by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
appear in this issue.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter III: Through the Doldrums|
part 3 of 3
The poor beast struggled, in obvious agony, as the keen edge of the knife severed, one by one, those vital links that transmit life’s critical signals to the body. And there was blood. Oh, there was an effusion of blood. It came spurting, as the dying heart continued to function, however briefly; its tortured contractions streaking the canvas covering of the deck with crimson stains. With the execution completed, he shoved the severed head over the side and quickly moved the bleeding carcass to the edge of the boat. There it was left to finish draining; and there each drop of the red river of life added to the ruby pool forming along Pacific’s side.
After cleaning the deck of its sanguine stains, and after returning to the matter of checking the vessel, it was less than thirty minutes later when he chanced to look toward the stern. There he saw the dark gray mass approaching. A shark — a large shovelnose shark — cruising with deliberate intent toward the boat; it had evidently sensed the blood.
He was not unacquainted with sharks, having seen them on many previous occasions. But this one seemed particularly large and particularly ominous. Its size was startling. As he attempted to compare the brute with the size of his boat, he estimated it to be at least twelve feet in length, and across the head or mouth: some three feet, minimum.
Thoughts he had had previously — thoughts about the fish that he had speared just two weeks ago — flashed again to his mind; thoughts about the eaters and the eaten. And he felt genuine trepidation in the presence of this very efficient eater. As it cruised closer to the boat, with undisguised confidence, he thought of the revolver.
After all, the beast was swimming at the surface and the shot would not be difficult. However, in all likelihood, neither would it be fatal. And the probability of a wounded shark alongside the boat, one that already perceived him as a food source, was not a comfortable anticipation. Perhaps it would be best to let the creature determine the sequence of events. Maybe it would swim away. Such was not likely, but it was possible; and if he used the spear, perhaps he could discourage it enough to prevent an all-out attack.
He was standing now, grasping a mainmast shroud, holding the spear in a ready position and watching the sleek, gray mass of cartilage as it appeared to take his measure. For a time it moved in a sort of random, perhaps calculated, pattern, before it turned and headed purposefully toward him again. He tensed as it approached; the uncertainty was galvanizing. And then it stopped — about three feet away — its cold, emotionless eyes surveying him.
Three symbiotic partners of the shark — the remoras that attach themselves to a shark’s underside and then feed from the scraps that the shark leaves — swam to the boat and then returned to their host. Thereupon, the shark moved past the stern of the boat, so close as to almost brush the rudder. And it moved with such casual easiness, such unnerving boldness. There was no hint of hurry in its movements.
The creature’s proximity moved him to think: Perhaps now is when I should try to ward him off. So mustering up the necessary courage, he prodded sharply at the back of his antagonist. There was no response. His timid assault had made no impression at all. The spear seemed to have no more affect on the shark than it had had on the turtle’s hard carapace. The beast’s skin was like leather — tougher than leather. Then, seemingly undisturbed, it gave every indication of swimming away.
Gilboy, too, thought of moving away. The sea had moderated to some degree, and the heavy wind had quieted to a reasonable breeze. He went forward to where he began to take in the drogue, keeping an eye out for the shark’s maneuvers at the same time. He watched as the creature swam away from the boat for some distance, made a complete circle, and returned to where it had stopped before. And there it paused, as it were, simply keeping pace with the vessel’s drift.
Still kneeling on the foredeck, Gilboy viewed his opponent with increasing apprehension. Was this to be the final assault? Would the beast charge and leap aboard in an effort to obtain the turtle’s bloody carcass? For that was assuredly what had brought them into contact with each other. Or — and the thought caused him to tremble — was he to be the creature’s choice, the larger of the available entrees.
Then it started. Again passing the boat’s stern. This time, however, it literally rubbed its great bulk against the rudder. Pacific trembled from the substantial impact, and Gilboy, fearing that the rudder would be splintered (it was still lashed amidship from when he hove-to last night), clutched at the foremast shrouds with his heart in his throat. But the rudder survived the collision, and with the drogue now aboard he loosed the tiller’s lashings, let go the main and jib sheets, and allowed the wind to take the vessel as he sheeted in and gathered way.
All was not ended however, and he remained fearfully unnerved to see the shark turn and follow. Was the attack still pending? He watched as his speed increased; indeed, he bore off from the wind somewhat to cause it to do so. But though the shark followed him for a while, it did not increase its speed. And before too long, it had been left in his wake. None too soon, he felt, as it had been a terrifying, heart-hammering experience, one he would choose to never occur again.
With his emotions now stable once more, he set about dealing with the turtle. He had no means for preservation, of course, so he cut off what meat he could use and discarded the rest over the side. It seemed to him a terrible waste, but there was no alternative. Then mixing salt and fresh water together, he boiled the meat to make a thin soup. The meat proved to be tender, and it tasted good.
The weather was good too: clear and pleasant, with a moderate wind and sea through which he sailed for the rest of the night.
It was 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 7th, when he hove-to, and there he lay for the next four hours. Then, with the wind standing dead south, he got himself underway. Would it never change, he thought, this obstinate wind? Where were those desirable southeast trades? Where was that wind, that precious wind that would move him purposefully toward his goal? How long had he been in this seemingly endless belt of nearly useless air? Nearly three weeks now, he reflected. But it seemed longer, so very much longer.
At noon he took the sun’s elevation, did his calculations, and determined his latitude to be — by observation — 8º, 53’ north. As to his longitude: since neither of his time pieces — the watch and the clock — could any longer be considered as accurate, he had chosen a likely meridian by dead reckoning, namely, 136º, 17’ west. If this educated guesswork was correct, he now saw himself, regrettably, some 112 miles farther to the east, and in no significant way any closer to his goal.
As he entered the information in the log, he looked back at the entry for Saturday, September 30th; it was the last time he had logged a fixed latitude. He read the number with frustration: 9º, 5’ north. Now he was at 8º, 53’ north. His movement to the south — toward the Equator — had been no more than 12 minutes of latitude. Understanding that each of such minutes is the equivalent of one nautical mile, he had actually sailed toward his destination no more than twelve miles. In one whole week, there had been no more than that: only twelve miserable, rain soaked — and now discouraging — miles. As he plotted the position on the chart he felt close to tears.
Measuring the space between the two locations showed a distance covered of 113 miles, and almost all of that to the east. The taffrail log gave a distance of 105 miles. At least the set of the California Current was moving him to the south in some measure, and there was one seemingly positive aspect to the present situation: the wind was backing eastward, moving to the south-southeast. His heart rose as he hoped that this was, perhaps, a harbinger of the longed for southeast trades. And though it was not a consistent wind, it would, nevertheless, allow him to alter his course some two points to the south, and he was quick to take advantage of that. And the rains returned.
Sunday, October 8th. He was close to profanity. His upbringing as a strongly orthodox Irish Catholic normally tended to preclude such language. But today — and despite it being Sunday — he was at the absolute brink of unleashing a veritable barrage of the proverbial sailor’s most diagrammatic obscenities. The wind had gone to the southwest — a damnable southwest wind and rain squalls in the bargain.
It had become a particularly unruly wind in the early morning; one that had required repeated adjustments to the sails in order to maintain any sort of decent headway. So after hours of fighting with them — actually since eight o’clock last evening — he had finally hove-to at three o’clock that morning, had slept an exhausted sleep, and had resumed his progress — if it could be so described — at 9:00 a.m. By noon the weather had cleared, but the wind remained light and awkwardly inconsistent throughout the rest of the day.
Monday held even less promise, as the erratic winds tended ever more to the west. While such allowed for brisk sailing on a beam reach — making at times over five knots in what might possibly be described as a sprint — they were stubbornly foul for any advancement in a meaningful direction. And so passed the next six days.
Consequently the entire week, from Monday until today, Saturday, had resulted in no more than 158 miles covered; and virtually all of that carried him still farther to the east. An obscured sun on October the 14th, disallowed for an actual noonday fix. But his calculation — one of dead reckoning based on his compass heading, the estimated speed of the current, and the speed of the boat as indicated by the taffrail log — put him at 133º, 47’ west, 8º, 4’ north. Another 180 miles of westing lost.
As he sat studying the chart, reviewing his progress over the last several days, he could sense his spirits descending into a quagmire of discouragement. His conversation with Howard Sutro, there on the dock in San Francisco on that July evening, surged up from his memory. He recalled describing the adventurous fire he felt within him; the need to go; to do; to see, and how it sought for release. But this was no longer an adventure. This was little more than vegetating, and in an uncomfortable environment as well. This was simply raw survival — nothing more than endurance.
