From Conor McGowan, volunteer rigger on Matthew Turner and Seaward relief crew.
I’m sure being becalmed once is enough for a sailor, but I would go further and say: once is necessary for anyone. I had three days of it I’ll never forget. The fall of ’17 I was aboard the 37-meter wooden brigantine Tres Hombres as second mate on her voyage to the Caribbean.
from Amsterdam, bringing a cargo of veterinary supplies to exchange for a hold full of rum, coffee and cacao; all done under sail, for she carries no engine. We were a hundred miles off the west coast of Africa, southbound seeking the trade winds, when, for the first time since putting to sea, we met with still airs. Being adrift in the doldrums embodies a sensation that we don’t experience in the modern world, where we are spoiled by engine power. In fact, we’re never without power to move ourselves on land. We can always step out of the car, off the bicycle, and walk on. Our two Austrian passengers were unusually silent. As any charter skipper will tell you, passengers get very anxious about their schedules and aren’t always keen to experience having the motors off and sailing “pure”. There was simply nothing to do but wait for wind. The wheel slowly gave over to rolling idly back and forth as we lost steerageway. When in time the water turned to true glass not even rolls disturbed the uncanny silence by stirring our drooping, listless sails. Studying our navigational charts I observed that our progress adrift brought us slowly, perhaps a dozen miles per day, on a south-setting current. Directly along our drifting path happened to be a seamount raising the ocean floor from a Hadean depth of fifteen thousand feet up to a thousand in a few miles’ distance. It soon became obvious that we had reached a very special spot on the tractless ocean. Climbing aloft the foremast to the highest yard, I peered down over the ship below to watch my shipmates fishing for dorado. From above I could see, as clear as if they had been suspended in pure air, several large whales approaching our hull in long slow strokes. Other fish appeared throughout the day, more dorado, and whales again, curious and circling around the ship. From my perch I could see a bounty of sea life all around, betraying the seamount’s presence below, an oasis in an otherwise abyssal expanse stretching away over the horizon. Occluded by even small wind waves, I’d never have seen all these visitors in a breeze. At night, starry skies still unmatched in my life dazzled overhead while we stood our long, utterly quiet night watches, telling stories and sometimes stirring the bioluminescence in the waters with a tossed bucket. The stupendous reflections from impossibly still water mirrored the lights overhead so perfectly that one could easily lose the horizon and discover that our ship was floating in a sea of stars, above and below. We rested in an invisible ether. Truly a magical sensation.
Playing Chess at the Helm