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NEW YORK TO PANAMA
HALF-BACKS swathed in bath robes, butterflies in chrysalids, spads in their hangars,—these and other similes came to mind as I shivered on a dirty Brooklyn wharf one day in late February, and walked down between dense lines of unlovely snowy sheds,—winter camouflage of the aristocracy of yachts. A magic word had been spoken and had awakened one of these from a two years' hibernation, and when I saw it first it was stripped of its housing, and slowly rising from the icy waters, exposing the sheer heights of its crimson keel, encrusted with sea-moss and barnacles acquired in alien seas on voyages of other years.
Our first boarding was memorable, by means of a ladder let down into the water, with the top hauled back and forth by means of ropes and overenthusiastic longshoremen, while the passengers clung tenaciously to this inverted pendulum, swinging through a sixty degree arc of bitter air.
She was the Noma, with a two hundred and fifty foot water line, luxuriously fitted, and a bowsprit with a real figurehead. For weeks we planned and made lists and crossed the items out; we weighed and appraised, rejected and chose among friends for a suitable staff and party. Our plan was to spend two months and a half; to steam to Panama, on through the canal to the Pacific, and straight to the Galápagos Islands, six hundred miles off Ecuador, for notes and photographs and specimens alive or dead of all interesting creatures which might come to eye or ear or aquarium, to lens, net or gun, throughout the trip.
Of the preparations I shall tell nothing; the joys of these are too holy for cold phrases; nor of the imagination which can look through a camera lens in a New York store and see future bird or insect or atoll mirrored therein, or along an unpurchased gun barrel and see adumbrated shapes of trophies to come, or can fill the dry meshes of a net with living fish passing all jewels for beauty, and human affairs for interest,—before these, the written word pales.
At 1.30 on March first, 1923, the Noma was towed from her berth, out through a narrow lane of other yachts. Just across the pier the Corsair, boarded up in tenement garb for the winter, watched us dully through unshiplike windows, envious perhaps of the trim, cleared sister setting out for unknown seas. All winter the big yachts had slumbered here, bound by hemp and wire thongs, mere lifeless extensions of the mundane piers. Now as we passed, we realized that time as well as space had special meanings for these beings of the sea,—wholly different from that which passed over or separated the sordid buildings of the city's front. We tinkled three bells, and all the hooded, housed, cribbed and confined yachts sent back muffled echoes—three, three, always three. And yet all the clocks and chimes and churches of the great city were silent. These alert homes of the open waters marked even the half hours, while land folk were content to notice only hours.
As we cleared the pier, an English sparrow flew down upon our bowsprit, a smudged and sooty bird, humped with cold, and garrulous with the obscene gossip of longshore life. And only when he saw open water between our bow and the shore did he give a contemptuous flirt of his wings, and leave. He was of one mind with the three members of the crew who had signed on, drawn two days' pay, and deserted when they learned we were going to wild lands. We were well rid of them all, feathered and otherwise. If I could know the inmost feelings, each particular urge of going, of all of us who were left, this chapter would be an epic. Even at this moment I could tabulate idle curiosity, and love of travel without the curiosity, restlessness, the sea, science, besides which there were incipient explorers, whalers, gentlemen adventurers and buccaneers. The least conscious was one of these inhibited pirates, of whom I hoped great things in the way of mental atavisms.
Slowly we backed out into mid-stream and turned, all at the will of the fussy tugs. Then they relaxed their hold, drew off, waited, and like a queen ant on her one day of days, the great yacht awoke and started under her own power. Solicitously one big tug followed and in the lower bay stood by while we described slow, dignified circles, adjusting our compasses. As the last turn was made, some little insignificant thing happened deep, deep down in the vitals of the ship, and she drifted uselessly, helplessly—changed in an instant from a living, vital creature to a floating mass of impotent metal. Whatever it was, it required very painstaking adjustment and for two days we remained anchored within sight of our city's towers. In the daytime the Woolworth building rose like a dim, grey, smoke wraith, and Staten Island's water front brought no joy to our eyes. But at night the horizontal constellations of lights might have been the sampan lanterns of the Yangtze or the flares of a village of Sea Dyaks. And the full moon was the same which had in the past, and would again sift down to me through alien jungles, or be reflected from the glistening sands of trackless deserts. A few over-familiar herring gulls flew past on their way to some common roost on Long Island sands, and there seemed no thing of novelty in this humiliating anchorage—rocking in the wash of ferry-boats and of tandem garbage scows.
