by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
appear in this issue.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter III: Through the Doldrums|
part 2 of 3
As he made an entry in the log, it occurred to him that today, September 24th, was the date of his birth. Today is my birthday, he thought, and he reflected on it being no earth-shaking event. But his wife, Catherine, would be remembering it — and his mother — and probably the rest of the family as well.
Had he been there in Buffalo, there would have been feasting. There would have been a cake, and there would have been friends who would have dropped by with congratulations, and the usual hoopla that so many attach to such an occasion. But here, in his pure isolation, it seemed so very unimportant, so infinitely inconsequential.
A parade of related thoughts traversed his mind: what did it matter that he was a year older, a year closer to dying? And what was to be celebrated about that? How was the world of mankind affected in any seriously meaningful way by his existence, or by his absence? Assuredly he had brought joy to some individuals (he was a pleasant man), while on the other hand he had caused pain to some he could remember, and very likely to some of whom he was totally unaware.
But now here he was: he was thirty years old and in the middle of the ocean. Was he still affecting people, in spite of the awesome distances between him and them? Yes, he realized, he was; it had to be so. Were he to die before this journey was finished, there were persons — some of whom were very dear to him — who would most certainly be affected, would be uncommonly distressed. On the other hand, if he did successfully complete this odyssey, and fame came to be attached to him... He put the thoughts aside.
Smiling as he completed the entry in his log and laid down his pencil, he was amused at the image that came to his mind: the image of thirty candles stuck in the piece of bread he would have for lunch today. Then he dressed in fresh, dry clothing; and after loosing the sheets to free the boat from “irons,” he trimmed in hard and bore away, southwest by south and a half west, with Pacific proving to be a cranky boat going to weather. She had a mind of her own, she did, and it was difficult to get her to head up any closer than about forty degrees to the wind.
But she pounded on against the obstinate waves, rising and falling from crest to trough. At noon he took the sun’s altitude and calculated that he had lost — he had surrendered — some four miles of progress. That being the case, he decided to yield to the invincible and surrender his heading as well. And in that matter he had two choices.
He could fall off to starboard and sail a broad reach — or a beam reach at best — to the west or northwest, and that could be desirable. However, if the wind persisted in the south and south-southwest — as it gave every indication of doing — such a course would prolong his days in these latitudes, in the Doldrums, and that was decidedly undesirable.
The unfortunate alternative, that of heading eastward, did pretty much the same thing. In the final analysis, he decided that the determining factor was that the boat seemed to favor a starboard tack; she sailed a little quicker that way. So putting the helm down, he brought Pacific around to a heading of east by northeast, to 065º, resolved to at least keep moving after spending all of Saturday adrift.
Today, the sky was again dotted with a large number of albatrosses. Magnificent creatures they were, and he took great delight in simply watching them. Wheeling and soaring above him on massive twelve-foot wings — hundreds of miles from land — they were fully at ease in their aero-aquatic world. They had become frequent visitors, and seeing them virtually every day he viewed them as pleasant companions.
In point of fact, it was not unusual for him to talk to them, as if they could understand his loneliness. They were, to his way of thinking, different than the large schools of bonito that now often surrounded him as well, none of which he endeavored to catch anymore. Because unlike the fish, the birds lived in a sun-warmed world, as did he. And like him, they were voyagers, borne on the wind and the water to wherever fortune willed. He related strongly to them. And when at times they did not appear, he experienced a feeling of emptiness.
In the course of the afternoon, the sea once again offered him its serendipitous menu option: some flying fish, perhaps fleeing a predator, chanced to land aboard. Nor was this for the first time. Indeed, it had became rather common for him to secure two or three of them at a time, as their flight’s duration — determined solely by velocity — would terminate on the deck of his boat. And he found that unlike the bonito, they were rather tasty. They were of good size too, some of them measuring as much as twelve or thirteen inches. From among those that came aboard this day, one was cleaned and cooked for dinner that evening.