The quality of whatever it was that had filled him on that day, when he stood in the cockpit of Pacific and exuberantly said, “All aboard for Australia”, was gone — dissolved as it were in the seemingly endless torrents of rain; blown to infinity by rebellious winds.
As though in unnecessary confirmation, he laid a straightedge along his current latitude line, spanning from his present location to his previous southernmost position. He was depressed nearly to tears in finding that he was only 49 miles farther south than he had been on September 23rd. Three weeks of sailing, and only 49 miles made good. And the contrary winds were like the Devil’s own curse, driving him to the east, then east some more, and then east again. With his dividers he bridged the lost distance on the chart and found that he was over 400 miles east of what had been his longitude on the same date back in September.
And this past week had been one of tedium, he felt. It had been another week of unrelenting sameness. The usual routine of heaving-to in the early morning hours, of sleeping until anywhere between 8:30 and 11:00 a.m., then getting underway to drive Pacific forward and feeling the fruitlessness of the whole procedure, now seemed so purely devoid of purpose. The infinite sequence of headwinds, head seas and rain; of squalls and — last Tuesday — lightening and thunder, was all emptiness.
The weather on Friday, yesterday, had been so definitively unfavorable, that he chose to remain hove-to through the entirety of the day. Until 5:00 p.m. that is, when he made an unsuccessful effort to get underway against a sea that proved to be too high. So Friday, too, had been a total loss, and perhaps it was significant that it had been the 13th. And here he was on Saturday, when he would drive the boat hard until 4:00 o’clock tomorrow morning. And tomorrow, when he got underway, he would drive her hard yet again, and in a direction that she would not like.
His day began at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, his head appearing through the small opening in the deck that was the cockpit. He looked up at the featureless gray dome of the sky, noting that the wind — a squally one — was standing southwest and driving the rain ahead of it. He made coffee in the shelter of below-deck as usual, and again he opened some of the pickled pig’s feet. Their briny sourness tasted good and felt good in his mouth; they made his lips pucker.
But now breakfast was over, and he cast loose the sheets to free the boat from irons. Then letting the wind take her, he sheeted in hard fore and aft as he lay Pacific on a course that was due south. She complained as she hammered to weather, but he was resolved to reach for the Equator, now some 500 miles ahead. The sooner he could get below that imaginary line, the sooner he would have those steady easterly breezes. Losses he had sustained over the last few weeks had made time a factor; his food would not last indefinitely.
Late that night, around 10:00 p.m., a hint of those blessed easterlies had manifested itself along with another heavy squall. The wind had backed sharply to the east-northeast and had driven that periodic rain over him in blinding sheets. And now today, for the first time in many days, he found himself on a port tack, heading southeast by south, a quarter east, to maximize his speed. Stretching out now, although still toward the east, he was reaching hard for that oh-so- desirable latitude of zero degrees, the Equator. At 4:00 a. m. on Tuesday he hove-to, and was underway again at 9:00 o’clock, with the breeze holding steady for the entire day and on into the night, although tending to move again to the south.
On Wednesday he again hove-to at 4:00 a. m. This time it was in a high-top sea, with the wind freshening and standing now in the south-southeast. With such a strong sea running, he put out the drogue and paid out all twenty-five feet of the line attached, before burrowing below deck for some precious rest.
There he lay until late afternoon, when he got underway with the sky clearing off to the east, and the wind again beginning to incline in that direction. By 10:00 p.m. he was close reaching with the wind at southeast, charging through the blackened sea under an overcast sky, and with the intermittent squalls keeping him thoroughly wetted. Thursday was much the same, and the whole routine was repeated except that he was underway an hour earlier.
And now the barometer was rising. Here, perhaps, was the first real evidence of leaving the Doldrums behind. With the rising of the barometer, there came another shift of the wind. It was backing farther into the east, and the sky was clearing toward the sunrise. Today was Friday, the 20th. And though he had been sailing since 9:00 a. m. yesterday, he did today what he had not done on the entire trip thus far: he continued underway.
He did not heave-to this morning; there was to be no delay. To the fact that he had been long hours at the helm, virtually every muscle in his body gave mute testimony. But as the barometer rose, so rose his heart; adrenaline was surging through every fiber of his being. Today he had the first really fair wind he had had in the past twenty-nine days. He was determined to make the best of it. In his log he entered: “Wind freshening, with clear sky and pleasant weather; it [looked] as though I was getting near the trades.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey