by Whitt Birnie
Going to sea
The sea hit me like a wave breaking on the shore. It drew me in. The attraction was irresistible, almost like falling deeply in love for the first time. The feel of spray on the skin, the wind whistling around the ears and tickling the hair, the aroma and novelty of smells, the music of rhythms and sea sounds, the warmth and excitement of the natural world, all combined to drive me insane with desire.
Admittedly, all the pre-conditions were right. Young, I’d lost my first love to her own spirit of adventure. Idealistic, a well-paying job in NYC had lost its appeal when I realized my salary was produced by viciously exploiting workers, especially women. I couldn’t stand it; I needed change, a better world, and new passion to consume me.
I’d acquired a foreign flag vessel in a steamy South American port, and started learning the ropes for my first ocean passage. For crew, I’d met a sweet French gal who’d studied in the islands and I knew would make good company, but the authorities, the Port Captain, wasn’t impressed. “You need a professional crew,” he would say, meaning a navigator, helmsman and cook, “but you’re not going to sea with your girlfriend.” My Spanish improved considerably as I worked on the grammar and vocabulary needed to sway him, but my persuasive attempts only half-succeeded. “No girlfriend,” he finally said, citing my sea inexperience, “but it’s your vessel, so you could go alone.” That thunder echoed so loudly in my ears that I dropped companionship plans and immediately changed tack; I could hopefully find another gal, but I could never find another opportunity like this. I’d gone totally loony.
Within a few short months of preparation, I’d mastered the relatively simple calculations of sight reductions, that is, using a sextant and chronometer to determine latitude at sea. Longitude and celestial navigation were coming along well. Instead of just looking up at the stars at night, I was methodically learning their names, so I could measure their heights over the horizon, time their passage, and then plot them on a chart.
I became single-minded. Companionship hardly mattered. My mind became consumed with planning ahead; where I’d go, what I’d need, how to confront the worst dangers. Suddenly I was deep-down happy inside; excited, full of anticipation, laughing at my past errors, caught up in the joy of discovery and adventure.
In time, having learned the techniques, numerous barriers fell by the wayside, were bypassed, overcome or ignored. I awoke one fine morning far from land, realizing I’d become a different person. Two weeks at sea, land a few thousand miles astern, more and more of the same ahead, my first sea voyage was to last more than a month, with many more to follow. The wind and sea had embraced me and gently taught me where to look and what to do. The sailboat had kindly tamed me, showing me how to treat her, soothing the motions when I acted wisely, slapping me down when I wasn’t concentrating or didn’t remember a vital lesson, but always responsive, always showing me the right way. I became entranced.
Departures for high adventure are like that: last-minute surprises, wise advice taken, lessons learned and applied, high risks evaluated, adapting to change, impulsive decisions. I fell in love with the sea because society had disappointed me. I wasn’t running from anything, I was looking for something to fill a void in my mind and my heart, and I found it in ships, islands and the sea.
Another “home from the sea.”