by Whitt Birnie
Tranquil humpback whale cruising on the surface.
‘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.