March 17, 2013

Who were the lost heroes?

MOST SMALL-BOAT CRUISERS have a pretty good selection of heroes to choose from — I mean the heroes reasonably close to our own time who made noteworthy voyages and pioneered the round-the-world routes so well known today, from Slocum via the Hiscocks, the Pardeys, and Moitessier to Hal Roth.

But it often strikes me that we know next to nothing of the sailing heroes of yesteryear; and by that I mean the actual personalities who first dared cross the oceans centuries before modern technology made it so much safer and easier.  Those heroes must have existed. There is always some daredevil in a group of people who will venture farther than the rest and blaze a trail for the herd to follow.

Who, for instance, was the South Sea hero who first navigated from one tiny island to another over the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean?  Hundreds of years before white men explored the Pacific, the ancient navigators were making regular voyages across the Pacific basin, from Tonga to Tahiti and Hawaii, an area totaling one-third of the earth’s surface. They had no sextants or compasses, only the stars, the planets and an extraordinary understanding of the sea and the weather in all its moods.

Many of their secrets were recorded by Dr. David Lewis, a New-Zealand-born physician and small-boat sailor, in his book, We, the Navigators.

Lewis maintained, for instance, that these Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian navigators could detect the presence of a low island from as far as 35 miles away by a change of patterns in the sea swells.  A boat running downwind toward an island, for example, could expect to feel swells rebounding straight back toward the boat from the land.

One of the Polynesian experts Lewis interviewed explained it this way: “I feel sea hit the canoe—shake him, like move him, go back.”

Now it just so happened that I once found myself in a position to check out this theory for myself. I was in a 30-foot sloop heading toward Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.  My son Kevin and I had no trouble detecting a regular swell running in the same direction as the wind, roughly southeast, but it took us an hour or more of close observation to realize that among the breaking waves a smaller but persistent swell was running almost at right angles to it — presumably the remains of waves generated in the Roaring Forties, hundreds of miles to the south.

But no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t detect any sign of a reverse swell coming back toward us from Ascension Island.

We stopped looking and started feeling instead, feeling for the sea to hit us from the front and shake us, move us back. We tried to feel while we were sitting, and we tried to feel while we were standing, but we felt nothing. Our little sloop simply lifted her tail, rushed down the face of the swells, settled back gently into the hollow for a moment, and then did it all over again. Whatever magical senses those old navigators possessed were not passed on to us.

We sighted the island later that afternoon, fine on the port bow, and I was much relieved  to know that what I lacked in the ancient ability to detect reverse swells was at least offset by my more modern proficiency with the sextant.

Today’s Thought
Every man has an aptitude born with him.
— Emerson, Essays, First Series: Spiritual Laws

A developer is somebody who wants to build cabins in the woods.
An environmentalist is someone who already has a cabin there.

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


Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the Chinese who circumnavigated and charted the world 200 years before Columbus was born :)

John Vigor said...

artofhookie, I was thinking of small-boat sailors not those who explored in large junks or Viking longboats.

John V.

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