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The great teller of sea stories-Tristan Jones-is back, with a new collection of yarns, reminiscences, and adventures never before published in book form. Jones carries us to the sleepy Spanish ports of the 1950s, the pleasures of Buenos Aires in the last days of Peron, and the damp forests of Southeast Asia.
|Publisher:||Sheridan House, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Encounters of a Wayward Sailor
By Tristan Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Tristan Jones
All rights reserved.
In 1953, for the first time I sailed alone. True, the first day of sailing there was little to do, which Andrew, the foreman at the boatbuilding yard, had told me. Nevertheless, on the first morning of departure as I let out the slack of the sheets, I had the deep thrill of having given life, or restored it, to my ship. Even though the yachts I delivered then and later were the property of others, when I was skipper and underway they were always "my ship."
My first delivery was a 38-foot sloop, Alice B. Toklas, from Holland direct to Barbados, where the lady owner would take her over and herself complete the voyage to her home port in Mexico.
My passage down the English Channel was all done on dead reckoning by taking note on the chart of notable coastal features passed. The same across the Bay of Biscay and down the Portuguese coast, to the Canaries. But from Gomera on, it was all ocean sailing. By that time the boat and I were used to each other.
As the island of Gomera dropped astern, Alice B. Toklas' black hull made deeply contented sounds as the sail filled, the great balloon curving voluptuously, a feminine sail if there ever was one. I had a sense of achievement far in excess of both cause and effect as she lunged forward heavily; she was too staid to leap. Sparkling stars of phosphorescence danced down the length of the hull until they met astern and burst together into a cloud of broken light.
I went aft and as the ship was steering herself well enough, the wheel having been lashed (no self-steering gear or auto-helms in those days), I was content to leave it so. The moment was too enjoyable to struggle and trim for the extra knot.
Sitting on the gunwale, I kept an eye on the compass and the sail, only hoping the latter would behave. I was free to walk the heaving deck, happy with our engineless motion, gloating in the company of our spinning log astern. The whole experience was so good that it could not have been broken down into comparisons without spilling some of the happiness. Perhaps it was the nearest I have been to ecstasy. My only regret was that I could not step aside and see Alice B. Toklas in all her newly revered beauty. Every time alone on that wide deck (it seemed wide at the time), that living piece of wood, was of immeasurable importance.
Back then, before self-steering gear was developed, if the wind was at all blustery, or calm, or shifting, I would sail single-handed only when I could stay awake. Otherwise I hove to, backing the staysail and hoisting a small trysail up the mast, so that my little ship stayed practically on the same spot until we resumed our course. It made for slower passages, but safer.
A gentle trade wind caressed our sails as we slipped mile after mile over a lazy ocean. Days were blue, intensely blue, with white, fleeting clouds. But the nights were sublime, unforgettable, with a crescent moon and flickering phosphorescent lights on the horizon. One night, with a soft thud, Alice B. Toklas touched some great fish—perhaps a sleeping whale.
We had no electronic weatherfaxes then. Those first ocean-sailing days I was as close to nature as I'll ever get. I began to rely on instinct as to what the day had in store. I noted the shape and direction of the clouds, and connected them with the weather conditions. The yacht was always creaking and groaning and I soon knew all the different sounds: the slapping as a halyard slackened, the knock of the tiller-rope worked loose, the grinding of the whisker pole as it slipped from its proper position on the mast, the knocking of something adrift in the cabin.
So smoothly did the days flow by in Alice B. Toklas that there was little to report ... unless something out of the ordinary occurred. I wrote up the log only once a day, after plotting my noon position. When the trade wind was steady, the ship steered herself. Below it was comfortable and, with the companionway closed, surprisingly quiet. Only, at the start of the trans-ocean voyage, a ham swinging in the galley thudded against the bulkhead and pots and pans clinked in the locker. I soon got things shipshape and noiseless. A sea occasionally breaking under the counter astern yawed the ship and rumbled beneath the bilge. The water racing by the oak planking only a foot from my ear was the music of a fast passage that brought contented sleep. When I sailed at night it was beautiful beyond description and I ached to prolong the moments into eternity.
So my voyage went; each day of twenty-four hours a little step forward, a dot beyond the last. I seemed always to know the position of the boat, and I saw her moving across the chart, which became a picture before me. We would cut a path just a dozen or so feet wide across the ocean, like a meteor wandering through the solar system.
I got the boat into regular and comfortable weather and a one knot westward-helping stream in the North Equatorial Current, and myself into that routine of sea life which is broken only by storm, another sail in sight (very rare in those days), or the loom of land.
