We're going old school by deckhand Elisabeth


Yesterday the lights went out. We turned them all off; the nav lights, the computer screen, the GPS, and headed out to cross the wide Atlantic with nothing but our sextants and our dead wits. It's called "dead reckoning," the old method sailors used to figure out where on the water they were, I don't know why. Perhaps because you'd end up dead if you reckoned wrong, run aground on a reef or island you weren't expecting. It's what we, the crew of the Tres Hombres, are trying to sharpen on this Trans-Atlantic crossing, our dead reckoning, our ability to pay attention to wind and current, leeway, set, and drift, as we feel our way forward across the water, without GPS or modern aids to navigation. We're going old school, trusting to our senses instead of to screens. 

I feel a bit blind at first, as you do when leaving the bright galley after dinner to go out into the night on deck. There is no more computer screen running the chart plotter to scroll around on, lazily measuring distance traveled and the exact course we should follow to Barbados, no more checking our speed on the GPS readout, to see if a certain sail trim makes us go faster. We go on our senses instead, leaning over the side every hour to read the distance traveled on our log, which trails a string with a fin on it and records our knots. We are filling up pages with scribbled calculations, bringing back old memories of high school geometry and trig. We are squinting at the ship's wake to estimate our drift, and learning to tell by the feeling on our cheeks and the look of the water how fast the wind is blowing, and how fast we are going forward. We are sharpening our wits, and my eyes are slowly adjusting to the lack of background screen clatter. As happens too when you leave the galley at night, first blind, stumbling to the aft to take the helm, in the absence of these kinds of artificial lights the real ones grow clearer and stronger, and the stars begin to come out. 

So too when we switch off our GPS screens, we are beginning to rely on stars, sun, moon, and planets, the natural lights in the sky, to light our way, pulling down our location from the heavens with our sextants. I am beginning to learn the names of the stars, of necessity, starting to pay attention to their rising and setting times, not from an idle curiosity but because I need this information to find out where I am on the ocean, to make a successful crossing. With just a sextant and some books and the names of the stars, we are practicing placing ourselves on the water, on the globe, in the universe. Here is where we belong, we can say, with an angle and a line on the chart, Rigel above us, Venus rising, and the beautiful ship we call home floating under them through a night that glitters with all the signs above and around us that We Are Here. And where we are is where we belong. 

This morning the Kalima winds filled the air with sand from the Sahara, blown hundreds of miles out over the ocean, and as expected it died in the afternoon, leaving us with just enough sun peeking through to find our midday position by sextant. Our entire rig is red with dust, and our throats are dry, but after heaving-to in the afternoon for a refreshing plunge in the ocean, we feel a bit refreshed. So too by the two or three fin whales that played around our boat all afternoon, spouting and waving their fins as they passed just meters from us, and swam back and forth under us, impressing us with their size. Now we wait for the wind to return, and hope that the night will bring us more stars.

Elisabeth, deckhand