Living Things

‘Living things’ is the last installment in a series by Captain Duncan Mckenzie about his recent Atlantic passage aboard sailing ketch Czarina Blue. Preceding chapters can be found on his website.

 Tuna off the port bow by  Duncan McKenzie

Tuna off the port bow by Duncan McKenzie

A very bright, imaginative friend in London asks me genuinely what the attraction is, crossing an ocean on a small sailing boat. ‘I can’t think of anything worse,’ she says, ‘just so vulnerable and terrifying.’

I reply that her view represents a misunderstanding. When you have familiarity with sailing and understand what you are undertaking, it becomes something very positive. As a wilderness experience, it is a wonderful opportunity to be almost entirely outside of the human programme, with everything that entails. A giant reset. A chance to de-fragment and re-format. And it’s not an empty place, a void, by any means. You have to see it in its own terms; this is the beauty of the experience.

In the several thousand metres of water under the boat’s keel, we wonder what life exists. A sense of vertigo accompanies the possibilities. But knowing that humankind is the most dangerous species on earth by a long shot, our curiosity grows.

After a few days in the open sea the eye very keenly craves detail. An escape from the tyranny of the two-tone, the horizon-meets-sky. A new run of clouds delights. Star constellations. Anything to look at. The mind quickly invents allegories and symbols to suit.

Cargo ships plying the routes west of Africa occasionally pass on the horizon. They offer solace and a suggestion of humanity, but they also convey a sense of distance and loss. The mind wanders over the captain and crew, the faces, the lives, passing by, out of reach.

A dark silhouette catches the eye on the surface between swells. Binoculars are grabbed. The imagination runs wild. What living thing? What relic? This time, an old fishing float. Another time an enormous inflatable pink dolphin, snatched by a gust of wind from a tourist beach.

We hope to meet the locals out here. The ocean is a wilderness only to the uninitiated. At face value you have the surface. But under this an entire ecosystem is minding its own business. And since our route crosses close to the seamount Conception Bank, we very much hope to be enlightened.

Morning, day four, a hundred meters off the port beam, the limpid ooze of the surface explodes in our direction with arcing silhouettes. Soon they are alongside with their muscular pulsing tails, then at the bow interweaving a mesmerising formation, pushing off the surge. One turns sideways underwater to stare a beady eye at mine, speckled brown and grey neoprene-like body, dorsals very raked.

I always wonder what dolphins make of us in these encounters: we hysterical figures, leaning out from the bow, shrieking and flailing, desperately signalling. I like to imagine they think we need something, but wisely they also see in us a liability, unhinged and unpredictable.

Northern gannets pass a number of times. They resemble 1950s Italian traffic police, the kind that orchestrate a huge road junction dressed in full white including gloves. The pale ochre head resembles a pith helmet, the black wing tips are the polished boots. The darker plumage around their eyes suggests a challenging hang-over. They steer a course close to us but keep their speed up in a straight line, passing silently with slow beats of powerful wings.

I feel gratitude for the company of shearwaters. Uninterested in us as they seem to be, they have sought us out. They fly close and their proximity offers some kind of connection which is welcome in these bare circumstances. They tell us that we still exist out here, in infinity.

They circle the boat, showing off their acrobatics. Medium-sized, brown-topped, cream beneath, they dive towards the waves before turning to the side millimetres from the surface, riding the trough then twisting sideways to skim a wing tip along the following peak, and twitching over the peak into the next valley.

The following day as we pass nearest to the seamount, an underwater spire rising from two and a half thousand to one hundred and thirty metres, some splashing begins regularly to port. It is calm and we are motoring, cutting the endless silk, so that the surface disturbance lingers as a radiating ring on the smooth surface. With polarising glasses I walk the deck to stare down through the glare of the surface. I find six large fish snaking in formation alongside, sometimes a few metres off the hull, other times further.

 Beneath the surface by  Duncan McKenzie

Beneath the surface by Duncan McKenzie

They are stout, barrel-bodied with large black eyes, about 80 centimetres long, either Atlantic Bonito or Skipjack Tuna. Behind their second dorsal run a few diagonal iridescent blue stripes. They pulse with their tail fin, and their small side fins act as stabilisers, tuning their depth in the water column. They break the surface occasionally, as if to snack. I throw a peanut onto the surface ahead of them, and one takes it with ease in passing.

It is calm enough to climb the mast ladder to see the bigger picture. A little extra height opens up the scale of the ocean horizon magnificently. I can suddenly see the extended pattern of the incoming swells, the product of storms thousands of miles away in the north Atlantic, these gentle hills of water that rise and fall regardless of local conditions.

The snaking troupe of silver torpedoes stand to port just outside the sweep of Czarina Blue’s bow wave, the two cutting through the deep blue glass. What attracts them? Are we some kind of mothership? Or just pure curiosity and diversion?

After several hours we lose our friends when we stop the boat completely to just savour the absolute silence and glassiness of a dead calm day in the east Atlantic. We discuss the possibility of swimming on the surface of thousands of metres of water. We float there surreally on this oozing mirror. We say, ‘Far out!’

Our final encounter is with a small bird, a soft green chiffchaff likely on his way to Africa for the winter. He flutters around the boat a couple of times before landing on the bow. Often these tiny birds take to a boat to break their thousand-mile journeys. Once, crossing Biscay, a sedge warbler joined us for twenty four hours and after food and rest became trusting, and would settle (and relieve itself) on our hand or shoulder.

Chiffy soon accepts some seeds and water on the foredeck and nights under the upturned wooden dinghy. That night the weather turns and as we approach landfall in the small hours, lightning storms begin to sprout up on either side. Rain falls and it becomes blustery. I take down the mainsail and reduce the genoa in anticipation of worse to come.

When the lightning comes really close, I steer away and trim the sails accordingly. Chiffy is woken by the loss of his shelter position, and flutters out looking for some lee from the gusts. With the wind now behind the vessel, the outside of the cockpit windscreen gives him some shelter. Unfortunately the only place to cling on with his reedy claws is a scant bit of horizontal rubber trim where glass meets aluminium. He struggles to maintain a hold and his composure.

My lingering memory is this tiny fluffy bird, only a few feet away from my face but, for him, safely the other side of the glass, scrabbling to get purchase on the rubber trim, as his feathers ruffle and fly in all directions from the back eddies of powerful gusts. In the regular flashes of lightning we observe each other through the glass. He keeps his tiny beady eye on me, the only thing not moving in his wind-battered body. We are in the same boat.