Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Whale of a Time

I thought this little article I prepared for the smallsailboats Yahoo! discussion group might be appropriate here.

It tells of an encounter with a pod of whales when I was attempting to sail to the Azores in the yacht ‘Aziz’.

When we were about 500 miles out, and west of the Bay of Biscay - it was after an early morning kip - I woke to examine the scene. To my horror, nestling alongside, almost within reach, there was a huge whale, about the same length as the boat! I gasped, as my heart missed a beat; then to my utter concern I saw another dark shape immediately in our path, but even more startling, I observed we were in the centre of a large pod of these leviathans.

My first reaction was to avert a collision, but before I could release the self-steering gear, the benign creature in our path gracefully glided into the ocean depths.

Around me these wonderful, gentle, sensitive sea creatures showed no sign of panic; unlike the crew of ‘Aziz’. It was then I realised, they had the situation under control - they knew more about me and my boat than I did of them. With one flick of their tail they could have smashed us into oblivion, but instead they showed their friendliness.

The ship’s windvane self-steering, with its ever vigilant eye, maintained our course as our ‘companions’ escorted us for an hour or so. Finally they cavorted and snorted around us with the purpose of conveying their best wishes, ‘farewell’, and ‘bon voyage’, before making their departure.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Sea

It's said you either like the sea or you hate it, but maybe there are those who are amibivalent about it?

I love the sea when all is fine and the sailing is good, but when it's evil and cruel, I'm fearful and respectful of it.

My mother positively hated the sea; probably because her father, when she was very young and unable to swim, made her cling to his neck; then swam in the sea with her on his back. That must have been terrifying for her, so that an indelible memory of fear remained with her for as long as she lived.

The poem I have chosen for today’s log was written by one like my mother who intensely hated the sea.

The Sea

There are certain things -a spider, a ghost,
The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three -
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the SEA.

Pour some salt water over the floor -
Ugly I'm sure you'll allow it to be:
Suppose it extended a mile or more,
That's very like the SEA.

Beat a dog till it howls outright -
Cruel, but all very well for a spree;
Suppose that one did so day and night,
That would be like the SEA.

I had a vision of nursery-maids;
Tens of thousands passed by me -
All leading children with wooden spades,
And this was by the SEA.

Who invented those spades of wood?
Who was it cut them out of the tree?
None, I think, but an idiot could -
Or one that loved the SEA.

It is pleasant and dreamy, no doubt, to float
With `thoughts as boundless, and souls as free';
But suppose you are very unwell in a boat,
How do you like the SEA.

There is an insect that people avoid
(Whence is derived the verb `to flee')
Where have you been by it most annoyed?
In lodgings by the SEA.

If you like coffee with sand for dregs,
A decided hint of salt in your tea,
And a fishy taste in the very eggs -
By all means choose the SEA.

And if, with these dainties to drink and eat,
You prefer not a vestige of grass or tree,
And a chronic state of wet in your feet,
Then -I recommend the SEA.

For I have friends who dwell by the coast,
Pleasant friends they are to me!
It is when I'm with them I wonder most
That anyone likes the SEA.

They take me a walk: though tired and stiff,
To climb the heights I madly agree:
And, after a tumble or so from the cliff,
They kindly suggest the SEA.

I try the rocks, and I think it cool
That they laugh with such an excess of glee,
As I heavily slip into every pool,
That skirts the cold, cold SEA.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

‘Master and Commander’

My brother was somewhat surprised that I had not read any novels by Patrick O’Brian, the Anglo-Irish novelist whose stirring tales of the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars made him a literary celebrity at the age of 85, when he died on 2nd January, 2000.

He is most famous for writing a series, chronicling the fictitious adventures of Jack Aubrey, and Stephen Maturin, the main characters in ‘Master and Commander’, the first of 20 complete volumes. Jack is the Commander and Maturin is the ship’s doctor.

To date, more than 2 million copies of the Aubrey-Maturin novels have been sold; some place O’Brian with Melville and Conrad.

Having first been introduced to his genius through seeing the film ‘Master and Commander’, directed by Peter Weir, I was smitten. True to O’Brian’s attention to historical detail, the film tells the swashbuckling story of confrontation at sea between ‘Lucky’, Jack Aubrey’s English ship and a superior French man–of–war; Jack’s vessel only escapes by good fortune, courtesy of the fog, but her ruthless and loyal commander is determined to inflict revenge, thereby bringing honour for himself and Country.

What the film does not do, is manifest the literary skill of a great author and wordsmith.

For the sailor of a small yacht in our times, O’Brian’s novels can convey a sense of history and wonderment at the fortitude, determination, and resourcefulness of seamen who defended and fought for their countries in a bygone era. Their struggles were often determined by the vagaries of wind and sea, and soundness of their vessels, just as our ventures at sea are today.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Sea and the Hills

‘Sea and the Hills’ is a compelling and enigmatic poem by Rudyard Kipling that demonstrates a certain knowledge and understanding of the sea gained through personal experience. How else could he conjure up description, atmosphere and location?

Who hath desired the Sea? -- the sight of salt water unbounded --
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm, grey, foamless, enormous, and growing --
Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing --
His Sea in no showing the same his Sea and the same 'neath each showing:
His Sea as she slackens or thrills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills!

Who hath desired the Sea? -- the immense and contemptuous surges?
The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, as the star-stabbing bow-sprit emerges?
The orderly clouds of the Trades, the ridged, roaring sapphire thereunder --
Unheralded cliff-haunting flaws and the headsail's low-volleying thunder --
His Sea in no wonder the same his Sea and the same through each wonder:
His Sea as she rages or stills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Who hath desired the Sea? Her menaces swift as her mercies?
The in-rolling walls of the fog and the silver-winged breeze that disperses?
The unstable mined berg going South and the calvings and groans that declare it --
White water half-guessed overside and the moon breaking timely to bare it --
His Sea as his fathers have dared -- his Sea as his children shall dare it:
His Sea as she serves him or kills?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather
Than forecourts of kings, and her outermost pits than the streets where men gather
Inland, among dust, under trees -- inland where the slayer may slay him --
Inland, out of reach of her arms, and the bosom whereon he must lay him
His Sea from the first that betrayed -- at the last that shall never betray him:
His Sea that his being fulfils?
So and no otherwise -- so and no otherwise -- hillmen desire their Hills.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Wind and the Sea

I know precious little of Paul Dunbar, except he wrote a poem in which he personifies a relationship between the wind and the sea, such that they connive together for evil intent, while shamming repentance for their wilful acts.

Paradoxically, we know that neither of these natural forces can be cognisant of themselves, and yet both can be very cruel to the point where after terrifying their victims (those who sail in ships) utterly destroy them, consigning them for ever to Davy Jones’s locker, and because of the evidence, we sailors can get to believe that both the sea and wind are mindful of what they do - we know from experience that they have moods and feelings, perhaps capricious at times, but as a cat plays with a mouse before releasing it after losing interest or relenting, so the wind and sea may, by whim, release their captives.

The Wind and the Sea by Paul Dunbar

I stood by the shore at the death of day,
As the sun sank flaming red;
And the face of the waters that spread away
Was as gray as the face of the dead.

And I heard the cry of the wanton sea
And the moan of the wailing wind;
For love's sweet pain in his heart had he,
But the gray old sea had sinned.

The wind was young and the sea was old,
But their cries went up together;
The wind was warm and the sea was cold,
For age makes wintry weather.

So they cried aloud and they wept amain,
Till the sky grew dark to hear it;
And out of its folds crept the misty rain,
In its shroud, like a troubled spirit.

For the wind was wild with a hopeless love,
And the sea was sad at heart
At many a crime that he wot of,
Wherein he had played his part.

He thought of the gallant ships gone down
By the will of his wicked waves;
And he thought how the churchyard in the town
Held the sea-made widows' graves.

The wild wind thought of the love he had left
Afar in an Eastern land,
And he longed, as long the much bereft,
For the touch of her perfumed hand.

In his winding wail and his deep-heaved sigh
His aching grief found vent;
While the sea looked up at the bending sky
And murmured: "I repent."

But e'en as he spoke, a ship came by,
That bravely ploughed the main,
And a light came into the sea's green eye,
And his heart grew hard again.

Then he spoke to the wind: "Friend, seest thou not
Yon vessel is eastward bound?
Pray speed with it to the happy spot
Where thy loved one may be found."

And the wind rose up in a dear delight,
And after the good ship sped;
But the crafty sea by his wicked might
Kept the vessel ever ahead.

Till the wind grew fierce in his despair,
And white on the brow and lip.
He tore his garments and tore his hair,
And fell on the flying ship.

And the ship went down, for a rock was there,
And the sailless sea loomed black;
While burdened again with dole and care,
The wind came moaning back.

And still he moans from his bosom hot
Where his raging grief lies pent,
And ever when the ships come not,
The sea says: "I repent."