March 15, 2010

An empty green wine bottle

I WAS SITTING ON MY BOAT the other bay, quietly minding my own business, when Sam Psmythe (silent P as in bath) came wandering down the jetty. Like so many boat owners, Sam likes to talk.

“I’m thinking of buying a boat for the singlehanded TransPac,” he said. “I’d like to cross an ocean. But I’m wondering if I wouldn’t be bored to death. Sixteen days of nothingness, with every wave looking like every other wave.” He looked at me quizzically. “You’ve crossed oceans,” he continued. “How did you find it? I guess you didn’t go nuts — not yet anyhow.”

I had to tell Sam that I never tired of watching the sea and the way my 30-foot sloop, Freelance, handled herself in the trade winds. The regularity of the swells and her forward rush down their faces was almost hypnotic and I spent many happy hours lying on the foredeck in the shade of the sails, watching her brilliant white bow wave rise and fall on the warm blue water.

I never got bored. Perhaps my mind is less complicated than most and is more easily satisfied by minutiae. But I know what Sam meant. On easy passages like that, small differences assume great significance precisely because everything else stays much the same. On Freelance we all suffered sensory deprivation to some extent.

For example, there was an entry in the official ship’s log that said: “Passed green wine bottle floating in the sea.” That was a measure of how much our senses lacked stimulus. The fact that a single piece of garbage could stimulate me to jump up and point and call June and Kevin from down below is indicative of how empty and featureless the ocean appears on the surface day after day.

We talked about that bottle for half the afternoon, wondering how long it had been out there, a thousand miles from the nearest land, and why it was still floating. We discussed whether it had come from a ship, and who had drunk its contents, and why it was alone, and where it would end up if it didn’t sink. We almost went back to rescue it, in case there was a message in it. We tried to recall if there was a cork in the neck or not ... and so it went on. One old green bottle kept us fully entertained for hours. It was the highlight of our day in the tropics.

So yes, I told Sam, there are times when it can be boring, but when that happens Nature sends along an old wine bottle to keep you amused, or a whale, or a ship on a collision course to frighten the pants off you. Even if you’re easily bored, you’re never bored for long, especially if you’re a singlehander with a lot of work to do.

Now frankly I don’t think Sam will ever do the TransPac alone. He’s too gregarious. He would probably wither up and die if he didn’t have someone to talk to all the time. But if by some chance he does try that solo passage, he now knows what to do. “I’ll just take along a whole bunch of empty green wine bottles,” he said, wandering off thoughtfully.

Today’s Thought
Little minds are interested in the extraordinary; great minds in the commonplace.
— Elbert Hubbard, Epigrams

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #26
At sea, red buoys are generally much easier to spot from a distance than green buoys, which often tend to look black from afar. At night, buoys with green lights mostly look yellowish at a distance and buoys with white lights often appear faintly red at first. These changes are caused by the filtering effect of the atmosphere.

Why does a chicken coop have two doors?
Because if it had four doors it would be a chicken sedan.

1 comment:

Aaron Headly said...

Oh, man, I hear what you're saying. I'd like to add my personal take, though (and isn't that the raison d'ĂȘtre of blog commenting?).

Ashore, my life is filled with anxiety, and I constantly have to keep myself distracted to keep my thoughts from becoming morbid (I want to thank NPR and the internet, your blog included, for keeping me reasonably sane).

On a sailboat, though, the myriad worries fall away, replaced by simple, manageable worries about the boat and its safety. (A motorboat doesn't offer me the same comfort, what as engines cause concerns that sails don't — and I'm a trained mechanic!)

I guess what I'm saying is: If Mr. Smythe worries that he might be bored while sailing to Hawaii, then he shouldn't go. But there are people who spend almost every land-bound moment worried to distraction (and terrified of boredom) who know, in their bones, that sailing doesn't bore them.