41 north, 68 west: Crossing George's Bank
By now , I had hoped
to be summing up, reflecting on a long and thusfar successful voyage.
But once again the weather took us by the throat, squeezing out all
pretensions to philosophy, as it tends to do here in the northern North
Atlantic, our so-called home. Whereas in the Caribbean one has the luxury
to be fascinated by everything, here the elements squeeze you flat,
press you down until you are as grey and monotonous and sullen as the
waves that assault boat and spirit; rank upon rank of waves crowding
in from the horizon like some ghastly horde of IRS auditors, or the
JCAHO itself, that incarnation of implacable idiot bureaucracy. God
and Tammy Norie between us and evil! Yes, once again it was eat or be
eaten, no romance about it, and we have been eating our way into the
eye of the wind since half way across the Gulf Stream, at 37-1/2 degrees
north, when the convergence of a large high moving in from the north
with a low to the west combined to give us a northeast gale; precisely
what we, like everyone crossing the Stream, had hoped fervently to avoid.
So we got wet. And once across the north wall of the Gulf Stream into
the Labrador Current, cold and wet.
Now it is just cold,
here in the middle of this big high from Alberta, but who are we to
be talking to you about cold, we who are looking at 2, perhaps 3 days
of what feels like winter, compared to the real thing which you are
done with? At about noon today the wind finally let up, just as we crossed
the Continental Shelf and into 50 degree water. Now it is 3 am, the
wind has eased into the southeast at 14 knots and we are moving gently
homeward; far from the shrieking and plunging, groaning timbers and
spray in the face of 24 hours ago. The diesel heater is humming, rig
and engine are in perfect order, and all is well under this great blaze
of familiar stars, Mars chief among them and Polaris at 41 degrees above
the horizon, almost back to his rightful place. The blessed Tammy Norie,
heart of African iroko and ribs of stout english white oak, is moving
her 9 tons gracefully now, cleaving the sea into bright green light-foam,
her prop shooting a long luminescent comet's tail of startled plankton.
The engine is turning over slowly, giving the sails a little added boost
to get us in while the weather holds. Lubberly perhaps, but there it
is; home calls. The ocean has that familiar dull green color, and the
faint fishy smell absent from the more lifeless bluewater of the tropics.
And we are again seeing lots of whales and dolphins. It is a sort of
homecoming, this return to the waters near where I sailed with my father
as a little boy, and where as a cold wet Outward Bound student of 15
I decided that Maine would eventually be home. And with a very benevolent-looking
48-hour forecast, our true homecoming seems not very far off. It is
a happy moment, this movement toward home after an arduous journey;
certainly I am happier than one has any right to be on this earthly
plane of suffering and chaos.
But I am dangerously
ahead of myself and begin to wax
philosophical, which will just have to wait till we've dried off a bit
more and the phrase "safely home" sounds less like hubris.
Never count your chickens--not even Freestyle, famous swimming chicken
of the Cape Verdes-- until they are tied up at the dock, or something
like. It is still 175 miles to Monhegan. Besides, the midnight coffee
is starting to wear off and the metaphors are getting too mixed up to
follow; it's time to go below where it's snug and warm, and let Joel's
nose get nipped for the few hours until dawn.
May 1999, 0200 EDT
miles south of Monhegan
Tonight it is time
to say goodbye to the stars. It will be a long time until the next midnight
to 4 am watch, when I again have the leisure to watch these brilliant
companions in their stately march across the sky, or the pleasure of
pulling the best and brightest down to the horizon with the sextant
to find our place on the terrestrial globe. Long gone are the southern
stars: the Southern Cross; the Centaur with our nearest neighbor Alpha
Centauri, Rigel Kent to the navigator. Canis Major, the Great Dog, and
his dog star, Sirius, have politely retired, leaving the field and our
hearts to our little earthly dog, Teague, who we will see soon. Scorpius
is still there in the south, still long and impressive, but with his
tail sadly clipped at the horizon. Venomous creatures, so teeming in
the tropics, are not permitted here in Maine, by the extended orders
of St. Patrick himself, in order that the Irish would have some safe
haven in their flight from famine and oppression to the New World.
To the north now
is Cassiopeia, that great Westinghouse logo in the sky, reminding us
that we are returning to the land of washing machines and dryers, thank
god, and isn't it about time for a bit of proper laundry. Mars is out
there bullying the rest, no doubt singing "I Did It My Way"
in some horrible celestial arrangement. This is a song, by the way,
that we have heard in every country we have been, including Cuba, and
in every preposterous style and language imaginable--Portugese, Spanish,
Reggae,Calypso, even Salsa, for all love-- so we would not be at all
surprised to find it had found its way to Mars. After nearly disappearing
from our view in Tobago and Bonaire, Polaris and the Big Dipper are
back, center stage where they belong. And there to the northeast, the
navigational triangle- Altair, Deneb and Vega- which helped us find
our way to the Azores, and now are helping us find our way home. How
could humans not use the stars for navigation, when this trio makes
the task so easy; even at twilight, when constellation patterns are
hard to distinguish, they fairly beg the sextant out of its case.
We look at the stars
and planets, and think of friends and family elsewhere on the planet
looking at the same stars, and other humans back through time looking
up at the same sky and making up stories of their own to give it order.
Even the names that we use today carry a long history: some Greek, some
Roman, some Hebrew, some Arabic. Interestingly, the list of navigational
stars is a kind of Arabic Who's Who- Alkaid, Alphair, Deneb, Dubhe,
Zuben'ubi- which serve as a reminder that there was a flowering of Islamic
learning centuries back; hard to imagine in these days of deranged Ayatollahs
and Talibans, with their jihads and fatwahs and oppression of women.
So, goodnight moon, goodnight Rigel and Betelgeuse, goodnight Castor
and Pollux, goodnight Orion and Canis Major and Procyon. Thank you all
for keeping us company, and lighting our way, and telling us where we
We'll be back.