Idly I watched the harbor flotsam drift past on the tide, patches of straw, barrel hoops, crates and bottles, heart-warming relics of the attempts of worthy bootleggers. The gnomes in the heart of the vessel had ceased their pounding and anvilling for a while, and in the silence I heard sweet music from the polluted water below me. Looking closely I saw a host of little icebergs drifting past, none more than a yard across, each sending forth crystalline tinklings, some on a higher tone, some lower, until the air was filled with the sound of their tiny crashing cymbals. They had come into being far up the Hudson and were now rapidly disintegrating in the higher temperature of the salt water. Their eight under water parts were thick and pale grey, but to the eye they appeared flat and disklike, the ice in the air being thin as paper, scalloped and pocketed with circular cutouts. The ripples lapped against these tissue sheets of hardened water, and rang and tinkled and clinked the strange swan song of the berglets as they passed, mingling with the silent, drab jetsam of the city.
During the first few days on the NomaI realized the possibilities of a yacht when rushed into commission after a two years' rest. I also came to appreciate the fact that sailor's lore is achieved by conscientious trial and error, and not by instinct. Only one among the fifty-eight members of the officers and crew had ever sailed on the Noma before, and the multiplicity of levers, faucets, gadgets, handles, trapdoors, wheels and general unlabelled mechanical temptations to pull, twist or push, had all to be tried and learned by pragmatic methods. The engines were wonderful in their silence and lack of vibration, in fact they were the only part of the yacht's anatomy to which we never gave thought. Otherwise the Noma was for a time an habitation of ten thousand sounds. Dinner bells rang which had no connection with either stewards or meals, tappings came at doors from empty cabins, and squeaks from mouseless holes. So one morning when I distinctly heard a low sweet warble outside the sun parlor, I mentally added it to the list of Things heard and went on with my work. A few minutes later I found that this time the Noma was innocent; my ears had registered truly and a Maryland yellowthroat blown on board during the night had sung a little hymn of thanksgiving at finding sanctuary.
The water supply for the first week would alone have kept ennui at a distance. Four kinds of baths were possible in my tub,—hot dirty fresh, cold dirty fresh, hot dirty salt and cold dirty salt, and by comparing notes I found that I had vanilla in color while my neighbor had chocolate. I came to look upon my basin supply as a thing to respect, mistrust, even to fear. The faucet marked "cold salt" would usually yield a gentle flow of hot fresh, when suddenly without warning, a blast of mingled air and water would burst forth, with such force that I would be transfixed against the wall. Occasionally in the dead of night a faucet would begin to trickle all by itself, and so deeply was the crime of wasting fresh water implanted in our Noman moral code, that upon such an occasion several ghostly figures more or less awake would appear headed faucetwards to quench the inexplicable nocturnal flow.
The first morning my fresh water ran freely, but refused to be shut off without the aid of the ship's carpenter; in other cabins this fluid obstinately refused to leave its receptacle deep in the yacht, so the inmates shaved with Poland water, feeling like old Roman Exquisites with their baths of cream or other unusuality. The day we left Key West we took on forty tons of fresh water and promptly lost it in the depths of the ship. It was there, everyone had seen it come, and the boat did not leak, but it hid until half the crew had searched diligently and at last located the outlet, gave it air, and made it available. The electric supply was constant but permitted the water supply no handicap in eccentricity, as when the lighting of the pseudo open coal fire caused the player piano to cease functioning.
All this was but the harmless hazing which school-boys practice upon a newcomer, or natives upon a tenderfoot, later to become closest of friends; and when the Noma had had her practical jokes, had spilled water upon our heads, frightened us with restless ghosts and fooled us with wrongly labelled directions, she gathered us close to her, set her face resolutely to the sea, unflinchingly braving the dangers of the open waters—the same unchanged ocean which once dashed its spray over the great carven bows of Viking ships, and just one hundred and fifty-seven thousand and ninety days ago floated the high poop of the Santa Maria within sight of its unnamed goal.
I had thought it would be an easy matter to write of the feel of the soul of a yacht, but I had believed the same of an active volcano, and both reduced me to stark, trite statements of fact, statistical mouthings, futile superficial gossip; while the deep, real emotions came and went, vivid, full of gasping realization, which settled and passed into experience, only to reawaken to new enthusiasms. There (I once said) was smoke and fire of actual Mother Earth, the same primeval conflagration raging in the volcano as in the sun and the comets,—by grace of the partial cooling of which we contrive to live and breathe and creep about; here was an ocean steamer in miniature, not owned by an impersonal, unknown company of strangers, upon which for a fixed sum of money I was vouchsafed a cubical and three meals a day.
