Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Crossing the Atlantic - Part 1.1: Fog and Sea Monsters

A year or two ago, a friend told me an anecdote of a chap who had got high on ecstasy or some other recreational mind-bending substance. In a drug-induced stupour, the guy in question had found his way into a building site and climbed a crane, to watch the sunrise from a vantage point high above the city. By the time of said sunrise, the drugs were wearing off, and the lad came to his senses, to find himself up on top of a crane in the early morning, with no safety harness, and no real clue of how he had climbed up there.

 As we set out into the Atlantic, there was a similar sort of feeling, amongst some if not all of Taniwha's crewmembers. How had we got to this point? What series of decisions, events, and mindstates had led us to put ourselves into this situation? As far as I know, none of us had been consuming mind-bending drugs in the past little while, but somehow, it seemed, we had come to the decision to put ourselves through something that may be deemed a little risky.

Days before we left, we had seen a ketch with a broken mast limp its way back into harbour. This was Simon the Welshman, who we had met the day we arrived in St. John's. Simon had left and set out into the ocean, only to turn back when he found conditions unfavourable, and had lost part of his mast on his way back to the harbour. So we knew from second-hand experience that there was heavy weather out there. But all 5 of us had made the commitment to pursue this crossing and our individual decisions to make this commitment had brought us together to see the plan come to fruition. By golly, we were at least going to give it a go.

Setting out between the cliffs of the harbour entrance, we waved to Nathan's family who had gone up onto the headland to see us off. From then on, we were immediately into seas that would accurately be described as lumpy. It was not a bad or particularly large seastate, but it jolted us out of our harbour sensibilities, and reminded us that for the next 2-3 weeks (estimated) we would be at the mercy of the fluids, and constantly in motion. A mile or two offshore there was a bank of fog, into which we passed under sail. As the land behind us faded from view, we realized that not only would we be constantly in motion, but we would not even see anything that was fixed, for as long as it took to get across to the other side of "The Pond". On reflection, that's a funny name for a body of water containing several weather systems and being 1800 miles wide at the point we were starting to cross.

The fog (or "Faahg", as it is pronounced by many of Newfoundland's inhabitants) lasted for the first two days of the voyage, and was interspersed by bouts of that other great Newfoundland weather: FDR, or Fog-drizzle-rain, which is, as the name suggests, somewhere in between all three. During the foggy bit, we ran the radar at regular intervals, and successfully navigated our way around a variety of Oil Rig supply ships, fishing boats, and car transporters.

An excerpt from my diary:
"We have now been 30 hours at sea, and we are somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean. It's foggy. Lots of dolphins today. Lots in the morning, lots now."

That day, we saw 3 different species of cetacean, the most extraordinary of which did not look quite like dolphins, but had a much more bulbous, stocky form.

Photo courtesy Michelle
They were in a huge pod of over 50, or perhaps hundreds, and were having a whale of a time jumping in formation through the waves alongside and behind us. Down below deck, we could clearly hear their excited chattering. Looking through a book of cetaceans in the north-western Atlantic, I deduced that they were probably of the species known as Grampus. I never before had any inkling that such creatures existed, so for me, they qualify as sea monsters.

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