breeze but not from the best quadrant. While it allowed for a reasonably favorable point of sail, it caused the boat ride uneasily, a backing wind having generated a beam sea of considerable proportion.

And now little Pacific went reeling from side to side, her masts arcing the sky, her sails slatting and banging occasionally. Gilboy found it to be a wearying ride at the helm. For the boat would slide — port side first — into a trough, only to rise on the next crest, prepared to repeat the nauseating cycle. Already the crucible was testing the mettle of the man.

The muscle-straining hours passed, and at 10:30 that evening Gilboy made this entry in the log: “Sighted Farallone light, bearing W.N.W., 1/2W.” He made note, also, that he estimated the distance to be fifteen miles. Even farther back, and bearing north-northeast and a half east according to his sighting, was Point Bonita, now some twenty-six miles distant. He did a rough calculation and concluded that in the past seven and one-half hours he had covered approximately thirty-five miles. His speed, then, over-the-bottom, had been a little over four and one-half knots. Not bad, he thought.

By midnight the beam sea was running even more heavily, the wind having continued to freshen while holding steady. Out of the moonless night there came what appeared as great ebony hills of water; marching they came, from the infinity of the west. Rank after rank there was — like myriads of armored, grim-visaged warriors, against which he had no defense.

Deeply laden as she was, the little boat went plunging and staggering, shipping over her deck and into the tiny cockpit, tons of dark water in unending cascades. On and on it went, exhausting hour after hour: Poseidon’s punishment, unleashed as it always is against all who have the audacity, the brazen impudence, to enter into his kingdom.

Finally there came the morning. And with it — at four o’clock in the dim gray of the pre-dawn — the squalls came also, one after another. They were hard-driving rains that added to the already infinite damp. And since he had now been at the helm for over fifteen hours, it was time to seek shelter; it was time to get some sleep.

He had made a rule before ever he started, that he would take his rests as early as possible after daybreak. There was a danger of which he was keenly aware: that of being run down by a passing ship in those inky, nighttime hours. His dark little boat — lightless as it was — would be virtually invisible, even to an alert deck watch. Such a ship could grind him under its keel without any awareness. Pacific’s little hull could be crushed to splinters, and he would be left lifeless — or as good as so — in their wake. So with daylight approaching, and feeling very tired after the first night at sea, he rigged his sea anchor in preparation for heaving-to.

The anchor itself was a simple affair: a four-foot by six-foot rectangle of canvas, with an eight-foot pole affixed diagonally across. To each of the pole ends, and to the two free corners of the canvas, four single lines had been attached. These in turn met at a tow line of about twenty-four feet in length.

Having lowered this drag over the side of the boat, and after dropping the jib and foresail and lashing the mainsail and rudder amidships, he smiled with satisfaction as the bow pointed up head-to-wind. With the mainsail now performing like a weathervane, the boat drifted easily to leeward against the drag. In this comfortably hove-to condition he slept long and well.

Indeed, much of Sunday morning had passed before he awoke to a solidly overcast sky. He had entertained the hope of being able to get a noon fix from the sun, but that hope proved to be every bit as dim as the sun itself, the presence of which was manifest by nothing more than a translucent radiance behind the leaden cloud cover.

However, the warmth of the little kerosene stove was pleasant, compensating in some small degree for the morning’s dampness as he prepared a breakfast of roast salmon, peaches and tea. He huddled over the flame as he ate, and was reluctant to turn it off when he felt obliged to drive himself to make sail and get underway. Therefore he brought the drogue aboard, securing it on the deck along the starboard side.

Then he raised the jib, brought the bow around, and picked up a heading of southwest by south. On course now, he secured the tiller and hoisted the mainsail. Then, with the vessel in trim, he raised the foresail and settled in for the long day ahead.

Throughout the hours that followed, the weather offered neither relief nor any sign of improving; and it continued so on into the night.

Monday’s clouded morning was without difference, as were the hours that followed. And it was under another starless sky that he repeated the heave-to procedure. Then he slept, until the welcome warmth of the sun woke him to skies that had finally cleared, and to the opportunity to fix his position.

The weather finally having changed, he decided upon a cold breakfast this Tuesday morning: more of the peaches and a bit of roast beef. That being finished, he made sail, stabilized the boat on course — still heading southwest by south — and lashed the tiller to hold the heading while he dug into a port side locker in the cockpit. From there he took his sextant before looking at his watch; it was a little after nine o’clock.

Now he sat with the instrument to his eye, adjusting its twin mirrors in such a way as to cause the sun to apparently sit on the horizon. With the beam sea still running, and with the boat therefore moving erratically, this was no small feat. He knew that his fix would not have all of the desired accuracy, not like that of one obtained from the more stable deck of a ship. But it would position him very close to his actual location, and would be altogether sufficient for reasonably accurate steering.

Having then noted the sun’s angle of elevation, he marked it on a note pad. If the cleared sky would hold, if it would permit him to also get a noon sight, then the two elevations together could be used to locate himself on the chart. He wanted that very much, the land having long since disappeared. From now on, his only signposts would be either the sun, or a principal star at night.

As it turned out, fortune favored him; the sky did hold, and at noon he repeated the morning’s celestial exercise. The sea had become somewhat quieter by now, and there was proportional ease in obtaining the sun’s elevation. On the chart he had marked — starting from an assumed location — a line of position based on the sun’s elevation at 9:00 a.m. Now the second line of position was determined, and he advanced the first line to where the two crossed.

“Right there,” he said aloud, and making the entry in the log he wrote: “Lat. 35.03N, long. 125.00W.” He was now nearly 300 miles from San Francisco, and he marked his position with a dot inside of a small circle. With his navigational task completed, he altered his course to south by west and a half west, heading more toward the south as the weather continued fair throughout the day.

As the remaining hours of the afternoon passed, he occupied himself by experimenting with the trim of the sails: endeavoring to balance the headsail’s thrust against that of the main and the foresail. Successful he was too, achieving such reasonable harmony as would permit the boat to almost hold course by itself. Though not overtly musical, he hummed little tunes he remembered from childhood. And as the day passed, he spent some time reading the Bible.

With the return of nightfall, he took pleasure in the weather having remained clear, while against an obsidian sky, the stars glittered with dazzling brilliance. Gilboy sat and stared in wonder at the immensity of the celestial pageant. Throughout his life and in all of his years at sea, never did it fail to fill him with awe, or to set him to musing.

As a navigator, the concept of planetary rotation was familiar to him, and his musings this evening brought to mind an ingenious device he had once seen. It was consisted of several wooden arms, gears and tiny chains. Each of the arms carried at its extremity a small ball of relative size, representing one of the planets. By turning a crank, the whole of it was set in motion, causing the little planets to move in their individual orbits, each in relationship to the others. The little machine had fascinated him, especially as he had been told of an account involving Sir Isaac Newton.

Having had such an instrument sitting on his own desk, Newton had been asked by an atheistic friend as to who had made it. Newton’s reply had been to the effect that it had not been made by anyone. The friend had responded that either Newton had misunderstood the question, or that he must be insane. Newton had then explained that the device was merely a crude representation of the solar system; a system his friend believed to be a product of mindless chance — a system made by no one. In that context, therefore, Mr. Newton had felt his response to have been altogether rational.

Gilboy smiled at the recollection, and it prompted him to recall something he had once read in the Psalms. He would try to remember to look it up tomorrow.

The 22nd day of August dawned pregnant with fair promise as far as weather was concerned, little Pacific riding quietly to her drogue anchor as the sunrise began to blush along a landless horizon. Quiet pastels comprised the overture; soft colors that seemed to materialize, coming as though from nowhere; gentle colors which, with imperceptible variation, began to erase the deep indigo of the night.

There was pale lemon at first, then ochre’s that metamorphosed to mauve, to lavender, and to crimson. Ever brighter grew the eastern sky, the Greek’s chariot of Helios coming on apace. With ever-increasing fiery hues the horizon radiated, until it appeared to glow like heated gold. Then finally, as if amid a fanfare of celestial trumpets, the Vulcanesque glory of the sun’s flaming orb blasted into the morning’s iridescent blue, and Tuesday was born.

Gilboy saw none of this, however. Indeed he slept until near 11:00 o’clock that morning, when breakfast and lunch became one-and-the-same — when he enjoyed hot roast beef, sandwiched between thick slices of bread and washed down with strong, black coffee.

After getting underway — after sailing through the morning and through the placid beauty of the afternoon — it was not until late in the day when he remembered the Psalm about the stars. Now he tied off the tiller to hold course, took his Bible from the locker where it was stored along with his navigational books, and began a page-by page search.

Up and down the columns went his finger, preceding his eyes; here and there an expression would hold his attention briefly. Not being as familiar with the Book as he would have liked, however, his search took considerable time. But then he found it: the 18th Psalm. He read it out loud:

“The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night showeth knowledge.”

For a time thereafter he sat very quietly, unmoving and staring at the words, reflecting on what he had just read, recalling the fiery splendor of last night’s stellar panoply. Then, gazing round at the dark infinity of the ocean, he was overwhelmed with the inconsequential nature of his existence. He pondered, as he had often done before, the enormity of the universe and the minuscule stature of man in comparison.

He was satirically amused at the audacious nature of some persons, infinitesimally small bits of cosmic dust, that they should think themselves to be so intrinsically superior to others, even to others of their own kind.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey

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