October 23, 2008

A frightening calm

I’VE HEARD it said many times that the hardest part of an ocean crossing in a small sailboat is the calms. They’re hard on the boat’s gear, with all that jerking of spars, slatting of canvas, and constant chafe of lines. They’re hard on the crew, too. This is the time when minor irritations turn into full-blown confrontations, and even fisticuffs.

But I must admit that I love calms. I never find them boring. In fact, one particular calm gave me the biggest fright I've ever had at sea. I was one of four crewmembers aboard the Diana K, a 33-foot racing sloop taking part in the first Cape-to-Rio race from Cape Town, South Africa, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We ran slap-bang into a calm about 400 miles off the Brazilian coast.

Because there wasn't sufficient work to keep two people busy during the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch, I sent my watchmate down below to sleep. I sat in the cockpit marveling at the beauty of it all.

There was no moon, but each of a million stars was reflected brightly in the pitch-black ocean, and each tiny reflected dot was connected to its neighbor by a wobbly skein of light. The whole surface of the sea was gently heaving with this magnificent display when I got to wondering about how far down into the water the light of a star might penetrate.

I found the deck flashlight and shone it overboard, alongside the cockpit. Seen from almost end-on, the beam seemed to go down for ever, twisting and spiraling eerily, boring into the verdant depths.

Suddenly I burst out in a cold sweat. I realized I had just signaled our presence to every leviathan of the sea within miles. We all know the size of the creatures that inhabit the ocean deeps out there. Occasionally some octopus the size of a small elephant gets washed up on a lonely shore. Enormous whales return to the surface badly scarred after tumultuous fights with giant squids that inhabit the sea's secret depths.

And now I had flashed my light, the brightest light for hundreds of miles around, to show those squids where we were. And we weren't moving. We were a sitting duck. I literally shivered with fright.

More than anything, I wanted to start the engine and move away from that area. But that would have put us out of the race after nearly 30 days of hard sailing. And we had done well. We were in line for a couple of trophies. I thought of waking the skipper and confessing. I didn't know what to do.

I abandoned the tiller and crouched down in the cockpit. After five minutes of near-paralysis I crept down below to locate the fireman's ax we kept for emergencies and brought it back on deck. If any tentacles appeared over the gunwale I wanted to give a good account of myself.

It sounds silly and irrational now, I know, but at the time my fear was very real. Eventually, with a little puff of wind from here, and a little puff from there, we slowly started to move away, and I began to concentrate on my helmsmanship. I sailed like a demon. You’ve never seen such fantastic light-weather performance on any yacht in the middle of the night. It was a long time before I breathed freely again, but we did make a clean getaway.

I never told the others what I had done, and I'll never do it again. One fright like that is enough for a lifetime.

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Today’s Thought

Time flies like a speeding arrow. Fruit flies like a rotten banana.

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1 comment:

oded said...

I'm a big fan of yours. I'm looking forward to reading this blog every day!

The issue of fear in sailing is not often discussed. In her book 'Sailing Promise' the author talks a lot about her anxieties during their circumnavigation. I liked that book, have you read it?

Oded Kishony