February 26, 2013

The greatest test of patience

BOOKS WRITTEN FOR PEOPLE who want to cross oceans in sailboats usually have a good deal of advice about how to prepare for storms, and how to handle a yacht in heavy weather. But very little is said about another problem that sometimes crops up on ocean crossings, and that is how to handle calms.

Calms are the greatest test of a sailor’s patience and unfortunately some people are not psychologically equipped to deal with them well.  They are often quite shocked at their response to calms.

I was once at sea in a 33-footer with three friends when we ran into a giant high-pressure system in mid-South Atlantic. This was real doldrums weather, where the sea resembled a constantly bulging mirror, and not even the slightest ripple creased its face.

After three days of rolling with limp, slatting sails, one of our crew, a young, vigorous civil engineer, was at his wits’ end.  He was used to being able to make things happen, usually on a big scale. The calm had a terrible effect on him because this was the first time in his adult life that he hadn’t been able to do anything to change his situation.

Eventually he pleaded with skipper to retire from the race we were in.  He said we should use our precious supply of gasoline to motor about 100 miles to the nearest shipping lane, where we could flag down a passing freighter and load our yacht on board. He was even prepared to pay to have the yacht shipped home again.

Listening to him, it was easy to believe that we would be stuck out there forever. We could see ourselves running out of food and water.  We’d never be heard of again.

You’d be surprised how realistic this seems to a crew stuck in a dead calm for three days.

But at the end of the third day the wind filled in gently.  We started moving toward Rio de Janeiro at a steady three knots.  Our civil engineer was transformed.  You’ve never seen a happier man.

The way you react to calms obviously depends on your personality.  I confess that I just love calms.  I prefer a calm to a storm any day. Calms give you time and opportunity to study the ocean you’re sailing through. The truth is that we know comparatively little about the deep oceans and what hides in them. I love hanging over the side and seeing what’s in the water. I have spent many happy hours examining the contents of buckets of seawater.

There is an amazing variety of stuff out there, including the tiny creatures of the  sea, the odd creatures, the things that look like plastic coins tilted at odd angles, and the things that walk on water. Thousands of miles from land, you will come across minute insects that skate across the surface, dimpling the water with their tiny legs. You can see them only in calms, of course, and I have no idea where they go when the wind gets up and the seas start breaking.

There are spectacular light shows to be seen, too, not just phosphorescence, which is showy enough in its own right, but also large discs of light that flash brilliantly a few feet under the surface as you drift slowly by.

These are secrets that Nature reserves for those who dare to go to sea, and who have the patience to drift in calms.  For me, the quiet sea is a source of constant fascination. I am never bored by calms.

Today’s Thought
There is a third dimension to traveling, the longing for what is beyond.
— Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road

“How did your date go on Saturday?”
“It was a bust. Not only did he lie about the size of his yacht, but he made me do the rowing, too.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.) 


Jack said...

With you on the side of calm. I'm glad I wasn't faced with a crew member with those kind of issues! The vessel becomes very small in those kind of incidences. Could this be similar to the malaise of "cabin fever"? Trapped, no where to go, no where to run? Too deep for me, I'll leave that to any Psychologists on the forum!

KevinH said...

Oh yes, - calms can be the greatest opportumity for some introspection. Just the realisation that you are so far from others that no amount of tantrums, cursing or diesel is of any use. It is a great leveller to be forced to accept that you are NOT in control and mother earth will let you make progress when she is good and ready. Meantime, you'all jus wait ya hear !?