March 1, 2015

No highways, no byways at sea

I WAS SURPRISED to find that Robert Macfarlane had included two chapters on the sea in his popular book The Old Ways (Penguin Books). The ways he’s talking about are the ones on land, the ancient paths, lanes, byways, and roads that restless humans have traveled since before the beginning of recorded history.
“We think of paths as existing only on land, but the sea has its paths too,” Macfarlane declares. He goes on to talk about a network of “sea roads” and the astonishing fact that they carried maritime traffic “dating back at least to the Mesolithic [era], and intense activity for the three millennia before Rome built its roads.”

Well, Macfarlane is a landscape mystic, of course, and not unacquainted with hyperbole. There have never been roads for sailing ships. One of the glories of the open sea is that you are mostly free to go where you want. You find your own way. There are no marked highways that you must stick to. And that’s lucky for us, because a sailboat could rarely follow a road at sea even if there were one.

There are a few straits and channels that funnel ships into narrow waters, it’s true, but even they must be wide enough to tack in, otherwise no sailing ship would dare use them.  Motor ships are better at following shipping “lanes,” of course, but there were no motor ships around in the Mesolithic era, or when Roman slaves were building roads for Caesar’s legions.

What sailing ships follow are “routes,” not “roads.” In fact, roads, as the word is known to sailors, are open anchorages, commonly used in Europe and other parts of the world while waiting for the wind or tidal stream to change direction. Routes, on the other hand, are general directions for making passages between ports, and were originally dictated by the strength and direction of the prevailing ocean winds.

It would seem that some time after Romans were building roads on land, sailors at sea discovered the system of rotating weather systems that allowed ships to cross the Atlantic from east to west by first going far south, and then to return to Europe by first sailing north. Then they found they could take advantage of the Roaring Forties to circle the Southern Hemisphere, and so forth; but I expect the Arabs or the Phoenicians had discovered the handy monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, which enabled them to trade with East Africa, long before that.

Ships leave no tracks in the ocean. There are no cairns or milestones, or signposts to designate roads. A swirl of wake and a temporary patch of foam, and soon no evidence exists that a ship has passed by here.  Each ship makes its own road in the sea, and immediately the sea erases all signs of its passage.

Anyone who has a boat and access to a branch of the sea anywhere has access to all seas everywhere. That’s the magic of owning boat. You are within reach of all other boats all over the world. And you don’t need a road to get there.

Today’s Thought
I like a road that leads away to prospects bright and fair,
A road that is an ordered road, like a nun’s evening prayer;
But best of all I love a road that leads to God knows where.
— Charles Hanson Towne, The Best Road of All

Last week a local Small Claims Court judge told a nervous woman witness to make herself at ease, and talk to him as if she were talking to her husband or friends.
The case is still proceeding.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Very insightful post. There's something very zen that, because of the water cycle, we're sailing the same seas as those Mesolithic sailors were - but at the same time, not following the exact path! Thanks for sharing.