This morning, when I logged onto my computer, I checked the position of the max-trimaran Banque Populaire V as its screams it way across the North Atlantic at roughly 30 knots, seeking to seize the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation. It is roughly 1,000 NM and less than two days, baring the unforeseen, from claiming the trophy. I also read Laura Dekker’s blog. The 16 year old single handed sailor is also sailing northward in the Atlantic, though much much slower than the Banque Populaire V. Her blog posts are straightforward and usually cheerful and upbeat. It is easy to see why so much of the sailing world is a fan of this remarkable young woman. Recently she wrote:
Waves behave nicer now and the wind is blowing from behind so Guppy still keeps rolling back and forth. Yet the wind is pulling at 15 knots which is unusual around here in the doldrums. Guppy is getting to be an oven now so I sleep during the day and stay up at night… and it is nice, what with the moonlit sea and the many many thousand stars up above.. It is real cool just to look at. Good winds keep Guppy happy and we are making good progress too with 3000 nautical miles already done which is more than halfway through this crossing. Let’s hope the second half will be just as good… Laura
I was struck how very strange it is to be tracking a racing trimaran in real time across the Atlantic or to be listening to a 16 year old sailor as she marvels at a moonlit sea while transiting the doldrums.
For all of time, until just a few years ago, a ship or boat that sailed out of sight of land was, for all intents and purposes, entirely on its own. Joseph Conrad in his book of essays, Mirror of the Sea, spends a chapter ruminating on the meaning of just two words – “departure” and “landfall.” Between these two simple words lies the entirely of the sea. Later in the book, he ponders two less pleasant words – “overdue” and “missing,” the fate of too many ships which never returned to make “landfall.”
Conrad was writing in 1906 but nothing really changed until quite recently. I recall talking to a Dutch ship’s captain in the 1970s who said that his favorite time was when his ship passed the sea buoy and he knew that the home office could no longer bother him. This captain understood fully what Conrad was saying when he wrote about the word “departure.” I am sure that the captain has retired by now, which is just as well, as the sea buoy no longer provides much of an escape.
There is of course an upside to our inter-connected oceans. When a ship is in trouble, the crew and officers may find help more readily at hand. On December 9th, the cargo ship Florece and the chemical tanker Afrodite collided at night in the Bay of Biscay. The smaller ship, the Florece, sank, leaving its crew of seven in life rafts in some very nasty seas. A few decades ago the crew would have likely perished. Instead, the Florece‘s EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) signal was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk, Virgina, who passed it on to the British, French and Spanish Coast Guards. The British vectored the closest ship in the area, the container ship Ocean Titan, to the Florece’s rafts which rescued the crew. To save the nine man crew, the coast guards of three nations on two continents, as well as several merchant ships coordinated their activities to perform the rescue.
For better or worse, whether following ocean racing, the single handed voyage of Laura Dekker or the rescue of sailors in distress, the “lonely sea and sky” are a lot less lonely these days.