At Sea

Roiling nature outside my boat, a nicely fashioned society within, and just an inch of planking between. The joys and geopolitics of seagoing

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In maritime law, a ship is a detached fragment of the society under whose flag it sails, a wandering chunk of Britain—or Liberia, or Panama. However far it travels overseas, it’s an ark containing the laws and customs of its home port. Here is the happy paradox of seagoing: Nowhere on earth can you be as exposed to and alone with wild nature as at sea, yet aboard a boat you never leave the culture of the land.

Cruise ship passengers know this. A mile offshore, the ship skirts the coast of an alarming and exotic country, famed for its unpronounceable language, its foul drinking water, its bloody coups and casual thievery. High on C Deck, a steward bears gin-and-tonics on a silver tray; the tourists, snug in their four-star world of comforts and deference, see the dangerous coast slide past like a movie. They’re home and abroad in the same breath.

On an autumn Atlantic crossing in 1988, in a British cargo ship, we ran into a declining hurricane in midocean. For 24 hours, the ship was hove-to, going nowhere, while the sea boiled around us like milk and the wave-trains thundered. In the officers’ mess, the floor rolled through 75 degrees of arc, and tropical fish spilled onto the carpet from their tank beside the bar.

“Bit of a windy day we’ve got today,” the captain said from behind his pre-luncheon glass of dry sherry, and the two junior deck officers, stumbling crazily up the sudden hill toward the framed portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip, tried as best they could to nod vigorously and smile, as junior officers must when spoken to by their captain. The radio officer landed, from a considerable height, in my lap. “Oh, pardon! Whoops! Do please excuse me!” he said.

Had the Atlantic Conveyor been registered in excitable Panama, the scene might have been different, but we were flying the Red Ensign, and the more the ocean tossed us about like bugs in a bucket, the harder we all worked to maintain the old-fashioned prim civilities of our little floating England. Every student of the British class system, its minuscule distinctions of rank and precedence, its strangulated politenesses, its style of poker-faced reticence, should get a berth aboard a Liverpool-registered merchant ship in a severe storm.

The last case of cannibalism to be tried in Britain came to hinge on this conflict between the culture of the ship and the untamed nature of the sea. In 1884, the yacht Mignonette, on passage from Tollesbury, in Essex, to Sydney, Australia, met heavy weather in the South Atlantic. Caught by an enormous breaking wave, the yacht foundered, and her professional crew (which was delivering the boat to its new Australian owner) took to the 13-foot dinghy, where they drifted for three weeks on the empty ocean under a hot and cloudless sky. On the 24th day of their ordeal, the four emaciated mariners cast lots. The cabin boy, Richard Parker, 17 years old, drew the short straw, and the captain slit his throat with a penknife. The survivors dined gratefully on the boy’s remains.

A German ship eventually picked them up and took them back to England. Their trial was a sensation of the day. The first line of the defense was that there was no case to answer: The Mignonette, a registered British ship, had sunk, and the killing of the cabin boy had taken place in an unflagged open boat on the high seas. The law of the land, argued the defense, had no jurisdiction over the men’s conduct in a dinghy in international waters. On the ocean, a thousand miles from the nearest coast, the law of the wild prevailed.

Unfortunately for the men (and for those of us who would like to get up to mischief in dinghies beyond the 12-mile limit), this reading of the law ran counter to a section of the British Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, which held that a British seaman was subject to English law whether he was on or off his ship —and the dinghy, flag or no flag, was, legally speaking, an integral part of its parent yacht. The captain and mate of the Mignonette were found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and then granted a royal pardon. The sympathy of the court (and British public opinion) was with them, but a guilty verdict was required to prove that the long arm of the law can extend far out to sea.

The ocean itself is a wilderness, beyond the reach of the morality and customs of the land. But a boat is like an embassy in a foreign country. So long as you are aboard a boat, you remain a social creature, a citizen, answerable to the conventions of society. You might as well sally forth alone across the trackless ocean in a clapboard cottage with a white picket fence and a mailbox.

I am now readying my own boat for a sea trip (I can’t quite call it a voyage) from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, and I’m living day to day on the slippery interface between the nature and culture of the thing. My boat, a 35-foot ketch, is Swedish-built and American-registered; like its owner, it is a native of one country, resident in another, and not quite a citizen of either. I never fly a flag, except under official duress, preferring to think of the boat as an independent republic, liberal-democratic in temper, easygoing in its manners, bookish in its daily conversation. My slovenly Utopia.

On a wall of the saloon, between the fire extinguisher and the VHF radiotelephone, is mounted a 1773 cartoon of George III—Farmer George, the obese, rubber-lipped, mad king of England—our gentlest, most generous monarch, who lost the American colonies and was in the habit of putting grave constitutional questions to the wise shrubs in his garden. Every British ship has its royal portrait. George III seems the right king for me. His erratic captaincy of the ship of state is an apt emblem for my own, often fumbling, command of my vessel.

