Friday, November 13, 2015
Evanston: on STORM PASSAGE
A few weeks ago I did a Skype interview from GANNET for reasons of no importance. The young man who interviewed me was intelligent and friendly, but he brought up the usual suspects: Are you mad? Actually he asked, “Does your wife think you are mad?” To which I honestly replied, “I don’t know.” And the eternal, “Why?”
My putative madness only amuses.
If you have read my books or just the list of quotes I’ve used in the front of them, you have found:
No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.
“You are mad,” shouted Angus, who had learned to cherish his own limitations as a sure proof of sanity.
from VOSS by Patrick White
Long time readers will know that I don’t consider ‘why?’ a good question.
As a species we are better at ‘how’ than ‘why’.
People either understand instinctively why I sail or they probably won’t ever understand at all.
And I answered the question definitively forty years ago. It is time for the world to do its home work and catch up.
Still I answered the interviewer by quoting the first words from my first book, STORM PASSAGE: I was born for this. Which then, of course required more explanation.
After the interview was over, I decided I should check and see if I had quoted myself correctly. I did. But once I started reading I decided to continue, partly because the longest passage I have ever made, and perhaps the most seminal, was going on forty years ago, starting last month and continuing until next March, when I will be back in New Zealand to watch in my mind EGREGIOUS limp past.
The only other time I’ve reread STORM PASSAGE since it was published in 1977 was when I proof read the Kindle edition in 2011. I noted then that I was struck by how different the two parts of the book are: Part One about my first two failed attempts to reach Cape Horn; Part Two about my successful third attempt.
I also said that I would not write the book the same way now, but I resist the desire to make changes and let it stand as true to what I was and thought and felt then.
On this last rereading I feel the same and even more so.
I like Part Two. I like the Webb Chiles in Part Two. Less in Part One where there is too much anguish. The portrait is accurate. I was an exposed nerve. It is almost too painful to read, though perhaps Part Two needs Part One as context. Those first two failed attempts, when crossing oceans was new to me, were a crucible in which I was formed and strengthened, though the actual process was both the crucible heat of passion and the washing away of impurities by water.
The real change came not at sea, but during those seven months I was back in San Diego between passages in 1975. As I observed in a brief note in the Kindle edition: The man who sailed from San Diego for Cape Horn in 1975 was the same man who set out in 1974, and he wasn’t. The ‘wasn’t’ is crucial, even while I am struck by how much of me, of my writing, of my fundamental ideas, was there from the beginning:
A sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind.
Time and chance happen to them all.
I want society to be well enough structured so that I can find the edge and live there.
On this rereading I was a little surprised by what I had forgotten.
I was queasy the first week or two of the first attempt.
I do recall that I vomited twice, once a few days out after trying to work out a moon sight. Once much later in the Southern Ocean while down below hand stitching a torn mainsail. But I did not remember vomiting in the Southern Ocean after a capsize. I had been hit in the head by a drawer full of books and may have been concussed.
That was the last time. I never have since.
I didn’t remember that EGREGIOUS sailed as fast as she did. There are many references to her doing ten or eleven knots. She was almost as fast as GANNET.
I did remember that the Aries wind vane was broken as I headed for Tahiti for repairs, but did not remember that it broke again after I left Tahiti, and that I sailed all the way back to San Diego from the Southern Ocean using sheet to tiller steering.
In both instances the failure was of the breakaway coupling, a solution worse than the problem it was intended to solve. Back in San Diego I had the breakaway groove welded over and the coupling never failed again.
I did not remember how much more damage EGREGIOUS sustained on that long trek back from the Southern Ocean after the second round of rigging damage. Side supports broke free of the overhead. All the bolts sheered off at the base of one side of the main bulkhead. The bolts through the mast broken. I am amazed that I reached port with the mast still standing.
I did not remember that I often wrote about being afraid.
I am not now afraid at sea, except for those fortunately rare few seconds when a boat is thrown by a wave and out of control. Fear is usually fear of the unknown, and in STORM PASSAGE the sea was much more unknown than it is to me five circumnavigations later.
And I was afraid then of failure, of being destroyed before I had achieved. As I am not now.
I like to believe that I am a better sailor and writer now than I was then, though there are parts of STORM PASSAGE which I think are very good, and that I am even mentally tougher than the young Webb Chiles.
Of sailing, no furling gear on EGREGIOUS. It was a novelty then and, I thought, unproven. Also I couldn’t afford it.
And I cooked more, believing that freeze dry food uses too much water, which of course it does not.
I note with satisfaction that I estimated before I set out that I would complete the circumnavigation in 200 days. My actual time was 203 days, an error of only 1.5%
Of writing, while I almost steadfastly held to my tenant that the ocean is insentient, I once succumbed to the pathetic fallacy and called waves ‘fierce.’ Shame on me. Certainly not a mistake I would make again.
I often referred to ‘phosphorescence’, now I would write ‘bioluminescence’.
I recorded in STORM PASSAGE my height of 6’ 1”, weight 155 pounds, and resting heart beat of 52 per minute.
Today I have probably shrunk a little, but still call myself 6’1”. Yesterday I weighed 153 pounds. And my resting heart beat is 47.
It can’t be that I’m in better shape now, too.
I read STORM PASSAGE in the Kindle edition on my iPhone. Readers can underline passages in Kindle books, though I myself never do, and if enough readers underline a given passage, somehow Amazon inserts the underline in the book. As an author I was interested to see what had particularly struck others.
Here are the passages underlined by substantial numbers of readers.
I believe in greatness, the heroic, the epic, pride, honor, and my dreams. And I believe the hardest people in the world are not cynics, but those romantics who will not compromise; who insist that their dreams become reality. I am an adamantine romantic. (on my birthday 1974) November 11, 1974
Now I know that what is called genius stems only from an inexplicable innate belief in oneself, which in turn creates a perseverance in one’s efforts that is unfailing. One cannot help but to continue to believe in oneself, so one cannot help but persevere and endure. Once I took those virtues lightly, but they are everything. Everything but luck. December 22, 1974
Sailing a boat without an engine is like working on a high trapeze without a net: there is no room for error. December 24, 1974
My life is reduced to the essentials for which I have longed. I keep alive. I sail. I read books by or about genius. I write. That is all. There is only beauty and greatness here. An exquisite balance of the physical and mental. I am alive as never before. January 2, 1975
That any explanations are necessary, that adventure is no longer understood instinctively, that people have to ask, Why?, is proof of the decline of our civilization. February 10, 1975
In other oceans, you can trim for the average conditions and live through the gusts. In these high southern latitudes— 49°44’South 9l°30’West at noon—you have to trim for the gusts and be content to let the boat sail less than optimally in the average. The gusts are too strong, too dangerous, and too frequent. December 4, 1975
I often think that those men who compromise or abandon their dreams do so from a pathetic inability to imagine their own deaths. They live as though death were optional. I know that I could not contentedly face my death after a life in which I was no more than a lover of women. February 4, 1975
The ancient Greek concept of the tragic flaw is proven once again: my strength has become the instrument of my destruction. March 5, 1975
And here are some passages that struck me, including the definitive answer to ‘why?’.
I was born for this moment and for all the days ahead. November 2, 1974
8:00 P.M. The sea and sky are a painting by Albert Ryder: the sea completely black, the waves completely indistinguishable, except for the phosphorescence which illuminates the cutter’s passage across its surface in an eerie green light. Unexpectedly and irregularly, a wave crests, and the ocean seems to open up to reveal a flash of that same green light shining up from deep within the sea; as though a woman opened a window and as quickly shut it when she saw me too near, as though I were sailing through a city blacked out by its inhabitants so that I would not suspect its existence. The windows open in front of me and close; then to starboard, then ahead again, then behind, and I can almost hear the frantic whispers: “He’s gone. I’ll just peek. Yes.” “No, he’s right there! Draw the curtain! Quickly! Quickly!”
I call down to them. “Don’t worry. I’m sorry to disturb you. I won’t harm you. I don’t even want to be your friend. Just to sail on and leave you and be left in peace.”
Still the windows open and close.
There is no moon, yet the horizon is distinct in every direction; the layer of clouds just above the surface of the sea thin enough to let starlight lighten them not to a shade of grey, but rather a ghostly pallor. And the sky overhead is not as black as the sea below, but is broken into phantasmagorical shapes by the same unknowable light. Unknowable because there is no moon, starlight is not really enough, and yet . . . and yet there can be no other out here a thousand miles from land and man.
As I stand on the companionway steps, my head and shoulders above deck, the bow seems always to be pointing downward; as though we sail down the face of a gradually rising wave, miles down a gigantic crest, sailing not upon—but into—the sea.
November 9, 1974
as I entered the southern ocean for the first time:
There is nothing ugly out here but me; and at this moment when I want for nothing, when I am no longer striving, when I am not in a process of becoming but of being, when I am whole, complete, one, transcendent, I am also transcended and do not exist, except as an essential part of the beauty around me. How incredible that this should happen here as I enter the Forties. How incredible that it should happen anywhere.
The sea is steel-blue and the sky light grey. On the western horizon, a single pale yellow band lingers behind the already set sun. Although it is dusk, there is a sense of dawn, of expectancy, of anticipation. I can easily believe that the world looked like this the first day after creation.
January 3, 1975
THIS morning I am remembering with some embarrassment the thoughts and conversations I had about my motives before I left on this voyage. Almost all of what I said then seems to me now to have been nonsense. I believe that my motives have become apparent in this log and would add only the following passage from The Sea and the Ice, a book I have been reading about Antarctica by the naturalist, Louis Halle:
‘One can only speculate on the reason for the penetration of skuas, penguins, and seals into a region so extensive where no life can survive for long. Among crowded or colonial species of birds, the course of evolution has sometimes produced impulses leading to the dispersion that is necessary if inbreeding is to be avoided. The young feel an impulse, not unknown to the young of our own species, to leave the parental home, to push out into the unknown, to make a new life for themselves beyond the horizon. . . .
Perhaps the impulse that moves skuas and penguins to set out from the rim of the continent ... is not altogether unrelated to the impulse that impelled Captain Cook and his successors to seek a new world beyond the pack ice. That such voyages of discovery, potentially so rewarding, are hazardous, that they take a high toll of life, is true for skuas, penguins, and for man alike.’
I reject all facile labels for myself, and “masochist” even more than “loner” or “suicidal.” One does not come out here to suffer or die, but to live. And I have never been more alive. Pain is the price of my obsession; intensity and pride the rewards.
That any explanations are necessary, that adventure is no longer understood instinctively, that people have to ask, Why?, is proof of the decline of our civilization.
February 10, 1975
A few days ago I read Tolstoy quoting Lermontov:
He in his madness prays for storms
And dreams that storms will bring him peace.
May 15, 1976
In Auckland, Suzanne and I attended an exhibit of Chinese art. One of the objects was a figure holding aloft thirty-two concentric spheres, only the outer half dozen of which were visible, all carved from a single piece of ivory. The satisfaction of the artist upon completing carving all thirty-two spheres and knowing that each—even the innermost which would never be seen—was perfect, is the same as that of a man who completes a solo circumnavigation, who fulfills any dream, even though no one else knows.
I smile to myself as Egregious sails slowly across the dusky harbor; and behind the sea-etched face of the man, a small boy grins because he has made his dream come true.
Egregious man, boat, voyage, life.
The fool smiles and sails on.
May 26, 1976