August 12, 2010

Great balls of fire

(The Mainly about Boats column -- every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.)

DOES THE NAME MARVIN CREAMER mean anything to you? It should — because he is one of the greatest small-boat navigators this world has ever known — but it probably doesn’t, because the modest Mr. Creamer, a former professor of geography, has never received the fame he truly deserves.

Creamer is 94 now, and living quietly in North Carolina, but in 1984 he arrived at Cape May, New Jersey, aboard his 36-foot sailboat, Globe Star, after having circumnavigated the world without using any navigational instruments at all. No compass, no sextant, no GPS, no radio — not even a clock or watch.

Just think about that. No compass, for a start. How did he steer across an ocean in cloudy weather? How did he find his way around Cape Horn? The intriguing answers to those and many other questions that are sure to occur to you are in a book that he wrote afterward: a book that, astonishingly, failed to attract a publisher.

It’s available now though, on a self-published CD, for $17 at

It seems that Creamer had an extraordinary gift for observing certain signs of nature, a gift excelling even the reputed talents of the old South Sea islanders of the Pacific. He knew which birds could fly certain distances from land. He knew the distance limit for a common housefly, too. And he could deduce from the way a piece of wood in a hatch slide squeaked that the atmosphere around him was drier than normal, which meant the wind now had to be blowing toward him from down south in Antarctica.

Direction was everything, of course, the direction of the waves, the direction of the wind, the directions in which land birds flew and transcontinental airplanes flew. After thousands of miles at sea, the landfalls of this extraordinary navigator were rarely more than 15 miles in error.

There was one mystery that he could never answer, though. Down under the tip of Africa one rather hazy night, he and his crew spotted a round light about the size of a grapefruit hovering about 10 or 15 feet away from the side of the steel boat. It was a “clear-cut pale yellow light,” Creamer said, not ephemeral and definitely not a planet.

The puzzle grew greater when they changed tack — and the light stayed in exactly the same position relative to the boat, having moved with it as if it were firmly attached. They never did manage to come up with a theory to explain that phenomenon.

I’ll bet I know what it was, though. I blame St. Elmo, he of the fiery balls. St. Elmo’s fire appears in various forms, one of which is glowing balls that often move along spars or hover high off the deck. It’s actually a luminous plasma originating from a grounded object in an atmospheric electric field.

Wikipedia says (and you have to believe good old Wiki): “The phenomenon sometimes appeared on ships at sea during thunderstorms and was regarded by sailors with religious awe for its glowing ball of light, accounting for the name.” St. Elmo was, of course, the patron saint of sailors.

Today’s Thought
I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.
— Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harper 58

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #82
Action in fog. If you see a fog bank ahead, fix your position immediately, or at least take a bearing. If possible, sail into water too shallow for big ships and anchor there until visibility improves. If you have radar, however, and honestly know how to use it, you can proceed with caution. If you have GPS, you can proceed with even greater caution while blowing your foghorn and idling the engine every five minutes or so while you listen for other signals. Without radar or GPS, proceed with the greatest possible caution while blowing your horn loudly and praying hard.

The construction department of our local municipality is trying to cross a hen with a concrete mixer.
Apparently they need a more efficient bricklayer.

No comments: