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SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans


November 04, 2014

Reflections on a Journey

Ray (Lauren) Vogel, B Watch, University of Chicago

image

Right to left: Bryn, Rebeca, Hugh, Holly, Will, Kate, and the sea. Photo credit: Lauren Korth

Current Position
35° 21’ 31.20” S x 174° 57’ 55.20” E

Weather
Cool and very cloudy.  16 degrees C!  Wooowie, are we out of the tropics!

There is something strange and wonderful nowadays about doing something on deck and glancing past your shipmates to see water lying away to the horizon, all around you, always present.  About night watch, when it is so dark and people wear so many layers that you recognize many of them only by voice; when, as soon as they stop talking and fade away to their various tasks, you are left alone, at helm or on lookout, with only the sky and the quiet, rolling ocean, and the ship below you pulling south into the cold.

As we go about our lives on the Robert C. Seamans, the weather is always at our fingertips, wrapped around our bodies, just above our heads.  It determines everything.  While I was growing up, in a society where we often forego the world around us to pay attention to other things, I felt this connection while sailing.  It taught me to dress for weather and look around for wind on city streets as much as on the water.  On our tall ship home, it is not so much a connection but an immersal: we live and breathe weather, every behavior formed by our environment and how our ship and shipmates respond to its conditions.

As we push on towards New Zealand, previously barren water fills with jellyfish and salps and begins to turn from blue to turquoise to green. With the appearance of islands, the swells settle, chop increases, and suddenly there are birds: first a small brown shearwater, then two different species of albatrosses, then all manner of smaller birds.  A large dark one, maybe a petrel, hangs about for a while.  At dusk there’s a sudden flood of gannets, white with large orange heads and black wing tips, a bird that dives to catch fish.  They stay for half an hour as other birds start heading home, then turn to land themselves.  As twilight deepens, many different kinds of smaller birds start streaming across our bow from left to right, towards the closest islands, though some seem unperturbed by the building wind and increasing darkness and make no move to leave.  There is one tiny one that skips itself over the waves like a rock before diving under for food.  Another is dark on its upper side and white on its lower side, so that as it flies back and forth it seems to change color completely depending on which side is facing us.  The albatrosses and shearwaters fell behind early and still in daylight, but stayed long enough to receive some food scraps, which they argued over with creaking croaks.  The albatrosses sounded very funny, and looked extraordinarily beautiful (if you like very large birds with short tails, large heads, heavy pink beaks, and quite beady eyes).

Darkness brings the first manmade light I’ve seen for a long time: a navigation beacon flashing on a nearby island.  I find myself regretting, watching the sunset over land, that I hadn’t remembered that last night’s sunset was the last we would have at sea.  Already we seem too close to port, all the signs showing that we are coming to the end, and that our bond with the ocean, our complete isolation from all but sea and sky and wind, and each other, is breaking.  But watching the birds shows that we are not alone in being driven by the weather, and that out of sight of land is not the only place this connection to the natural world can flourish.  As the birds move inland, around 90 degrees to the wind direction, the black-white ones fly so that they are vertical wingtip to wingtip.  When their undersides face the wind, they are driven downwind and pushed down in a curve.  When their backs face the wind, they curve up into it.  Like a sailboat tacking back and forth, they flip from side to side as they go, flying in curves to keep course.  A trio of gannets heading in the same direction fly with wings more horizontal, but travel in tandem, wingbeats synchronized, as if using the air currents produced by their leader to ease their flight.

When we return to land and to the lives we have been used to, our habits will likely change.  Wearing five layers, raising and lowering sail, struggling awake at all hours, are, after all, behaviors produced by necessity on board ship, not sought out for their own sake.  But I hope that I take away with me what it was like to live only in the company of the weather, and continue to be aware of it even when not so immersed, to notice what is happening around me in the world I inhabit not just in terms of other people, but in terms of the systems that move and shift things and give the planet life and variety and wonder.

All my love to friends and family!

- Ray (Lauren)

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