The only imaginative satisfaction I ever gleaned from such reciprocity was the elaborate fine print absolution of the steamship company from responsibility for loss of or injury to the passenger arising from perils of the sea, rivers or navigation, mutiny, pirates or other public enemies, barratry of master and crew, negligence of the company's servants, defects in the machinery, gear or fittings, or Act of God. I have always loved the word "barratry" and its fascination was increased by my absolute ignorance of its meaning. Recently I decided to sacrifice one of its charms and I find it defined as what the master of a ship does when he injures or slays the owner or passengers by running away with the vessel, sinking or deserting her, deviating from the fixed course or embezzling the cargo. I have hopefully suggested barratry to several fat, jolly captains but with absolutely no success. As to the final threat of interest and excitement on the trip, an "Act of God" seems to mean anything thrilling that a reasonable man cannot think of. Only mayhem is omitted as far as I can see, and in spite of my newly aroused hopes at the beginning of each voyage, the list of possibilities proves as unreal and unrealized as the navy recruit posters on sidewalk easels, or the what-men-will-wear in the theatre programs.
Here, however, on the Noma, was a real home, for what period of time did not matter, for when the past and present of any given experience are perfect, the future, even before it filters into the present, potentially reflects its superlative. Here, with a dozen congenial friends, I shared an nth power raft, which made of the earth a mere revolving cyclorama. I had travelled around the world, I had gone to strange and distant places; now these were to come to me,—Mohammed's peripatetic mountain, Macbeth's ambulatory woods, Aladdin's magic carpet, these were become real, and not in any anæmic Chautauquan sense; with Monsieur Perrichon I felt like exclaiming with superlative conceit, "Moi et Mont Blanc!" Such magic had hitherto existed for me only in Jules Verne, or been laboriously achieved by dint of hired board and lodging in floating hotels, with hosts of "thrust-upon" companions. In my many exploring trips I had had infinitely greater responsibilities, more actual power of decision, but never such concentrated, unegotistical appreciation of the power of man, as now, having chosen and spoken aloud to my friend the word "Galápagos" and watching my circular vignette of the waters off Atlantic City, to know that one day in the near future, after filtering between two continents, I would look out of this same porthole and see framed some of the "two thousand craters" of which Darwin wrote so surpassingly. And all this magic was being wrought by a friendship which saw in me a poor instrument, with at least the will and desire to unlock a few new facts of science. The Noma was a perfectly appointed palace, the host ideal in thoughtfulness, patience and optimism; there remained as a never-failing drab background, the conviction of my brain's inadequacy, the untold opportunities which I would let slip, the trip of trips which I might achieve, had I only that inspiration which, to my poor mentality, in future, present and past is respectively always obscure, impotent and obvious.
It was close to the darkest hour when men die most easily that the Noma finally awoke to perfect life and carried us out to sea, and in that moment all her eccentricities passed from mind. Without vibration or tremor she slipped swiftly through the water and as even in this calm weather I lay in my berth and watched the water swirl green and white past and over the porthole glass, I first knew that real intimacy with the sea which only a submarine or a yacht such as this can give. The musical tinkle of the miniature ice floes was gone, but in its place throughout the night there came to my ears the soft swish and gurgle of troubled waters, mysterious and fascinating. It gave a thrill of adventure to look over the rail and see the surface so close, and to realize that at last we were in open ocean and headed for wild equatorial zones. To watch her bow and outreaching figurehead cut through the moonlight, compensated for such incongruities as brass beds and imitation open fireplaces. We already loved her, for she was taking us through, not over the sea, and no better phrase could be found for any experience in life.
On a trip of exploration such as ours, there are three phases of interest and excitement,—anticipation, realization and retrospection,—and if we had nothing else to do, and no more trips to look forward to, we might even subdivide these and pad our account with the varying emotions of each. But there is one single moment which is never quite duplicated, although higher fever-heat levels of enthusiasm may subsequently persist for weeks. This is the moment when the first specimen is secured. It may be a very common, ordinary creature, its accession may be by accident or intention, it may be carefully labelled and preserved, or it may die and be lost an hour after capture; but in its supreme effect, it is unique.
Excerpted from Galápagos, World's End by William Beebe. Copyright © 1951 William Beebe. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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