The nights were crowded wonders of stars; the dawns always a promise. Alice B. Toklas went easy, as the sea was easy. There was just enough of a following wind, one time for four days, dead easterly it was, to keep her steady and the boom square in its right place out alee, nor did it shake or swing as boats so often will before a following sea, but went on with a purpose. So she sailed and astern we left a little bubbling wake, which in the darkness had glimmered with evanescent and magic fires, but now, as the morning broadened, could be seen to be white foam. The stars paled for an hour and then soon vanished, and although the sun had not yet risen, it was day.
Then followed days of supreme sailing. The seas piled up on our quarter and we slithered from one white-topped sapphire ridge to the next, driving her to the limit under mainsail and a small spinnaker. I would turn in for four hours' rest at seven o'clock in the evening. Then I would stay at the helm until four in the morning, then turn in for another four hours. And so it went. Sometimes if the wind was steady I would let her steer herself. Then, down below, absorbed in trying to identify the various creakings and galley noises that blended with the rushing sound of the sea on the other side of the one- inch planking, I would fall asleep.
Now, slowly but surely the mark of my little ship's course on the track-chart reached out on the ocean and across it, while at her utmost speed she marked with her keel still slowly the sea that carried her. So the little dots which represented our noon positions advanced over the tracking chart, while the sea and the sky remained to all intents and purposes unchanged. But as the only indications of progress, these dots, however unreal their message, always received my keenest attention.
I thought of the hours I'd spent planning this voyage back in Holland. At the point of an indomitable lead pencil I had traversed vast tracks of ocean in the twinkling of an eye, and explored the furthermost corners of the earth, and if there is a more fascinating evening's entertainment, I should like to hear of it. Rather hazily, each day, I had considered the width of this ocean. Maps and charts make for a sophisticated regard for the wide expanses of the earth, until an entire ocean may be visualized as a few inches on the surface of a map.
Nowadays, ashore, TV seems to have all but made the oceans disappear, except for "environmental" programs or shipping disasters. Now, just about everyone has information on the oceans, but comparatively few know about them; information and knowledge are two vastly different things.
Back to 1953, Alice B. Toklas and the chart: suddenly for the first time, I awoke to the full realization of the enormity of the task ahead of me. Infinity, the old familiar term of school geometry lessons, took on a concrete meaning. It was the distance to Barbados.
I looked over the chart and began to feel horribly microscopic and unimportant and very far from home. It seemed quite impossible that I had come so far. The thousands of miles that lay far ahead often appear insuperable. Distance lends them an aura of awe. But as the voyage progresses, each step is studied and accomplished as an independent chore. Before you realize it, you have succeeded in completing what seemed originally a colossal undertaking; not by one long- sustained effort, but rather by a connected series of short efforts, each one a complete whole. I scaled down the distances from miles to feet, and on this particular passage my ship was seen as but a grain of dust blown slowly over a half-mile plane, a fleck of dust that can cover little more than a hundred feet from sun-up to sun-up.
Then a full gale blew. All that day, Alice B. Toklas raced dead west before the wind, baring her black boot top, climbing and planing with intense effort, her sails curved and gripping the wind as the cotton raked stiff-bunted under the glowing sky. Sunset and she continued to sweep down miles, lurching into the night, which made the swing of the sea appear as a rush of green and bronze, with scattered crests, rolling brass-headed, flaming in hazy light. Alice B. Toklas' bows gashed the living sea, her entire hull bottom thundered. And in the morning, I was still grimly hanging on to the tiller and she was still storming onwards, straining, overeager, a flash of wake screwing astern in the early sunshine, her mainsail skintight and biting at the backstays. Noon found me sextant in hand, taking a last noon sight before landfall on Barbados. She was still moving, and I held her with a stiff helm.
West! It is curious how the land comes up from the sea after a passage of many days across open ocean, a passage the progress of which has been measured until then only upon a chart with penciled lines calculated from much observing of the sun, the moon and the stars, and the working of involved trigonometrical formulae simplified by tables. Slowly the lines on the chart had headed towards the darkened landmass of Barbados on its left hand corner, and for a long time there was nothing but the lengthening lines and water, water, water, which might always be the same, in the same place, only behaving differently, varying in its deceits and its moods.
Now, each noon, when I laid down my latitude, I would ask myself, "How much further to Barbados?" And I would carefully measure from the little cross on the chart in miles, then roughly convert the miles into hours, and hours into literature, and answer myself: "One Oxford Book of English Poetry, one novel by Conrad, one Conan Doyle story." Finally, when Barbados hovered on the horizon, pale and ghostly blue, I started the motor.
