by Whitt Birnie
‘At sea for forty days and nights. Alone.’
Tell that to someone today and a puzzled expression will surely cross their brow. “Did you have a breakdown, get dismasted, fall overboard? What in heaven’s name happened?” they’ll likely ask, their curiosity piqued.
Well, time marched forward more slowly back then. The rush to arrive at a destination, to achieve a goal, to finish a project was less pressing then, during our previous century. People took more time to savor their journey through life, making free-time a priority above making more money. And therein hangs a tale.
In my youth, I’d fallen headlong for the benefits of exploring the open sea as a vocation. Once, fast asleep on deck, the equatorial night sky a canopy of brilliant tiny points of light overhead, my dreaming far from worldly, I was oblivious to the vessel and it’s progression through the dark void. Out of the depths of this unconsciousness, I was suddenly jerked awake by a loud roar, followed almost instantly by a strange thin mist falling across my exposed face. In the fractions of seconds which followed, I was lost in the unknown, only vaguely aware of my surroundings. Yet, instinct had taught me to cautiously pause and count to three when waking up at sea; any sudden reaction would be dangerous. My brain needed several seconds to reset, reload, to build back the what, where and when, to coordinate.
I wasn’t experienced enough yet to know what was happening. Looking to windward, the sea looked dark, the occasional breaking crest light and audible but not threatening. The night air smelled like low tide and the moisture tasted salty, like saliva. A ready explanation escaped me. Glancing first at the compass, then the sails and finally the lashings on the tiller, I could find no fault, no evidence, no one. I even began to wonder if all this was just a dream, of mermaids, something that happens to sailors far from shore, cut off from the habitual sensations of everyday existence.
In the dark of the moonless night, no lights aboard, with only the stars for illumination, my attention was drawn overboard into a blurry glow deep beneath the surface of the ocean. Tracking below and alongside the vessel, a white glittering form grew brighter and bigger until it stretched the full length of the vessel, just out of reach. Eerie. I was so struck by the novelty of the experience that I momentarily stopped searching for an obvious explanation, devoting all my wits to observation, transfixed.
Then, a flash of recognition arrived. There, gliding just beneath the surface, I finally saw the form of an enormous whale, clothed in glittering phosphorescence, swimming alongside below the waves. ‘The White Whale?’ I shuddered. This is no fiction. Quickly sifting through whatever else might possibly explain this midnight apparition, I shook again as the truth struck home. The sea appeared brighter than all the stars overhead as this enormous creature, a leviathan from the depths, churning the sea’s phosphorescence into brilliance, kept company with the vessel as we drove forward together into the night. Had he come looking for companionship, tempted in close by the silence of the gently sailing vessel with no engine noise? Was he attracted to the rounded form of the sleek hull, illuminated for him by that same ocean phosphorescence, drawn in by the light of the moving orb, fascinated with a sparkling trail astern, glowing like a distant comet’s tail?
It was one of those strikingly brief moments which seemed to last an eternity. Curiosity had replaced any notion of fear. Observation of the phenomena was paramount. The rest of the world disappeared as I fell into a vortex with the white whale, that ‘Moby Dick’. No one had prepared me for such drama at sea, where spectacular events might occur, even in the pitch of night.
The whale headed off silently underwater, beyond the bowsprit and the foresail, swimming under the cover of dark, a mystery, a ‘Secret Sharer,’ to join the unknown. He showed no running lights other than the eerie glow of natural ocean illumination. He must have sounded, but I heard him no more, his presence now just a luminous memory.
From then on, I refused to hurry to get to destinations. It is always life’s voyage which matters most. I took time to slow down, to live at a slower pace, to expose myself to the marvels of nature. Long sea voyages of forty days had every reason to be. The modern world might say I was shirking responsibilities, that I must always press on, become more rapid, more competitive and efficient, to hurry back and forth in life, that I should pour on more coal and set more sail, to avoid their worst imaginable insult, that I’d become a slacker. Forty days? Why did it take so long? What happened?
