Story Publication logo July 13, 2007

Neptune Speaks

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Jeffrey Barbee set off Across The Great Divide with boat maker/Captain Andre Watson and first mate...


Day 23, Thursday, July 12, 2007

So no sooner did I say we are in a bit of a wasteland as far as animals go, than no less then 1 or 2 thousand dolphins passed us with a purpose (or shall I shall I say porpoise?) around 3pm, an hour after a huge Marlin, perhaps 2 or 3 meters long, was following the boat for 20 minutes or so, and just before we saw a truly large leatherback turtle holding on to a piece of what looked like bamboo. He even raised up his head to have a look at us as we went past. Alas, when the dolphins erupted near the boat, I was below, working on some of my editing, but I emerged just in time to see waves of them, thousands, nearly stretching from horizon to horizon, disappearing behind us and some stopping to play in our bow wave. One close to us had a large white transmitter on his (or her) back. I ran out in such a hurry that it was impossible to get the camera out of the waterproof bag where I stow it, so unfortunately no footage, but what a sight! That must rank as one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. It's comforting to know that they get together in such numbers. Deon, who was on deck at the time, says that they came like waves, and appeared almost out of nowhere. The wind kept right today, and it was the first day of the trip where we had not a cloud in the sky for a few hours. Tomorrow we cross the line, and there is always something horrible that happens to a new sailor (me in this case) cooked up by the rest of the crew. In the old days it used to be tarred and feathered, but Andre hates a mess, so maybe I will get off lightly. Got to snooze and read a bit and get some sleep before watch.

Day 24, Friday, July 13, 2007

So it's my Dad's birthday today. He is 65 this year, and we share a common love of the sea, particularly sea-faring novels, especially those by Patrick O'Brian. He is along on this journey through the Internet with me. The books are the stories of the great days of sail, when the British navy controlled most of the seas of the world not out of quality ships and well-trained men, but by sheer numbers. Their naval yards turned out some of the worst skows ever built, but they sailed and they turned them out quickly. There were some very well made ships, but none so good as captured French ships. From that time we have a host of phrases, like caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, or leeway. Its leeway we are doing right now, and a lot of it. When a ship has the wind on her side, or she is in a current, she not only travels forward but also slips sideways. A well-made ship does not slip sideways very much. We are in a current that travels from east to west, quite quickly. So we point our bow almost northeast and we manage to carry on in a strait line almost northwest. Ours is a well made ship, but with currents like the one we are trying to get across, its like swimming a river, you will get pulled downstream no matter how great a swimmer you are. Imagine, to be without an engine to get us out of tight places, and if our leeway was not greater than the angle at which we could travel off a nearby shore. We could do nothing, and the wind would drive us against that shore. That is called a lee-shore. Namibia is a notorious lee shore, that's why the Skeleton Coast has so many shipwrecks. Liberia also has a lee-shore type system at certain times of the year. We are coming up fast on the bulge of Africa, and we passed the Line today. I got judged by Neptune, played by Deon in a full gown and crown with a fork. The bulge of Africa is a confused sea place, and we can expect crosscurrents, land weather interacting with sea weather, and there is also the threat of Pirates. Our course will take us about 200 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone and some other West African places that would be better to miss. So hopefully we will not run into any unpleasantness on the high seas, and we will get through these two intersecting currents. The wind has been strong from the southeast still, and we are all surprised what good time we are making.