Take with a pinch of salt anything told you by anyone who claimed he or she was an expert "celestial navigator," at least in yachts. On such unstable platforms as small craft underway, celestial navigation, using a sextant, was never an easy task, and neither was the result often accurate. There was little expertise but an awful lot of luck. We used to kid ourselves that we were experts and that for us it was easy, but we were wrong. Each sextant session was a fussy project, with each result, unless land was in sight, in doubt, as to accuracy of instrument, timing or angle. Over many parts of all oceans there were radio blind spots, where time signals could not be obtained. We still relied on chronometers, and these could be anything up to several minutes in error.
On one occasion, many years later, while navigating in the Red Sea, I had found myself, according to my celestial calculations of longitude, to be within the (forbidden to infidels) walled city of Mecca. This error was probably due to the heat of the sun causing intense evaporation from the coral reefs which extend way out into the sea, and so causing undue refraction. Even dead-reckoning should not be relied on too much. Once, on a foggy day in Long Island Sound, I found my boat supposedly, according to my chart and a street-map of New York City, sitting on top of a skyscraper on the West Side of Manhattan.
When the time came to take a sight of some celestial body or other, you opened your sextant case, and invariably wondered at how beautiful both the case and the instrument inside it had been made. How intricate it was, with its bright arc so cleanly and minutely graduated. Once or twice, in a crewed yacht, you might see, oxidized on the silver, someone else's thumbprint, and know that curiosity had been afoot. But not even for that would you polish the sextant arc; the stain of the thumbprint would less obscure the graduations of the arc than the erosion of polishing. Then you would carefully clamber topside with the sextant case held like the Holy Grail. You would find a safe place to set down the case. You would take your sextant in hand, twist your legs around the halyards or stays, brace your shoulders between them, and resting one eye as it were on that fixed point of the absolute, the sun, and the other on the immutable horizon of this earth, find by tri- angulation "where I am."
Navigation under sail, using the Pilot books (based on the work of men long gone) and sextant, does strange things to one's view of the world. It is not merely a method of finding one's way—it is an extension of our minds into the heavens, and an extension of our minds into the past, so that for a while we are contemporaries of the long dead. The long night-watches alone are eminently adapted to draw out the reflective faculties. No one who does not comprehend and appreciate these facts can ever understand the mind of an ocean sailor.
Then one day from the whited chart and from the water the land stands up. It was there. It has not only its existence in the dark outlines on the chart; it is a different land from that we left. It is the land to which we have been bound.
That Barbados had appeared where it should and when it should, caused me, even to myself, to endeavor to conceal my surprise under a mask of indifference, implying that I had never seriously doubted the reliability of my navigation. But deep down I knew the truth: all that had allowed any reliability to my navigation and safe arrival was God, the boat builders, the weather, and a great big chunk of luck.
I don't recall any special feeling of triumph on my first trans-oceanic landfall. I'm pretty certain, though, that I wouldn't have felt as satisfied as I did if I'd been merely pushing buttons to find out where I was.
In Barbados, the lady-owner and her two women crew took over Alice B. Toklas alright, very capably, too. She was a generous soul. After feting me royally around Kingstown, she presented me with a nice fat tip. Unfortunately her boat never made it home to Mexico. Off Belize she was wrecked in a hurricane. The lady and her crew, however, somehow survived.CHAPTER 2
Sunsets and Storms
When I think of the surroundings of the ocean sailor, all the variety, my mind boggles. He sees things that most city-dwellers can only dream of. Dawns which come up with fiery red splashes over seas of nickel, skies clear except for a solitary gun puff of cloud, seas crinkled silver, water as unfathomable, to us simpler souls, as the black holes between the stars at night.
I remember times in the northern latitudes when the wan and sickly daylight lasted a bare three hours, sometimes less, out of the twenty-four. For the rest of the time I was plunged into complete darkness, a cold, hail smitten darkness, black as the Earl of Hell's riding boots. Then there were times when the wind, having gone by dawn, left behind it a damp, sniveling day, brightening and darkening with hysterical indecision and always on the edge of tears. There were the clear, cold skies overhead that looked like a steel blue cymbal that might ring should you smite it. How I recall those clear blue skies in the moderate latitudes. Off Cornwall, where, with the sun high overhead in summer, there would be a fresh edge to the air, a hint of an approaching autumn and time to head off south. The sky was a hard, cloudless blue, and the coast and the inland hills stood out in sharp scraped lines.
Excerpted from Encounters of a Wayward Sailor by Tristan Jones. Copyright © 1995 Tristan Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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