The following week that began with Monday, September 25th, was a mix of generally trying and contrary circumstances, not the least of which was the fact that his watch had stopped that day. Now for a landsman to have one’s watch stop is of no great import. But for a seaman it can pose real problems. Indeed, it is only by the passage of time — and that accurately measured — that one is able to calculate one’s rate of progress, and subsequently to locate oneself on the featureless ocean. And while he had both his watch and a clock, the clock being set to Greenwich, England time, he found that the frequency and constancy of the rainy weather had periodically caused the clock to stop — often. And that required that he give it more than the usual attention.
He tried in every imaginable way to keep it running, but by now virtually everything was wet, or at least damp, and it proved to be an impossible task. Subsequently, the accuracy of the clock was dependent on the reliability of the watch. And on that day the watch had stopped. It had started going again, but it had stopped. And for how long it had been stopped, before it came to his attention, was unknown. Its accuracy was now conjectural, as was, necessarily, that of the clock.
As a transoceanic sailor, Gilboy considered the earth in a different sort way than do most persons. To him — to all mariners — the earth was, for practical purposes, stationary, while the sun appeared to rotate around it at the rate of 365 and 1/4 times a year. It was, in fact, this apparent movement that caused many of the scientific world — along with prominent Roman ecclesiastics — to take serious issue with Galileo, branding him a virtual heretic when he agreed with Copernicus that the earth was not the center of the universe; the contrary opinion being held to be as good as Gospel by contemporary astronomers.
Conceiving of the earth in this way — and then thinking of it as a circle of 360 degrees, with the sun going around it in a twenty-four hour period — Gilboy understood that in any given hour the sun moved fifteen of those degrees. Given a fixed reference, such as Greenwich, England, which many mariners felt would almost certainly be agreed upon in the next couple of years as being the prime meridian — zero degrees longitude — the mariner could determine his longitudinal location by comparing local noon — when the sun may be observed at its zenith — with Greenwich noon.
It becomes readily apparent that if either time is uncertain, the seaman’s location is equally uncertain. He could, of course, have used Thomas Sumner’s method of advancing lines of position, but he felt more sure in using the former and more common procedure. Gilboy was, therefore, concerned about the accuracy of the time; and from this point forward it appeared likely that his absolute position would always be in question.
Added to this annoying problem was the obstinacy, the fickleness, of the wind. While the weather had remained clear — that is to say, without rainfall throughout Monday and Tuesday, albeit under solidly overcast skies — the wind, on the other hand, was anything but amenable, or even desirable. How antagonistically ambiguous it was! At 9:00 a.m. on that Monday morning it was from the south. By three o’clock that afternoon it had gone to south-southwest, and later that evening, to southwest. By midnight, it was again in the south. And that, of course, was the direction in which he must sail.
On Tuesday morning, it was again back to south-southwest. At 1:00 p.m. it was south, and at 6:00 p.m. it was south-southwest again. However, at 9:00 p.m. it did a curious thing: it veered all the way to the northwest, from whence sprang a lovely breeze, indeed, a very favorable breeze. And it held for about three hours, before dying away shortly before midnight in another mizzling rain.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday — they had all passed with little variation in his circumstances, and the rains, having returned, went on. The skies had grown darkly leaden again, and from them the water came pelting down. It varied from a simple, constant, drizzling rain, to a hard-driving squall that would reduce visibility to a few feet.
Around noon on Wednesday it cleared momentarily, and then again on Thursday near midnight. But these were brief respites, altogether too brief. And the ill-tempered wind gyrated unreasonably, and with little predictability, swinging through two full quadrants: from north-northwest to south-southeast. Irascible winds for the most part — winds that appeared to be intelligently intent on impeding his progress, leagued as they obviously were, with the stubbornly argumentative head seas that consistently hammered him backward.
However, during those periods when the wind would lay to the northward, he would avail himself of the opportunity to make what southing he could. But such advance was no more than deceptively apparent at best, and the actual course made good over the past week was generally, and disappointingly, east by a half north.
On the last day of September, a Saturday, with the wind standing steady from the south-southeast, he hove-to at 4:30 a.m. and slept quietly in a moderate sea until nine o’clock. Then, following a frugal breakfast of bread and coffee, he got underway in fresh, clear weather. Having altered his course to east by south and a half south, he sailed a wide close reach on a starboard tack against a strong headwind and contrary seas. But now finally, after six days of lost headway, he was at least moving in a southerly direction again, and hoping for the wind to back into the east, longing for the southeast trades.
At noon he took his elevation of the sun, the first he had had both opportunity and inclination to acquire. After working the numbers, he found that he was at 9º, 05’ north, 138º, 09’ west. The location was dispiriting but not surprising; he knew he had been losing ground. He had, in fact, lost well over 140 miles of westing, and he was now 13 miles to the north of where he had been a week ago. His computation was confirmed by the taffrail log. That instrument showed him to have traveled 142 miles, while his sun shot gave him a distance of 143 miles.
The two distances were very alike now, since he had been moving across the southeasterly set of the current as opposed to moving with it. His distance over-the-bottom was, therefore, virtually equal to his distance through the water. The Doldrums had had their way with him, as they did with most seamen. As he posted this information in the log, and as he wrote the date, he made mental note that today marked the beginning of his seventh week at sea.
The weather remained wonderfully clear throughout the day, and on into the night when the extravaganza of stars — stars he had not seen for several days — blazed again with crystalline brilliance in the ink-black void. He watched them as he bore away southeastward, sailing on through the dark hours until around 4:30 on Sunday morning when he hove-to. In his log he wrote: “Sunday, October 1st. Wind S.S.E. Steady breeze, with clear, starry sky; hove to. 9 a.m. Wind S.S.E. Under way, with light breeze, weather clear and pleasant. 2 p.m. Wind light and baffling. 8 p.m. Calm and smooth sea; sky cloudy. 10 p.m. Wind south. Light breeze and pleasant weather.”
For the next several days, beginning with Sunday and continuing through Thursday, the 5th of October, there was annoyingly little progress. For the largest part, the winds came and went, varying with baffling inconstancy from southwest to south; disappointingly contrary winds, they were, and there were times when they were not there at all. On these occasions the sea would become unbelievably smooth, almost like glass; more like a lake than an ocean.
On Monday, the 2nd, there were heavy squalls; drenching, monsoon-like rains that swung down from the northwest, blotting out the horizon with their liquid grayness. The skies, too, were sheeted with gray most of the time, there being only two brief and appreciated occasions, in the nighttime hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, when the cloud cover scattered to reveal skies of such pristine clarity and of such intense brightness, as to give the appearance of the heavens having been pressed to within a few hundred feet of the earth. But then on Thursday, following a calm of about an hour’s duration, the constant rain resumed, and it continued for the rest of the day.
Friday dawned with the weather clearing, but with the steady breeze holding stubbornly in the southwest, he hove-to at 5 a. m. Then he slept until nine o’clock, when he awoke to an increasingly heavy head sea and to a strengthened wind. Again he chose not to get underway, but breakfasted instead on roast salmon and toast, washed down with hearty black coffee. Then he set about checking over lines and fittings, a necessary procedure from time to time. It was during this process that he noticed another sea turtle, swimming about the boat.
His first thought was of the spear. But then he recalled the ineffectiveness of the weapon on the previous similar occasion, and his next thought was of the revolver. A sure kill, doubtlessly, but it could result in nothing more than a dead turtle sinking to the ocean’s bottom. So he concluded that he would to try to catch the creature by hand. It was not huge, but was of sufficient size: small enough to afford being caught in this way, yet large enough to provide meat for a more than substantial meal. So lying on his belly, he waited patiently; waited, until the animal swam conveniently close. Then he caught it, his hand closing around a hind flipper, and he quickly hauled it aboard.
Next came the distasteful task of killing. He could shoot the creature, of course, and very probably put a hole in the boat in the process. So there seemed to be no other way save by decapitation, and that proved to be a grisly affair.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey