by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
Part 1, Part 2
Part 3, Part 4
appeared in issue 221.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter VI: Phantom Island|
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
Two days had passed since Howard Sutro had read the newspaper’s account of the sighting, and far to the southwest of rainy San Francisco, Gilboy was nervously preoccupied with another swordfish. Like its predecessors it cruised, alternately alongside the boat — occasionally bumping against it — and then standing out and away in ranging circular patterns.
But such a beast was more ominous now, and Gilboy stood with spear in hand, watching his opponent, gauging as to when he might make an effective defensive thrust. Then, as the creature made another sweep past the stern, it somehow became entangled in the line of the taffrail log that was trailing aft.
Very evidently annoyed by this startling encumbrance, it began thrashing about violently, churning the water to a white froth and throwing itself into the air in expression of its anger — or of its fear. But how beautiful it was, he thought, with its magnificent dorsal fin spread like a great iridescent fan in the sunlight. Then it would fall back into the water with a resounding crack, only to rise again, standing on its tail, its elegantly tapered, rapier-like sword slashing at the air like some pelagic D’Artagnan. Although the struggle seemed long, it was likely no more than two minutes before it shook itself free, nearly breaking the line before streaking away.
By the day’s end, the encounter with the swordfish had proved to be the high point; the remaining hours being void of any significant event, as was the Friday that followed.
Saturday, December 23rd, came over the horizon, blown westward by the steady southeast trades and laden with rainsqualls. And there was a sunrise of sorts. Not the splendid, entrancing aura of indescribable pastels that one generally ascribes to such an occurrence in the South Seas, but a muddled, gloomy affair; an incongruent tincture of light and somber cloud, through which the sun made a valiant, though not successful, effort to shine.
It was in this quasi-daylight, as he was unlashing the tiller in preparation for getting underway, that another shark came up close alongside the boat. It was of prodigious size, and it presented the most awesome spectacle as it raised its head partly out of the water; its sleek, gray body a complement to the grayness all around; a single, black, compassionless eye coldly surveying the boat and its lone occupant.
Partly out of fear and partly out of exasperation, having been deviled by swordfish and shark alike, Gilboy picked up the oar that was now his tiller and swung it with all of his might, striking the beast again and again on the snout. “Be gone!” he shouted at the seemingly earless brute. And as though in compliance, it swam away.
Now he sat down hard, breathing hard. It felt to him that in these last few weeks, all of the demons from mythical Pandora’s box had amassed themselves together to plague him in every possible way: the nightly harassment by the sharks; the capsize with its resultant loss of precious foods and supplies; the loss of one of his masts; and lastly, the piercing of the hull by that extremely bellicose swordfish. It was all so wearying. And he was becoming tired, so very, very tired.
For just a brief moment he recalled the conversation with Mr. Jerome at the Custom House; hearing him question in a concerned way the size of his boat. He still remembered the words: “How about yourself, Bernard? Can you make it?” And he remembered his answer to the effect that if he didn’t think so he wouldn’t go. But now he wondered: could he make it — would he make it?
Then, with renewed determination he stood and shrugged the stiffness from his shoulders. He re-rigged his makeshift rudder, cast loose the sheets, put the vessel before the wind and trimmed to his course, bearing away toward the horizon ahead of the clouded sun.
By noon he had a reasonably clear sky, and the sun’s image was sharp enough to allow for an accurate sighting. Leveling his sextant, he brought the muted image down to the horizon. Then after reading the angle of elevation, he calculated his latitude as 22º, 38’ south, and he estimated his longitude at 173º east. Measuring from his last fix on the 16th, revealed that he had traveled some 251 miles. The taffrail log, however, showed him to have traveled 369 miles. Obviously this was an error. For since he was still in the thrust of the Peru Current, the log should have shown less mileage. Had it been damaged in some way — by the swordfish possibly? Was he incorrect in his estimate of longitude? It was confusing.
But perhaps such was to be expected, as there was considerable confusion in his life now. Without either his watch or the rebellious clock, he had no measure of time. His seaman’s mind served to maintain a certain level of cogency, but his routine had now become little more than a matter of light hours as opposed to dark hours; and now he would heave-to at all hours of the night, then endeavor to be underway by sunrise. In some measure, his navigation was no better than educated guesswork now, the exception being that he could fix his latitude with reasonable accuracy. However, the distance that he had yet to travel was in question.
On Sunday morning the island arose out of the mist, bearing to the west of him and broad on his port bow. In his log he wrote: “9 a.m. Sighted Fern [Fearn] Island, about seven miles to westward.” The island was more correctly known as Hunter Island, but seamen often referred to it as Fearn Island, it having been discovered in 1798 by a Captain Fearn, in the ship Hunter. This morning it lay swaddled in the low clouds that layered themselves on the horizon, and two hours later he was passing it abeam on the port side. Assuming that he had correctly identified the island, he could now have a more positive idea of his location.
From his collection of damp books he took Findlay’s, A Directory For the Navigation of the Pacific Ocean. Searching and finding what he wanted, he mumbled in an undertone as he read:
“’It is a small island, but high enough to be seen eleven or twelve leagues off.’”
He need not have said it aloud, but the wordless days had been legion by now, and there was a pleasantness in hearing a voice, albeit his own. Once again he surveyed the island; a craggy, inhospitable piece of barren rock it was — appearing bereft of all blessings, and to have been left by some careless hand to dissolve in those waters that perpetually thundered against its sides. He scanned it intently before taking out his chart, thankful it had not been lost in the capsize.
As he considered his position, he thought, That has to be Fearn Island. It’s the first land mass to the west of my last fix. Then he took his dividers and spanned the distance from the island to Sandy Cape, Australia: almost 1200 miles. The revelation was at once both comforting and depressing: comforting in that he knew exactly where he was — depressing in that he was still so dishearteningly far from his destination.
Something that will never be known is why his general course over the past several hours — whether by intent or by misfortune — had lain to the northwest. Assuredly it was a departure from the more direct and shorter heading: one that would have borne him to the south of the island. But perhaps this too was a part of the confusion starting to beset his thinking. Possibly it was the cumulative result of uncertain headings through the dark hours. The sun could guide him well enough by day, but the dark hours of night held a certain ambiguity. And this illogical departure from a southerly course translated to additional miles at sea, and that to additional time. Either of which could become a proximate cause of his death.
Yet again he considered his supplies. The canned meat and fish together came to 12 pounds. The bread, however, was exhausted; the last of it had been eaten yesterday, Saturday. Fifteen gallons of water were left, along with a half-gallon of alcohol for the stove. That was the extent of everything. Even the blessing of a warm cup of coffee or tea was something accorded to the past. As he considered this state of affairs, he reflected on what progress had been made in the past week. It was not an encouraging prospect.
Only 251 miles had been covered in those seven days, an average of some 35 miles a day. Were that rate to continue — and given the 1200 miles he had yet to travel — he would be another 34 days at sea. If he limited his eating to every other day, he could have a little less than a pound of meat each day. If he reduced his water consumption to less than a half-gallon daily, it would probably last; and perhaps he could collect some rain, he thought. Therefore, he now lived in hope of some rain. Fortune might also arrange for some more fish to come aboard. But that had not happened in quite a while. Other possibilities came to mind, and he ranged among them for those that appeared to be the most promising, the ones most probable of success.
Was there the potential of sighting another ship? Oh, if only he could sight another sail and they could sight him. Then he could get some supplies and continue on. But he discounted it as being not very likely. A native boat perhaps, but that could mean anything or nothing. To beat back to the Fijis was out of the equation. Before he reached help in that direction, he would cover as many miles as still lay ahead to the island of New Caledonia.
All things considered, that island, with the port of Noumea at its extreme southeastern tip, seemed to be the best of the choices. If weather would permit, he could run down the latitude of 22º, 30’ south — still hoping to sight another ship — and in the absence of that happening bring up Noumea, fine on his starboard bow. Yes. That was his choice. He would make for Noumea.
Perhaps it all began on Christmas Day, a bleak Christmas Day — uninspiring and companionless; a day on which his heretofore rational thinking seems to tend toward illusion. And perhaps there was a preamble to this, in that yesterday he had written in the log that he had run afoul of a storm — a storm that had blown him as far as latitude 24º south; and that during that storm he had been hove-to for four days. At any rate, and for whatever reason, today he would do something that was wholly apart from his nature; something that was as foreign to him as... well as foreign as running a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
He was up and about shortly after sunrise that morning, as usual, and he put Pacific before a steady tradewind that was blowing clean and fresh, varying from southeast to south, the weather being clear and pleasant. Now whether of his knowledge or not, he was making a track to the northwest, one fully divergent from his intention to sail the south latitude 22º, 30’ due east to Noumea. Nevertheless, on through the untroubled morning he sailed, and it was early afternoon before he felt the need to give some sort of proper recognition to the day; and in some vicarious way, perhaps, to be united with his family. He decided upon a Christmas dinner.
With that in mind he selected some beef from the rusted tins of his meager skeleton of supplies, and warmed it on the alcohol pocket stove — it now being his sole means of cooking. The pittance of kerosene that had been left following the capsize was long since gone. Then, in celebration as it were of the holiday, he poured a small glass of straight alcohol. And this he drank, along with water. For him this was fully out of character.
Later that afternoon, around 4:00, he reported seeing the Island of Matthew to the westward of him. Estimating the distance at some 15 miles, he so entered it in the log. Now Matthew Island is particularly distinctive: a conical mass of lava and pumice that is occasionally active, and that rises like a singular fang in an otherwise toothless mouth. It projects its barren presence to a little less than 1200 feet above the sea, and is approximately a mile in circumference. It is this island — this relatively diminutive island — that apparently becomes a considerable mass of land in Gilboy’s mind: the Phantom Island.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey