Alone on a midnight watch
...the ocean passage continues
A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY, by Richard Gilbert (part II)
We left Empresa berthed in the Canaries the rest of the summer of 1992, deciding not to follow Columbus on his early September departure. In 1492 he had no meteorologist to warn of the hurricane season; we did. 1992 was a lousy year, spawning Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida.
Columbus was lucky that first voyage. He didn't have a hurricane cross his path.
We departed the Canaries on November 14. 1992. stopping briefly at the island of Gomera to water our boat and say our prayers at the same chapel the Discoverer had prayed. Again, just speculation, but after time with Dona Beatrice, that might have been an interesting confessional.
(I hope you’re not disappointed dear reader: so far as we know, the modern-day Beatrice and her handsome boyfriend live happily-ever-after somewhere in the beautiful Canary Islands).
Ahead was a 4,000-mile sail to planned landfall of San Salvador in the Bahamas, hoping to average about 125 miles each 24-hour day.
The first several days were uneventful unless you count a complete failure of our boat's refrigerator, resulting in losing all the meats and other frozen foods. From then on, when we wanted fresh meat, we had to catch it. I became very tired of Mahi-mahi by voyage end.
We had a propane oven and baked bread almost daily. It was good with the olive oil.
We conserved water from Day 1. Empresa's water tanks held 180 gallons. We stowed an extra 120 gallons in collapsible plastic jugs in little crannies in the hull. Three hundred gallons total for five men for a voyage estimated to be more than a month. Our crew was down to five when our cruise line CEO dropped out after the first leg. He concluded more than 30 days at sea wasn't going to do it for him.
So, 300 gallons divided by five of us…60 gallons each for 30-some days, but what if it's longer? Bathing, ocean water. Boiling pasta, cabbage, etc., ocean water. Shampoos, ocean water. Prell shampoo gets sudsy with seawater. Drinking, limit to a gallon a day, gives you 60 days. Save the water from canned vegetables and fruits. We'll be fine. And we were. Still to this day, I have a special appreciation for the luxury of abundant water.
Eggs keep for weeks without refrigeration if you rub them with olive oil first. Cabbages keep a long time. Canned meats are good. Nobody gained weight, but we all were well fed. No alcohol. Period. There was wine aboard but only to celebrate when we reach land.
Winds were behind us as we sailed straight west, day after day and night after night. The only bad weather were squalls coming behind us from winds kicked up hundreds of miles east in the Sahara.
We now think of our planet as a 'small world.' It is as if you are in an airliner at 40,000 feet. But it is enormous in a small boat on a vast ocean six miles deep. Tried not to think about how deep.
Before this voyage, I had told friends I wanted to go to sea to find where God lives. In the vast Atlantic, there is majesty. It became The-Great-I-Am with the power to hold us or crush us depending on a mood. Nights at the helm, I saw millions of stars in the air, so clear they were visible to the horizon. The plankton on the surface became phosphorescent as the hull cut through the sea; our wake sparkled like diamond dust for several boat lengths astern.
I recalled a conversation I had had with an old sailor a few years earlier when I asked him what it was like to sail the ocean: "If you've never sailed an ocean," he said, "there is no way I can explain it to you. And if you have, then you wouldn't ask the question."
Unlike the men who sailed with Columbus, we were not fearful the winds behind us would prevent us from ever turning around and sailing home. What Columbus discovered was not just a world unknown to Europe; he showed how to get there and back through a combination of winds and a current flowing westward from the Canaries.
For weeks fair winds blew from the East, pushing his fleet and then us to the Americas. As it neared Barbados, the current began moving northward and west to the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Eventually, southerly winds will push sailing ships north to the Azores and then shift to the west blowing the sailor back to Portugal.
A historical footnote here. Columbus was Europe's re-discover of the Americas. (Emphasis on 're') Credit for the first European contact goes to Leif Erickson 500 years earlier. It just goes to show that whoever has the best publicist has an edge. When Columbus got back, his story was printed and circulated thanks to Gutenberg's game-changing invention.
By 1525, thousands of Europeans, greedy folks carrying what author Jared Diamond summed up as 'guns, germs, and steel,' invaded this New World. Serious historians surmise that over the next 400 years, this likely resulted in the untimely deaths of about 100 million indigenous people. It would take a lot of historical whitewashing to change this tragic narrative (pun intended).
But back to my voyage of discovery:
I was not just approaching middle age. I was very much in it. This sail was time to do serious contemplation. Out there, I connected my mother's telling me someday I could be president to the inner drive that resulted in being president of five different media companies. And, there was also time to question the fairness of putting people out of work to make bank payments on debt piled on by the private equity firm that had bought the company and asked me to stay and run it for them. Their way, of course.
I took with me five books hoping I would have time for some special reading. The list: 'Churchill's History of the English Speaking People.' 'The Collected Works of Shakespeare,' 'The Brothers Karamazov,' 'Bartlett's Quotations,' 'The Book of Common Prayer,' 1958 edition.
I tried to get through Brothers, but Dostoevsky was just too big a lift. I bought the old Prayer Book at a shop on Charing Cross in London before the voyage because it contained an ordinance for 'Burial of the Dead at Sea,' something I hoped I wouldn't need but wanted to be prepared, just in case.
In Bartlett's, I found a quote that helped me in my discovery. "Success is making your living by your own work, and in that loving what you do."
I don't remember who said it, but it stuck with me.
I realized the industry where I had been making my livelihood was no longer my own work. If I stayed in it, I was bound to keep cutting and cutting jobs and quality until there was little left. (Did I mention I was at that time running a newspaper company?)
I thought about legacy. And what I love to do. I have a servant leader profile. My shipmates called me "captain," and although there were only a few times when command decisions had to be made, I did it.
But one of my fellow sailors didn't call me captain. He called me 'skipper.' At first, I could not pinpoint why that honorific felt so good. Then on a night watch, I remembered that as a three-year-old, my Grandpa Wheeler concluded I was still too little to be a 'Richard,' that 'Dick' might become 'Dickie', so he called me his little 'Skipper.' Grandpa died when I was 12 and with him my nickname. So 'Skipper' felt good again.
I thought about what I was good at and what I loved doing. Mentoring and coaching had been my management style as a company president; employees responded, productivity increased. I would focus on that, have, and still do.
I came so close to comprehending infinity. One starlit night as we were somewhere east of Puerto Rico, I used the sextant to do a sight on Polaris, the North Star and brought it down to 18.5 degrees off the horizon. It was the same conclusion Columbus might have reached with an early navigation tool, the quadrant. The angle of the North Star told me we were on Latitude 18.5, so I knew if we took a sharp left, we would eventually run into San Juan. Awed by the night sky and alone on deck, I took out the binoculars and gazed at the billions of stars above me.
For just a moment, doors in my mind opened. I saw and understood infinity! It was what author Aldous Huxley described in his 1950s book "Doors of Perception" as he experimented with mescaline (only I didn't):
"When we feel ourselves to be sole heirs of the universe, when "the sea flows in our veins...and the stars are our jewels," when all things are perceived as infinite and holy, what motive can we have for covetousness or self-assertion, for the pursuit of power or the drearier forms of pleasure?"
Thrilled, I hurried below to the nav station in the darkened boat to record the experience in the ship's log. But by the time I picked up the pen to write about what had just happened, the Doors had closed. I couldn't describe it. And I was just another sailor on a big sea on a small planet somewhere in the vast universe.
The old man had given me the correct answer to my question: "What's it like to sail on the ocean?" There is no way he could have explained it to me.
It took Columbus 36 days to make landfall (historians believe) on San Salvador in the Bahamas.
Empresa and her crew made it to San Salvador in 32 days. Columbus never went back to San Salvador. Neither have I.
GPS navigation was early stage in 1992, so another crew member and I learned basic celestial navigation. We got pretty good taking noon sights of the sun to get a position fix. I gave the sextant to my daughter Liz Gilbert. It's in a display case in her home, a reminder of the year we both sailed the Atlantic.
Perhaps other descendants will see it as a family heirloom. Does that make an old sextant a piece of my legacy? That works for me.
Editors note: Richard will have an epilogue to this series as soon as I can persuade him to do so. As a mentor and coach, he uses sailing metaphors to good effect. I think you’ll find it interesting, too. Stay tuned. Julie