June 6, 2016

Panic strikes at sea

IT STRUCK ME the other day that there must be a lot of feelings that a sailor experiences that are unknown to your average landlubber. And one of those feelings is the anxiety, verging on controlled panic, you experience when land should appear, but doesn’t.
It happened to me once long ago. After 16 days at sea in my 30-foot sloop I was approaching the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, specially chosen as my landfall because of its height and therefore its visibility from a great distance.
This was in the days before GPS, and when my calculations showed I was within sighting range, there was nothing but blue sea and sky. Hour after hour went by as I fussed with my navigation and did my sums over again and again. My alarm was contagious. My crew started to worry alongside me. Ten miles to go, and no St. Vincent.
With sinking feelings in our stomachs we wondered out loud. Could the compass be wrong? Were we completely lost? Was the sextant giving false readings? Was our chronometer acting up? Were the charts wrong? Did we have enough food and water to find some land somewhere, anywhere?
Five miles to go. Nothing. Had there been an earthquake? Had St. Vincent been blown off the face of the earth? If so, wouldn’t we see some trees and wreckage? Our minds  ran amok with reasons for our worrisome situation.
Suddenly there was a flash of light high up to starboard. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was sun reflecting off a car on a mountain road. We were about to run into St. Vincent. I was so startled, I automatically jibed and reversed our course.
In the next few minutes, the whole island revealed itself and we were, in fact, about four miles off, dead on course. Oh, what a relief. You can’t imagine our joy. The island had been hidden by a sea mist that had blended on the horizon to make one seamless view of the blue sea and sky. So much for the pilot books, and their tall tales of how far away St. Vincent is visible.
I have to tell you that we all felt physically drained after the gamut of emotions that had wracked our minds and stomachs for so many hours, so perhaps the landlubbers are, after all, quite happy to be spared that particular experience.
Today’s Thought
“We are lost!” the captain shouted,As he staggered down the stairs.
-- James Thomas Fields, Ballad of the Tempest
Tailpiece “Who’s the gorgeous girl over there?”

“She must be the village belle.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s wringing her hands.”
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