February 17, 2009

The terror of calms

PEOPLE PREPARING for their first ocean voyages usually learn all they can about how to survive storms but very little about how to survive calms. That’s an oversight that could result in some nasty surprises. Calm seas can spawn stormy relationships among the crew. It’s extraordinary what harm a calm can do to morale.

I well remember one week-long calm we fell into while sailing across the South Atlantic in a 33-foot sloop. There were four of us on board, long-time friends, but after a couple of days of drifting among exasperating cat’s-paws coming from all directions, and lasting only a few minutes each, the tension built among us. We couldn’t turn on the engine because we were racing.

We snapped at each other. I nearly got into a fist-fight with my good friend Nick whom I caught “stealing” a spoonful of some powdered cool drink I’d brought along. MY cool drink, dammit. Not HIS cool drink. He claimed he didn’t know it was mine. Oh sure! Thought it was ship’s stores. Yeah, right!

Our mate, Eddie, a civil engineer, having calculated our rate of progress, announced that we would run out of food and water before we hit land, if we EVER hit land. He wanted to put out an immediate radio Mayday call to all shipping. He wanted to have a ship take our yacht on board. And he was prepared to pay all costs. He was deadly serious. He had never before in his life been in a situation where he had no control over his own progress.

We didn’t run out of food or water, of course. The wind did come back eventually, to our great relief. But I learned some lessons that stood us in good stead when I later went ocean voyaging with my wife and teenage son.

Most sailboats can’t carry enough fuel to get them through all the calms they may encounter on an ocean crossing, so there will probably be times when their crews will simply have to grind their teeth and practice serenity. One little trick that might help those who find themselves in a similar situation is to calculate a daily “bonus” of miles covered. I started with the premise that a cruising boat covers 100 miles a day. That was the figure I used to calculate the time it would take to cross the ocean, hence the amount of stores and water we would require.

Every day, after I had worked out the noon sextant sight, I would enter our 24-hour distance run in the ship’s log. Anything over 100 miles was noted separately as our “bonus” -- points available to be spent in calms when we did less than 100 miles.

Because the average cruiser covers between 120 and 140 miles a day, the bonus points add up quickly at first. But when the dreaded day comes that you do less than 100 miles, you simply draw miles from your bonus. For example, if you have 100 miles saved up, but you only manage to cover 50 miles from noon to noon that day, you’ve still got 50 miles left in your bonus — so you know that despite the calm you’re still half a day ahead of your planned arrival time.

You won’t believe what a boost this is to your morale until you try it for yourself. It’s a simple trick, perhaps a naive trick, but it certainly worked for us. Despite the calms, we always arrived a day or two earlier than expected. Very little makes the crew happier than that.

Today’s Thought
And there we sit in peaceful calm,
Quietly sweating palm to palm.
—Aldous Leonard Huxley, Frascati’s.

As I was laying on the green,
A small English book I seen.
Carlyle’s Essay on Burns was the name of the edition,
So I left it laying in exactly the same position.

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