The real heart of my boat is its library. There are few sea books in it—the inevitable coastal pilots, tidal atlases, and one or two grim volumes with titles like The 12-Volt Bible. But when I’m galebound on the dank and gloomy Northwest Coast, I’m in no mood to read Conrad or Melville. At anchor in a lightless British Columbian inlet, where matte-black cedars crowd round the ruins of a bankrupt salmon cannery and the rain falls like ink, I shall pine for brilliance and laughter, for rooms full of voices. So, on the long shelf in the saloon, overhung by the gimballed oil-lamp, are Lolita and Madame Bovary, the novels of Evelyn Waugh (all of them), Dickens’s Great Expectations, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Byron’s Don Juan. There are books by friends and acquaintances, like Paul Theroux, Richard Ford, Cees Nooteboom, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis. I rejoice in the thought that my eye might lift from a page of Waugh (let it be Julia Stitch, in bed, at the beginning of Scoop) to the sight of a black bear snuffling in the driftwood at the water’s edge: nature outside the boat, society within, and just an inch of planking between the world of the one and the world of the other. The essence of being afloat is feeling the eggshell containment of an orderly domestic life suspended over the deep. The continuous slight motion of the boat, swinging to its anchor on the changing tide, is a reminder of how fragile is our tenure here—aloft with a novel, coffee cup close at hand, while the sea yawns underfoot and the bear prowls through its dripping wilderness on shore.

I love the subtlety and richness of all the variations on the theme of society and solitude that can be experienced when traveling by sea. It is like living inside a metaphor for the strange voyage of a human soul on its journey through life.

Out on the open sea, with a breaking swell and the wind a notch too high for comfort, you are the loneliest fool in the world. You are trying to follow the vain hypothesis of a compass course. It’s marked on the chart, 347 degrees magnetic, a neat pencil-line bisecting the white space of the ocean. The absurd particularity of that number now seems to sneer at you from the chart as the boat blunders and wallows through the water, its hull resounding like a bass drum to the impact of each new ribbed and lumpish wave. The bow charges downhill on a bearing of 015 degrees. Ten seconds later, it’s doing 330 degrees, up a potholed slope. Abandoning the helm to the autopilot, which at least will steer no worse, if little better, than you do, you go below.

Slub…thunk. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and the rest lurch drunkenly in line along the bookshelves. Two oranges and an apple chase each other up and down the floor. Your morning coffee is a jagged stain on the oatmeal settee. The decanter has smashed in the sink. The closet door is flying open and shut, as if a malevolent jack-in-the-box were larking among your shirts. A dollop of green sea obscures the view from your living-room window. Your precious, contrived, miniature civilization appears to be falling to pieces around your ears, and you can’t remember what madness drove you to be out here in the first place.

Then you hear voices. For a moment, you fear that you’re losing your wits; then you realize that the voices are coming from the VHF set: a captain calling for a harbor pilot or a fisherman chatting to his wife in the suburbs. It is, after all, just a dull morning at sea, with the invisible community of the sea going about its daily business. You turn up the volume on the radio, climb the four steps to the doghouse, and regain control of the wheel. Three or four miles off, a gray, slab-sided bulk carrier shows for a few seconds before being blotted out by a cresting wave, and you find yourself watching the ship with a mixture of pleasure at finding a companion and rising anxiety at encountering a dangerous intruder.

Letting out the sails to steer clear of the big stranger on your patch, you quickly recover your taste for solitude—and the waves themselves seem to lose their snarling and vindictive expressions. In the society of the sea, it is the duty of every member to keep his distance from all the others. To be alone is to be safe. It’s no coincidence that those two most English of attitudes, being “standoffish” and “keeping aloof,” are nautical terms that have long since passed into the general currency of the language. Standing-off is what a ship does to avoid the dangers of the coast; aloof is a-luff, or luffing your sails, head to wind, to stay clear of another vessel. The jargon of the sea is full of nouns and verbs to describe the multitude of ways in which a ship can keep itself to itself. The ocean is, in general, a sociable and considerate place, where people (professional mariners, at least) treat each other with remarkable courtesy. But this civility is based on distance and formal good manners. Always signal your intentions clearly. Always know when to give way and when to hold your course. If people on land behaved like ships at sea, they’d look like characters in an Italian opera, or members of the Japanese imperial court.

I’ve never crossed an ocean under my own steam—never, really, more than nibbled at the ocean’s edge. The longest open-sea crossing that I’ve made was from Fishguard, in Wales, to Falmouth, in Cornwall: 200 miles, 35 hours; a day, a night, and most of the next day, with a dream-harrowed sleep (full of collisions, groundings, swampings, and founderings) at the end of the trip. Cowardice is one reason for my failure to tackle an ocean; my passion for arrivals is another. When the light begins to fail and the sea turns black, I yearn to make landfall—to pick out the winking entrance buoys and find my way into a strange port. The intricate, heart-stopping business of coastal pilotage is for me the great reward for a day spent jouncing about in the waves offshore.

Dusk is a good time (though just before dawn is best), when lights stand out but the shape of the land is still clearly visible. You bring one shadowy headland into line with another, then find the lazy flash of the fairway buoy, timing it against your watch to check its ID. Cautiously standing-off, you wait until the pinpricks of light ahead resolve themselves into a narrow, winding lane, into which you thread the boat, moving under engine, at half speed.

The most satisfying harbors are those that are fringed with a maze of shifting sandbars, like the entrance to the Somme estuary in northern France or the approach to Wexford in Ireland, where buoyed channels take one on bafflingly serpentine routes into town. Each channel represents a pooling of knowledge by the local pilots and fishermen and is a path whose broad outline has been trodden for hundreds of years. But sandbars alter their positions after every gale, and the buoys are never exactly in the right places. As so often at sea, you are at once in good and experienced company and entirely on your own.

Inching warily from buoy to buoy, you watch the shivering needle on the depth sounder. It is your blind-man’s stick, with which you have to tap-tap your way, feeling for deep water as you go. Twelve feet. Ten feet. Eight feet—and you’ve lost the channel. Nine feet. Ten feet—and you breathe again. Now you’re inside the line of breakers, in a broad, lakelike sea, with the lights of the town silvering the water in the distance. In a moment of inattention, the bow of the boat suddenly climbs as the keel scrapes sand, but it settles back, the buoy slides past, and the floating town drifts slowing toward you, taking you in.

Anyone who has struggled into a harbor out of a bad sea will understand why the words “heaven” and “haven” are closely cognate. A dismal slate-roofed town (visit the Methodist chapel and the fish-and-chip shop) is paradise itself when you find shelter there after a day of being cold and frightened aboard a lurching boat. You’d willingly kneel to kiss the stones of the dock, you are so full of gratitude for the fact of Dulltown’s existence. Its people are so friendly! so attractive! Its Methodist chapel is, as Methodist chapels go, a very cathedral! Its fish and chips are, without doubt, the best fish and chips in the world!

Few travelers have ever felt this way about Dulltown. You are privileged. Your means of arrival has revealed to you a place hidden from the mass of humanity: Dulltown Haven…Dulltown as Heaven. For a writer, such an epiphany is pure gift—and it will save you from the addled cynicism that is the usual curse of traveling.

Yet we were, a few moments ago, on the Somme estuary and the mouth of the River Slaney, and neither St. Valery nor Wexford is in the least like Dulltown. They are beautiful and complicated places even if you reach them dully, by car. The miracle of coming into them by sea is that as soon as your boat is attached to the dock by a trapeze of ropes, it becomes part of the architecture and skyline of the town. You belong to the working fabric of the community as no ordinary visitor can aspire to do. Your neighbors (at least in places unspoiled by yachting marinas) are fishermen, longshoremen, local boat owners; and the more difficult the harbor approach, the more nearly will you be accepted as a resident. In the more remote communities, your patience and skill as a navigator (you wouldn’t be there if you were a total buffoon) is an automatic ticket of entry to society.

For a day, or two, or three, or as long as the weather outside remains discouraging, you settle into dockside life. You go visiting in the afternoons. You work on your boat. You learn a dozen names. In the evenings, you go with your new neighbors to the bar across the street, where (if you are a writer) you try to listen harder than you drink. You hear things that no one would dream of telling you had you come here by car.

Then, at five o’clock one morning, in the final hour of the flood tide, you untie the damp ropes in the dark and steal away from the place without saying good-bye. You leave behind a small gap, like a missing tooth, in the shape of the town as you will come to remember it.

At the fairway buoy, the sea is oily, with curlicues of rising mist. The remains of a big swell make the water surface bulge and contract, like a fat man breathing. Visibility is down to a mile or less. A moderate westerly is forecast.

Ahead lie the open sea and a day like a blank slate. But some things are certain. There will be—as now—moments of wonder and elation such as rarely visit you on land. There will be the building magnetic power of the unknown port across the water. There’ll be at least one serious cause for alarm, and at least one unpleasant surprise.

You kill the engine and let the boat drift on the tide, waiting for enough wind to hoist the sails. The town you left is now hidden in haze. Alone in a circle of diffuse light, you float in silence. In time, the sea and the day will begin to impose their own narrative order on your life; but for now, you are a character as yet unformed, awaiting the sequence of events that will define you.

Bon voyage!

Jonathan Raban’s books include Old Glory, Coasting, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, and Bad Land: An American Romance, forthcoming from Pantheon Books.

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