by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
appeared in issue 218.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter III: Through the Doldrums|
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
Thursday was sodden with rain; a constant rain, punctuated with drenching squalls. In irregular cadence they came marching, borne on an insipid wind that did little to move him in any meaningful way, but which at least allowed him to maintain his course to the southwest.
So throughout the day he sat in the small cockpit, sheltering from the downpour under the umbrella he had brought to ward off the sun. As for the boat itself, Pacific appeared to have become virtually imbued with the ill-humored spirit of the Doldrums, as she went creeping snail-like across the grayish water.
Now, in the late of the afternoon, the aspect of that very water changed. Up ahead, in the otherwise dull, leaden complexion of the day, it appeared to glitter in spite of an absent sun. Gilboy stood and folded the umbrella, allowing the rain to sluice from his lean, naked body.
Then he moved forward of the foremast, to where he clung to it as he shaded his eyes, looking intently at the irregularity. Fish, he thought. Here was food to supplement the routine of his larder. And as the boat glided toward the shimmering mass, the realization caused him to quickly take the two or three steps back to the cockpit where he got the spear.
It was bonito, a huge school of the silvery Sarda sarda, and he was sailing into the very midst of them. Now he stood amidships, grasping the windward shrouds with one hand, poised with the spear in the other. As the shining anomaly surrounded him, he struck downward into the roiling mass, into the seething myriads. Can’t miss, he thought.
But he did. Indeed he missed several times, as the darting bodies seemed to evade the lethal tines with remarkable fortuity. Again and again he thrust downward, growing more than a little exasperated in his futile efforts. Then a hit. A hit!! And he brought the unfortunate creature aboard, wriggling in a vain attempt to free itself before he laid it on the deck and clubbed it smartly on the head with the handle of the umbrella.
As he set about dressing the fish, he reflected on the enormous gulf between it and himself. He had a great deal of time to ponder such philosophical comparatives, and he often did. And now of this fish he thought: does it possess the quality of consciousness?
Even as he thought it, he was removing its innards, and it seemed strange that the question would even occur. But there it was, and he was asking: was this fish — or more correctly, had this fish been — aware of itself as humans are aware themselves? That it was capable of feeling pain was beyond doubt; its struggles on the end of the spear had been graphic testimony to that fact. But had it, conversely, also experienced happiness? Had there been — just moments ago — any spirit of joy in this now wretched victim? And had there ever been any sort camaraderie between itself and its fellows?
Whatever the answers, they were moot. The reflections no more than academic inquires. Because some ten minutes later the flesh of the fish lay as two pale fillets, flesh that less than thirty minutes ago had been very much alive, and itself very much involved in the processes of living.
As he sat looking at his work, wiping his hands after having washed the slaughter waste from the deck with pans of salt water, he was suddenly impacted with the inversion of his previous thinking, with the terrible similarities between this fish and himself. Not that he felt any biological relationship, but the circumstances in which each of them existed seemed brutally parallel.
Each was alive, and therefore different from the inanimate. Each, although living in a different medium, was an oxygen breather. And each of them lived, normally, in close association with others of their kind. Both spent their days pursuing the requirements for maintaining that state of being alive — some with greater success than others. And each was an eater, dependent for their own perpetuation on the death of lesser creatures.
But within those specific similarities there was a difference: man, for the most part, generated the circumstances that produced his food, whereas the lesser animals relied on favorable chance for theirs. At any rate, on this occasion he was the victor in the contest for existence, and he prepared to cook and to eat the loser.
Salt. He needed salt and he had no salt. Sutro’s query at the time of his departure, as to whether he had forgotten anything, came sharply to his mind’s ear. And his response of “Probably” now rang with mocking accuracy. What hyperbolic irony. Here, in a world where he was quite literally surrounded by salt — where every hundred gallons of water contained over three gallons of salt — he had none; there was none with which to season his food, this fish. Unless...
It took an interminably long time, but the ocean water in the pan, that had sat boiling over the flame of his kerosene oil stove, was finally reduced to a white crystalline residue. This he scraped into a small folded paper packet, and now he had his salt. But it had cost a considerable amount of fuel and time. In retrospect, it had been a great deal of trouble. Salt would be a non-issue in the days ahead.
With the tiller lashed to hold course, he cooked the fish, seasoned it with his hard-gained salt, and along with bread and tea it was dinner that evening. Somewhat to his chagrin, he discovered that bonito was rather dry eating. Nevertheless, it was an appreciated diversion in his diet, and he consumed it in its entirety; feeling that he owed it at least to the fish, if not to himself, that the poor creature should not have perished without good cause.
Then, with dinner finished, he washed dishes in the falling rain, resumed his position at the helm, and sailed on through the night. Onward he went, with the rain continuing to thicken; onward through the midnight gloom; on through the black blackness of a starless, moonless sky and a faceless, ink-dark sea. And so the hours passed.
By 4:00 a.m. on Friday the 22nd, feeling the tiredness in his neck and shoulder muscles, he decided to heave-to, a procedure that was by now routine at this hour after a long night’s sail. So with the wind remaining light and the rain falling heavily — as though in antithetic measure to the wind — he shoved the drogue over the side, backwinded the jib against an east-southeast wind, sheeted in the main with the tiller lashed to leeward, and Pacific came to rest. Then, under the rainy canopy he slept, hunkered down in the cramped little cockpit.
Throughout the day it poured incessantly, as it had been doing since eight o’clock last evening. However, in spite of the weather and in spite of the discomforting space, he slept soundly. And not until 10:00 a.m. was it that he awoke to discover the weather relentlessly and disappointingly unchanged, although a favorable wind was still standing at east-southeast.
There was a feeling of lethargy about this morning, annoyingly so, as if he himself had somehow become infected with the character, the nature, of this part of the Pacific Ocean. But the day was upon him, and it was late. So under bleak, expressionless skies he cooked dinner, relishing the flavor of some roast beef in contrast with the bonito of yesterday.
The fish had provided a welcome break in the routine, but the savory beefiness of today’s meat was a more familiar flavor, and much more to his liking. It had an exceedingly more familiar aroma as well. Indeed, it was one that recalled family dinners together; times when he, along with his mother and his sisters, would sit while his father —presiding at the head of the table — would carve and apportion the meat. The mashed potatoes and gravy would be passed, along with green beans from the garden. And perhaps there would be plump soda biscuits, with creamy white centers and crusty brown tops, ones that his mother had baked.
Then again, there were the dinners with his wife, Catherine. Particularly he recalled some Sunday afternoons after church, when he would carve as had his father, and the two of them would linger at the table after eating, taking their coffee, talking of the events of the time and delighting in the quiet intimacy of one another.
While Catherine was not politically oriented to any great degree — few women of the time being so — she was, nevertheless, a woman of opinion. And just now, just at this moment and for no particular reason, he remembered her comments made on one such afternoon; an observation about the new President, Chester A. Arthur, who had taken the oath of office following James Garfield’s assassination last September.
“Bernard,” she had said as she poured coffee, “People may say what they will about Mister Arthur, but I think he’s going to be a fine president.”
Surprised, his response had been, “Really? What brought that up?”
“Oh, you know. You hear people talk, men mostly, and more of the women now too, since Miss Anthony...”
“Miss Anthony?” he said. “Do I know her?”
“Susan Anthony. You know, the lady who started the suffrage movement about ten years ago.”
“Oh, yes, that Miss Anthony — so that women could vote. Now I remember.”
“Anyway, I gather that there was some... well, some general dismay when he was sworn into office after Mister Garfield was murdered.”
“Yes, you’re quite right. About the opinion, I mean. But as to how he’ll work out... well, I guess time will tell. Though I have to say this about the man: I understand he was a strong defender of runaway slaves about thirty years ago, when he was practicing law here in New York State, and that goes down in my book as a real plus. I don’t care if his dad was a Baptist preacher. I never could abide slavery.”
Then suddenly, as though having been abruptly transported, he became aware of his daydreaming. And the color-saturated tableau of his memory’s eye morphed abruptly into the stark, nearly monochromatic world of gray-on-gray and blue-on-blue that was the South Pacific. On this day it seemed particularly colorless, he thought; the shades of blue and gray, such as there were, appearing all gaunt and cadaverous, while around him stretched a nearly calm sea. It reached out endlessly to marry itself to the always-receding horizon, shrouded in a cloak of fog-like mist.
He took a long time eating; there was assuredly no need to rush. And it was not until noon that he decided to get underway in a weak wind, an awkward wind, and with the rain still falling. He was still maintaining his course of south-southwest, but the wind was hauling, veering with inconsistent patterns to the southward; now on his bow; now on his beam. So throughout the day and on into the night he wrestled with the sails, constantly trimming or easing the sheets. If this general southerliness of the wind continued, and if it finally veered — as it gave every indication of doing — to westward, he would have to alter course either to the northeast or the northwest, and he would sustain his first real setback.
And so it proved to be. At 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 23rd, he hove-to in a calm, and it was his decision that unless there was a favorable turn of weather, that there he would remain all through the day, with Pacific just drifting aimlessly. Consequently, he slept very soundly until around 10:00 o’clock as usual, wrapped in a voiceless, motionless indolence.
Then in the succeeding hours he spent a day that was generally empty of any real accomplishment, other than some reading. And as those fruitless hours passed, there was no hoped for change in the weather. The wind, brisk from the south-southwest, was absolutely foul for him; and with a heavy sea making up as well, it was pointless to get underway. And still the rain continued.
Sometime before noon, a squid of some adequate size — having made an untimely leap — chanced to land on the deck. It was subsequently butchered and dressed, and later it would be cooked to provide a tasty dinner.
By noon, the still drizzling skies had provided no openings for the sun, it appearing as nothing more than an ambient luminosity. And so did it all remain, until later in the day when the rain heavied up still more, and the sky itself seemed to disappear. The longed for opportunity to obtain a fix did not offer itself, and all hope for such was abandoned.
He did, however, make note that the taffrail log showed a distance sailed of 244 nautical miles in the last week. Using that figure as a benchmark, and having estimated his speed at various times over the past several days, he was able to log a dead reckoned position of 8º, 52’ north, 140º, 31’ west. That calculated position, having been measured from his last known fix, gave him a run of 267 miles for the week.
It was not an impressive performance by any measure, averaging just under 40 miles a day. And today would see no miles logged at all, the sea and the wind sustaining their contrary nature until around 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon when the rain began to dissipate. The wind, however, stubbornly persisted at south-southwest, and he remained hove-to through the night.
In doing so, he realized that he was violating the rule he had set before sailing: namely, that all of his sleeping would be done in the early morning hours, when he would be more readily seen by other vessels. However, it had been many days since he had seen shipping of any sort. Not so much as a smudge of smoke or a flash of sail tops had disturbed the great circular horizon. So he felt adequately secure that he would not be run down in the darkness.
Sunday morning found the wind had backed to dead south, still from an unacceptable point of the compass — a foul wind. But at 9:00 a.m. he chose to get underway in spite of it. At least the weather had cleared overnight, and for the first time in five days he had pleasant skies. It was genuinely spirit-lifting to be able to look up into the radiant blue that stretched from horizon to horizon, and to be free of the rain, if for only a few hours.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey