Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Evanston: WARTIME WRITINGS; 'must haves'; Laphroaig Christmas carols
In the last few months I have reread most of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s books: SOUTHERN MAIL; NIGHT FLIGHT; WIND, SAND AND STARS. I just finished one I had not read before: WARTIME WRITINGS: 1939-1944. Presumably you know that the war lasted until 1945. Saint-Exupéry did not. He was shot down on a photo reconnaissance mission over southern France on July 31, 1944, at age 44, far beyond the age permitted for such flying. Being famous, he used his connections to abrogate the rules.
WARTIME WRITINGS is a book that was never intended to be a book. It consists mostly of letters Saint-Exupéry wrote during the war; the texts of a few speeches; introductions to two books, one his own THE LITTLE PRINCE, the second LISTEN, THE WIND by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which caused me to order a copy of the book as well as another of her’s, NORTH TO THE ORIENT, both about flights she made with her husband examining possible commercial air routes; and some observations from those who knew him during the war. Not all of this is interesting, but most of it is.
I flatter myself that I have some things in common with Saint-Exupéry. We are both writers: he famous; I not; and we both have a trade other than writing at which we are skilled: he flying; I sailing boats alone across oceans. At one point he notes that he has 6,500 hours flying time which made me wonder how many hours I have sailing. Considering that there are 8760 hours in a year and that I have spent at least eight or nine years total at sea, I have 70,000 or 80,000 sea hours. We both also have a need for purity of experience: he frequently expressed the desire to retire to a monastery after the war; I frequently enter the monastery of the sea.
A few passages in the book particularly impressed me.
Saint-Exupéry is quoted as having said that danger and solitude are the two factors that go to form a man’s character.
I don’t think there is much solitude in most people’s lives.
We are an odd species: herd animals who know that we are truly alone and most fear being so.
In a letter dated December 1, 1940 he wrote:
Guillaumet is dead and tonight I feel I have no friends left.
Age overtakes us so speedily! I’m the only member of the old Casablanca-Dakar team (from early days flying the mail) remaining alive.
He then names thirteen of his fellow pilots. He, the only survivor, was only age forty.
An incident described by Jean Israel:
Taking advantage of a beautiful starless night, the squadron leader of Group 2/33 decided that the evening of January 12,1940 would be used to practice night landings. The pilots had to land without floodlights, with the sole aid of restricted ground lights showing a landing axis.
Saint-Exupéry was one of the pilots taking part in this training. An error of interpretation of the line of ground lights made him follow a flight-path that brought him head-on into the path of a truck carrying a spare floodlight. A few feet from the ground, seeing the ground lights disappear, he realized there was a dark obstacle straight in front of him.
To stop a plane’s descent, you have to maneuver by pulling on the stick; the descent tails off and is followed by ascent. Saint-Exupéry instead pushed the stick forward. The plane nose-dived, its wheels hitting the ground hard, and it rebounded over the obstacle, while the pilot revved the engine to gain altitude and circle the field once more.
Any other maneuver would have been useless; the plane was too near the ground and would have crashed into the truck.
Saint-Exupéry did not have to “invent” this maneuver. He had merely applied—with incredible presence of mind—a lesson learned in his days with Aéropostale. At the time he was flying single-engine planes of delicate construction, and forced landings in the countryside were quite frequent. If the landing site chosen turned out—at the last moment—to be traversed by a ditch, you had to hit the ground hard with the wheels to bounce over the ditch.
Let no one tell me that Saint-Exupéry was not a good pilot. I was sitting in the front seat of the plane that night!
A sailor wrote asking about gennakers and furling gear. I told him about my experience with asymmetricals and Facnor gennaker furling gear and of the ProFurl Spinex that should be awaiting my return to New Zealand. Part of his next email contained: “Expensive, but seems a must for a single-hander crossing oceans.” I thought about that for a while and then wrote:
Furling gear and even spinnakers are not a 'must'. You can cross oceans with no more than a jib and a mainsail and I mostly do. On the passage from San Diego to Hilo, Hawaii, the head of my asymmetrical blew out early on due to poor workmanship by the sailmaker. I still made a good passage under jib and mainsail.
At my age my sailing budget is ample. If I were young and had more limited resources, I'd sail without off wind sails and furling gear if necessary.
Though certain sails and equipment make life easier, there are very few 'musts'. Far fewer than most people believe. My boats have long been three sail boats: fully battened main, small furling jib and an asymmetrical. But far more than 90% of the time I sail under just main and jib. It is better to go to sea with less than wait too long or not go at all.
Friends named Tim send me links to Laphroaig commercials. This one of the Laphroaig Whisky Christmas Choir came from Tim the Rigger. I thank him and wish all of you a happy and peaty holiday and a splendid 2016.