Day 25, Saturday, July 14, 2007

We are in the Doldrums, but in fact, there is water rushing past the hull and the wind has kicked up again a bit. I have been going through sailing for beginners and now into intermediate training. I know what a clew is, that a sheet is not a sail, and that Port is not the right side of the ship. Today passed like a wildfire in the Colorado summer. Gone. I think I remember what I did, or was that yesterday? I am pretty sure I will be doing the same thing tomorrow too…and probably the next day. Its like time has slowed down, and in doing so the moments that differentiate our days have become fewer and time seems to pass without me realizing it. Maybe I am going nuts…a seasickness of the mind. I wonder if that is what getting older is like. I am definitely getting wiser (at least about the sea) and getting a lot less sleep than I am used to. We are off the coasts of Sierra Leone and Liberia, about 200 miles offshore. We passed an oil tanker, coming for some of Africa's wealth, like the west has done ever since they landed and got bitten by their first mosquito. Too bad all that oil wealth doesn't end up in the schools and roads and Universities of this beautiful continent. But I have touched on this subject before, and although it bears repeating, I am not getting that old quite yet. But its funny, I worked on a long project for the Levine Museum in the US about people in Africa who use containers. They make little clinics, shops, restaurants, pretty much anything that needs a secure door and locks that can be moved. In Kampala, Uganda I saw a three-story hotel made up of 9 stacked containers, and in Kayelitsha, the township outside of Cape Town, there is a 7 high vertical stack that is used as an outdoor movie theater. The ingenious and resourceful use of what is considered packaging by the western world also has a social commentary side to it. Africa doesn't produce many things that are shipped in containers. For that you need good electricity, roads, education, a 40-hour workweek, assembly lines and all the accoutrements of a manufacturing economy. No, Africa ships most of its materials out in bulk oil tankers, bulk food carriers, in the holds of ships. But Africa is changing, growing, economies in Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya and others are all booming. People there want things, things like TVs and tennis shoes, books, and basketballs, so containers arrive from all over the world, but mostly from China. It costs about 800 dollars to ship a container across the world. If someone justifies costs to a product by saying it's the shipping that cost them…they are lying. But, it also costs about 900 dollars or so to make a new container. So often the containers arrive in Africa, and with nothing to fill them to defray shipping costs back to China, the containers are sold for about 800 dollars each. Still a hefty price for one in Africa, but not outside the reach of the up and coming middle class, who may turn it into a fried chicken franchise (in Diepsloot near Johannesburg) and get their cousin to run it. I guess my point is that the container is a perfect illustration of the divide between reach and poor, the north and the south. We can see the difference, see the problem, but what can we do about it? A good start would be to only trade with countries that have good governance, a free media, and some semblance of the rule of law. This might sound like knee-jerk liberalism in all its ugly duckling glory, but the fact is that economics are a powerful force for change. The old white South African government knew that too well in the end. That we should somehow justify propping up the openly evil government of Jose Dos Santos in Angola because we want their go-juice is downright wrong no matter what sort of ethical back flips you try to make to justify it. That we should go a step further and provide the Angolan government with information about opposition groups in case those groups took power and actually wanted to keep some of the country's oil wealth in the country, that's…well that's a dirty evil underhand thing to do with US tax dollars. If people thought a bit more about the blood money and the suffering they pump into their cars, and less about what the Jones' are thinking, we might actually have a chance to wean people off petrol and into something cleaner like electrics. If you have a chance, see "Who Killed The Electric Car". Great, very watch able movie by a bunch of owners of electric cars, about how they were given these great cars and then they were taken away, including Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. Ok enough ranting, but if we cannot master our addiction to petroleum, it will kill us.

Day 26, July 15, 2007

It's been a good day, got the St Helena footage edited and cut and sent away. It's a lot of little bits of work rolled into one, and now I am getting material organized for our arrival in Dakar in a few days time. I expected this leg to take much longer, maybe 14 or 15 days. So we are fortunate so far and our luck holds. So far. After my long rant about containers last night, I was thinking how utterly ironic it would be that one of those containers might be waiting in our path, even now, lolling the ocean, just under the surface of the sea, held up by the air trapped in it. It may have fallen off a ship like the some that we have seen, in a bad storm. Maybe its been out here a while, covered in briny bits of sea life. It could be home to a myriad of little species, all of whom would have no understanding of the 11 tons of Kevlar and Fiberglass that wiped a small number of them out as it ripped off the round 5 tons steel bullet of the keel of our hull, broached the boat with the weight of the mast and bit deep into the ¼ inch skin of the boat's bottom. No one who sails in yachts thinks this too outlandish a possibility. I don't think of it often, but its there sometimes, in the back of the mind. I guess there is a much greater chance of getting in a car crash 5 minutes from home, but that lacks the spectacular scare of hitting a sunken steel object in such a soft shell, deep in the ocean, far from home and country. It has all the attendant fears in place, fear of the unknown, fear of the things you know but can't change, fear of being lost alone in the cold wet dark, fears. I wonder if human beings need fear to assist in the continuation of culture. I am wading deep into territory that has been trod by the greats of literature, the Dostoyevsky's and many others, who are much more at home in these deep waters, but it seems to me that humans are only capable of coming together on a broad scale when they are reacting collectively to fear. That may be a shame, but it is at least partly true. Why hasn't global climate change affected people with a fear that prompts action? Is it the lack of a sure smoking gun? Mass myopia perhaps? The thinking that maybe we face an impossible task? I always thought that when we started losing US cities to weather phenomenon, then surely people would wake up and smell the exhaust. How can we look at any of our supposed impregnable empire again and believe this is permanent after what happened to New Orleans? So I have it… we need a collective container-like image to hang our collective fears on. I can't think of one. Floods, widespread melting, methane releases on a global scale, storms, cataclysm, societal collapse, searing heat waves, the end of our hydrocarbon economy, why don't these themes carry that ponderously deadly container-like image? These are exactly what a very famous ice-core researcher working in Antarctica suggested to me as events not for the next couple hundred years but in the next 50.

So we are careening along outside…the water is rushing past faster and faster as I write this entry, and I feel the boat starting to ramp off the waves as well. Hard not to notice since the computer is bouncing out of my lap now. Since my mother, bless her patient heart, is probably going to read this, I must assert here that very few ships go down from hitting containers, and the ones that do you don't hear from so the statistics are very low. I am speaking more figuratively here, Mom so don't worry overly much, but please, please do buy that hybrid. If only as a message to Toyota and the rest of those silly car makers that there is indeed a market for something other than a huge gas guzzler. I think I have a word for that looming collapse my morose scientist friend cried into his beer about. I am going to call it the crunch.

Day 27, July 16, 2007

I am sweating like a pig in my bunk. Its hot, and very damp. I can't open any of my windows because the storms outside are thumping us every way to Wednesday. I am suffering from a slight malaise. It's been a fast crossing but the three of us together, and particularly the captain, are all starting to wear on each other. Its inevitable in such a confined space and hopefully we will get it all together and be happy chappies in the next few days. Otherwise things are going fine so far and we wait to see how long we will be in Dakar. Hopefully only a day to pick up our fourth sailor and then on to the islands! Snoozing now in my sauna…

Day 28, July 17, 2007

It's still hot but at least I can open the portholes for a few minutes. We had a tough day sailing today, with squalls and heavy seas and stacks of clouds of all types. It is becoming apparent that our captain is losing it more and more. We changed our sails 5 times between 4:30 and 6 pm this evening. Considering that many people sailing don't change sails for days that's a lot, and in my limited opinion totally unnecessary. He has also gotten a slightly manic look in the eye, and he dropped our storm jib in the ocean, never to be seen again. The storm jib is a small triangular sail that you put up in a storm to keep the boat strait. It leads me to wonder if it wouldn't be prudent to maybe leave the trip in Dakar. He really has become the most dangerous thing out here, and that's saying something. He follows in a long line of nutty captains. I am thinking of Ahab and his white whale, and Lord Jim of Conrad fame, and Bligh, and and and… Maybe the sea does that to some people. Maybe life does that to some people. I am firmly of the opinion that we are all nutty in some way, and I reckon that as long as that nuttiness is not a danger it should be accepted, and in some cases (think Mozart here) it should be celebrated. Otherwise, things are going fine, we are slightly ahead of schedule (our new schedule) and should be in Dakar tomorrow evening or late afternoon. There he goes again, I can hear him changing the sails. Not of course the storm jib, now spending the rest of its time in Davy Jones' locker. It will probably get pushed by the current and the wind onto the Guinea coastline, and be snapped up by a fisherman, delighted with his find. Aid to Africa in a much more usable fashion than that usually given.

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