January 26, 2014

The fright of my life

The Disease Called Cruising
4. Come and get me

BY FEBRUARY we were deep into the South Atlantic, running free for Rio de Janeiro, four of us in a 33-foot wooden sloop called Diana K.

But we had blundered too close to the South Atlantic High, and it was calm, dead calm. The pinned-in mainsail was slatting and filling noisily. The galley cupboards sang the clink-clink song of all small ships adrift among the southern swells.

I sat alone in the cockpit marveling at the beauty of the night. There was no moon, but each of a million stars was reflected brightly in the pitch-black ocean and each was connected to its neighbor by a wobbly skein of light. The whole surface of the sea was gently heaving with this magnificent display when I got to wondering how far down into the water the light of a start might penetrate.

It wasn’t exactly logical, but I got the deck flashlight and shone it overboard. Looking down along it, the narrow beam stabbed deeply forever, twisting and spiraling eerily, boring into the verdant depths.

I was lost in contemplation for quite a while until a sudden thought occurred to me —  a thought that made me burst out into a cold sweat.  I realized I had just signaled our presence to every leviathan of the sea within miles.

Now, we all know the size of the creatures that lurk down there. Occasionally some octopus the size of an elephant gets washed up on a lonely shore, and enormous whales return to the surface all scarred and bleeding after tumultuous fights with giant squids.

And now on a moonless night I had flashed my light deep into the water to show the brutes where we were.  I was guiding them to their prey.  And we weren’t moving. We were sitting ducks.

Shivering with fright, my first impulse was to start the motor to get away from that spot. But how would I explain it to the others? I knew full well they would scoff at my fears. I thought of waking the skipper and confessing to what I’d done so stupidly.  But I was paralyzed. I did nothing except crouch low in the cockpit.

Then I had another idea. I crept down below to fetch the fireman’s ax we carried for emergencies. If any tentacles started sliding over the gunwale, I wanted to give a good account of myself.

I don’t know how long I spent on the cockpit floor, ax at the ready.  Time seemed to be suspended.  But eventually I felt a faint breath of air. I ran forward and raised the big genoa. I freed the mainsheet and got her fetching, full and by, making her own wind.

No Olympic helmsman ever concentrated harder. I sailed like a demon, sucking every ounce of power from every wayward puff.

After a while, I guess it was about 15 minutes or so, we had moved several hundred yards from Ground Zero, where I had signaled the giants of the depths to come to dinner.  I began to relax. No tentacles had appeared over the gunwale. No whale had swallowed us. I took the ax below again. God, we’d been lucky.

I never told the others what I’d done, and, of course, I’ve never done it again. One fright like that is enough to last a sailor a lifetime.

Today’s Thought
To sail uncharted waters and follow virgin shores—what a life for men!
— Rockwell Kent

“Why did they transfer your boy friend from that submarine?”
“He said he couldn’t sleep without a window open.”

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


Connection Mark said...

OMG - I can sooooo see myself doing just this. I am the bravest coward, ever planning on sailing the seven seas! My husband wants to do the traditional swim over the equator when we cross and I told him that if he does this, I will divorce him. I just know a creature from the deep will devour him, leaving me alone, and stranded on the boat, the moment he goes overboard.

John Vigor said...

Sunshine, since when is it traditional to swim across the equator? I must be behind the times because I've never heard of it. It was rough when we crossed the equator and for days afterward. There was simply no question of anyone going overboard for a swim then. I have, however, swum in mid-Atlantic on a dead calm day. Once around the boat, as fast as I could go, and zip! out in a flash. Never did it again. Sharks terrify me. I'd hate to lose a leg and leave it to my wife to deal with the problems arising.
Yes, quite right, threaten him with divorce. It's a dumb thing to do.


John V.

biglilwave said...

Okay, I'm definitely not letting my wife read this entry. Actually, I'm the one who fears the Kraken. She always makes fun of how the only things I'm scared of don't exist.

Jack said...

I would presume your reader was thinking of a modified Line crossing ceremony: I quote from the Oracle....
"In the 19th century and earlier, the line-crossing ceremony was quite a brutal event, often involving beating pollywogs with boards and wet ropes and sometimes throwing the victims over the side of the ship, dragging the pollywog in the surf from the stern. In more than one instance, sailors were reported to have been killed while participating in a line-crossing ceremony".
Reading that, a quick swim around your vessel seems quite pedestrian in my humble opinion.