Of waves and wind and land and sails.

Tue 30 Apr 2013 05:10
So here I am again, on night watch and alone with the small ship and the sea. Before me, in the dark cabin, with only the reds lighting the saloon steps, a radar screen lies empty save for a scattering of wave-top reflections. It has been like this for days, and on the visual horizon, it is the same. Nothing but waves, and the occasional bottlenose or roughtoothed dolphin or pilot whale sprightly transient on the bow or beam or quarter, as if they had been made of water themselves, and disappear back into the same again as quickly.
Just how I like it best.
In the dark night outside a mist is beginning to form, further concealing the spirit of a giant petrel who has been shadowing us all day. A mist, cooling the dark air on my face as I look forward over the sprayhood at waves whose presence is only shown by the occasional bioluminescent blue-green of a foamy crest and the constant shooshing and motion of the boat, quietly under a full rig, hard on the wind. It is an unusual sensation for me in the tropical seas, where mists are rare. The sea temperature gauge, dim beside the radar screen tells me it is 31.6 degrees Celsius. The water is cooling. Yesterday it was at 34.5 degrees. It is a strange sensation heading South, so near the equator, with barely a degree and a half of latitude to go, sidling up to it on a gentle beat, our course just South of West: best course to windward in a breeze I expect to back, giving us way to the archipelago South and West of us somewhere. It is a strange sensation travelling here and yet feeling the air and the water cool as we go South, towards the other half of the world, seems right, and good. A few days ago, both air and sea were baking hot, and the water was a turbid greenish brown, full of earth from Ecuador and Peru. For three days now it has been the lapis lazuli of the deep pelagic sea. I had expected hammering heat down here, in the last few slivers of latitude in my familiar North, under my familiar stars... but as the Southern cross has risen, and the plough dipped its share lower and lower to the sea, as Polaris, which has been a constant companion through all my previous sailing nights has dimmed and faded to nothing in the sea haze of the horizon, our little world is cooling towards a sea unknown, to me.
Yes, little world. Since that is how it feels at sea, when you have been out of sight of land for days and days, and  the disc of the horizon hems close about the boat, its perfect centre, and small events and Ocean visitors come to you briefly as if you were sailing round your own tiny world, like an aqueous Petit Prince, not really going anywhere at all, and they briefly passing from another world, similar, but their own.
But it is not monotonous. The sea, the sky, the wind, are always changing, always new though paradoxically the same. From time to time squalls pass us by on errands of their own, or seem to advance on us with a purpose, like some half-conscious dark malevolence from Goya’s work, blindly bearing down on us, and just as blindly blundering away. At times during the night we see these beyond the dark horizon flashing silently, huge sprites of brilliant energy blowing skyward above twisted, muscular forms briefly seen, as though it were the ghost of some immense bombardment, long ago. The waves themselves are always new, always new, always new, conveying information from every direction, which, over time, it is possible to read like messengers, dispatches from those distant struggles with the wind.
I am not sure why this military imagery is coming to me now, but then there is something hostile, of course, about this place, at the juncture of the phases of matter in our world. Above, the seabirds cruise from nothing to nowhere in the sky, at ease in their world, untroubled. Below the fishes and their companions do the same. But here, on the surface, the phase change which supports us from the miles long fall to the unknown other world below, the water has its perpetual commerce with the wind: always restless, peaceful, in its way, but always ready to leap to its own form of arms. And the sails and keel of the boat connect the two in an uneasy truce of our little purpose, our small scrap, ambassador of land, scuttling between these warring other worlds under our white flags, hoping for, and by and large receiving, peace.
And so each sea tells its tale. The local waves bring no news, starting as they do from our little ocean valley out to other parts, but below and through them come messengers from other places, far distant. Sometimes, a swell will arise which might be three hundred meters long, or more, telling us of some intensity far to the South, other times and places, a sudden sharpness to the waves alerts us to a current like a river in the sea, writhing its way, perhaps, from a thousand leagues away. At other times the waves will square their tops, standing to behind some island or reef, refracting them like a lens so they confront each other of their own train in a local civil skirmish. Off Cabo de la Vela weeks ago, we felt the Windward Passage far to the North across the whole Caribbean sea, letting in its messages of North Atlantic struggles, far away and refracting them slowly across days of sail, so their angle gradually changed, crossing through more local waves, from Northwest to North to Northeast and finally behind us as we headed South again of Barranquilla. It would be possible, without much other information, to navigate broadly by the likes of these and knowledge of the unseen land alone. In any sea at all there are many seas, and watching the apparent monotony of it all, is like listening to a language not your own. At first it is indeed monotonous, and appears just a random garble of sounds, conveying nothing but commotion and discomfort to the senses. But gradually, gradually, the eye begins to read, the ear to hear, and the language of the seas’ commerce with the wind and land untangles itself from the seeming monotony of the waves.
So, as we head West by South, towards the Galapagos, the mist is telling me of a long messenger from colder seas far South of here, and after days of nothing, the sea is alive with squid in this bank of the Humboldt river, their eyes a brilliant red in the beam of my cockpit searchlight, scattering them briefly into the air. Yes, the air. These squid can fly. Ahead under the night lies an island with Penguins.
On the equator.