The long-term result was a search for a more spectacular life afloat than I could find ashore, one filled with the pure and exhilarating thrill of fresh discovery.
by Whitt Birnie
One of life’s greatest pleasures is letting yourself get hypnotized. Adults do it all the time when they lose themselves in lovemaking, or experience a related feeling while sunbathing late in the afternoon on a quiet secluded beach, the warmth and rhythm of gentle waves lapping on the shore casting a spell. It happened for me again just the other evening while concentrating on the cascading undulations of light grass skirts and long dark hair while islanders performed an ancient ritual dance surely invented to hypnotize.
The small town of Papeete is more than a traditional tourist setting. Gathered outdoors under a starry sky, a warm breeze stirring the palms, the barefooted dance groups were entertaining their families, friends and a few curiously idle outsiders in the annual July fête, Tiurai, now called Heiva. Easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm for the refined ‘noble savage,’ very alive in the Fenua, their own natural habitat. Months of effort go into the festival preparations: handmade skirts with decorative headdress, scented leis and flowered tiaras, original choreography of traditional legends, new songs and old chants, all are set and recreated for just this occasion.
Whites of darting eyes gleaming, smiling faces with pearly teeth, slender scantily clad bodies decorated in vivid natural colours, raised arms and the universal hand gestures of primitive storytelling, it’s more than a healthy dose of exotic enchantment. I sensed my mind slipping away as I lost control to an overwhelming power in the native dance. The deep percussion of wooden instruments, blocks and drums, transmitted synchronized sounds at the deepest end of the audible range, the vibrating syncopated rhythms pleasingly loud, entering the body more through the skin than the ears. Only half aware of the others around me, out of the corner of my eye I could see that they were goners too.
And then, all of a sudden, a gentle sprinkling of rain began to fall. No one in the audience moved; we were all under a spell. The dancing female and male bodies, already wet and glistening from exertion, took on a slippery sheen as the cool refreshing droplets encouraged them to redouble their efforts. The dance floor became a shimmering mirror. We were all vibrating with the drumbeats, captivated, the dancers undulating their bodies, throwing wave after wave into their shining grass skirts. Wet, somewhere between warm and streaming, we passed over a bright line into a timeless oblivion. It passed through my mind that I might already be waiting at the pearly gates, these young adult dancers being just the angels I one day hope to see.
There seemed to be a long moment of silence at the end. I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after 250 years, thinking, is this what James Cook and his crew were talking about? Is this why the missionaries were so anxious to intervene? Isn’t this part of the Enlightenment’s idea of the ‘noble savage?’ The silence gave way to bedlam. People started stomping their feet on the bleachers, hollering for more, encore et encore. The dance troupe wore a single smiling and pleasurable expression of utter exhaustion; no one had the energy to move, let alone wiggle their hips.
So there, that’s what the Tahitians do for fun: they write their own songs, then make costumes and musical instruments from what nature grows and gives them. They are unique. They create dances from their Polynesian legends. The world beyond their shores is ignored. They spend months of evenings learning and practicing their art, socializing face to face, getting lots of exercise in all the right places, playfully joking and flirting while acting and dancing with their many close friends, happily laughing and singing and having the time of their lives.
That’s the truth, the whole truth, I tell you no lie. It was a brief glimpse of paradise; I saw angels, I felt an afterglow, I’d witnessed some of heaven’s chosen creatures dance.
by Whitt Birnie
Historical logs, legend, myth, tale and lore have given Tahiti more than a name; Tahiti has become an idea rather than just an island. Credit the writers, artists, sailors, mutineers, producers and movie stars with building an image of what once was, and what it became. But credit the Polynesians with imagination, endurance and hospitality – against all odds, they have survived. They are deeply proud of their culture and love their country, the Fenua, like no other.
It was nearly 250 years ago that navigator James Cook sailed in, introducing the Western world to an exceptional culture. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here, with a stretch of the imagination, is how it might have appeared.
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.”