January 21, 2014

Thank you, dear Followers

O JOY beyond all understanding! O glory be, and hallelujah! The number of my followers has swollen to more than 200, thanks to several kind persons who reacted promptly to my last column. You have made me very happy folks. It feels s-o-o-o good to have 200 in the bank, and I’m very grateful to you.

So here’s your reward:

The Disease Called Cruising

2.  First landfall

ON OUR 23rd day at sea, the skipper called me at 2 a.m. for my watch. “No sign of land,” he said skeptically.

He was still not convinced that I could navigate. And, to tell the truth, I wasn’t too sure myself. It was my first time navigating out of sight of land. We were 2,900 miles out of Cape Town, en route to Rio de Janeiro, and we were about to come within sight of the first piece of land on the way — if I’d got it right. And this was long before the days of GPS.

From the companionway hatch I scanned the horizon with the night binoculars. It was hopeless. All I could make out in the moonlight was the usual battlements of cloud all the way around the edges of our little world, and none overhead.

I was fairly sure we had passed Trindade Island, because the wind had come back in the night. Not much, but enough to allow our little sloop to make a steady 4 knots.

When dawn came I started to look for the island on the port quarter. The British Admiralty Pilot showed silhouettes of Trindade. It was just 3 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide.

Miles away, down on the southern horizon, the cloud ramparts were beginning to break up and dissolve into early morning mists.

But one cloud stayed put. Trindade! Right where it should have been, 30 miles away to the south-south-east. Its lofty, detached pinnacles were soon easy to see without binoculars.

I called softly to my watchmate, Eddie.  I didn’t want to waken the sleeping watch. “Have a look at the island,” I said excitedly.

He beamed from ear to ear, and leaning through the hatchway, fumbled in the tool box for the foghorn.

Nick, who had heard him scrabbling, jumped out of the quarter berth and leaped on deck. But the skipper got wakened by a raucous blast from Eddie. He came topsides rubbing his eyes and looking shaken.

 It was a first ocean landfall for all of us, but nobody was more excited than I. I thought my face would burst from all that smiling.

I kept saying: “Wow! Pretty good, huh?” and behaved abominably. “I think it should be named after me,” I said. “Vigor Island. How about that?”

They had the good sense to ignore me, and when I had simmered down I reflected that it would be fairer to call it Blewitt Island after the woman who had written the simple little book from which I had taught myself celestial navigation.

At 6 a.m. we drank her health in rum, drowned in apple juice. “Mary Blewitt,” I said, “you’re a bloody fine woman.”

They treated me with more respect after that. They began to believe in their hearts that I really knew what I was doing with that sextant. I was interested to find out, too. I was still beaming long after the island disappeared into the haze.

I’ve experienced many landfalls since then but none stays in my mind like the first. Nothing compares with the first time, when I acquired the faith a navigator needs to guide a little ship accurately over the featureless ocean with the help only of the sun, the stars, Mary Blewitt, a borrowed sextant, and a wrist watch his wife gave him for his birthday.

Today's Thought

Skill’d in the globe and sphere, he gravely stands,

And with his compass, measures seas and lands.

— Dryden, Sixth Satire of Juvenal, 1


At sea, with low and falling glass,

Soundly sleeps the careless ass.

Only when it’s high and rising,

Safely rests the careful wise ’un. 

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

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