Sea of Dreams

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

So I got an email from my mad South Pacific amigo Mike. I wrote about him in The Missing Cashbox and the Nguru Patrol, and he’s still going strong. His email, sent to a few of his saltier friends, said he was thinking about buying a sailboat that was up “on the hard”, meaning hauled out of the water, in Fiji.

ice boatHis heartfelt plea was entitled “Please, talk me out of this folly…!”

Being a compassionate man, I moved quickly to forestall such abject lunacy as buying a boat. I wrote back and said I was duty bound to remind him of the first rule of swabby sailors the world over, men and women alike, which is:

If it floats, flies, or f-f-f-fornicates, rent it, don’t buy it!

But that felt unfinished, so to cover other eventualities I added:

However, as your friend I also have to consider the second rule of swabbies, which says 

The best boat is your good buddy’s boat …

So although in good conscience I have to advise you not to buy it under any circumstances … in better conscience I also have to say that if you did buy it, I’d be glad to help sail it anywhere you care to name …

Alas, my earnest importunings were in vain, and despite my best efforts the fool went ahead and bought it. So as these things happen, I’m leaving my home in the hills where foxes walk across our yard towing their floating tails behind them and the deer keep our garden hedge trimmed … and I’m on my way to Fiji to help sail the ICE to Brisbane by way of New Caledonia. Hey, don’t blame me, the boat won’t sail itself! And since I’m going, let me invite you to join me in spirit on a South Pacific adventure, because in my experience they are among the best adventures this miraculous world has to offer.

Now, as you may have noticed above, I use a variety of Rules of Thumb in my life. They help keep me from going too far off the rails. My rule of thumb for oceanic passages is quite simple:

Expect the best, and plan for the worst.

One way that rule of thumb plays out for me is that I like to take my sextant along with me. GPS is nice and all, but I’ve been in storms where all the electronics died … like I said above, I’m not expecting that, but I sleep better with a sextant on board. I have to choose between two precision measurement tools. One is my Tamiya sextant in its venerable wooden box …

tamiya sextant… which obviously needs some work on the latch, and the lid is delaminating. The other is my tiny lifeboat sextant …

lifeboat sextantEither of them is capable of measuring visible angles to the nearest minute. A minute of angle in measuring the height of the sun is equal to a nautical mile on the surface, that’s 1.9 km … and a sextant fix is generally only good to the nearest five nautical miles or so, call it ten kilometres, due to various errors in the taking of the measurement. So the sextant is generally more accurate than our ability to take measurements from the pitching and rolling deck of a small boat.

I also got the current nautical almanac, along with the other needed books, Publication HO249 Vols. I (Selected Stars) and II (Latitude 0° – 40°). My friend Wally had a theory that a man should subtract his age from 90 degrees, and never sail further from the Equator than that … so I don’t plan to need Volume III.

I think I’ll have to figure out how to take the big sextant, though. It’s really hard to do star sights with the lifeboat sextant, because it has tiny mirrors. The sun is fairly easy to find in the sky with a sextant, because as you approach it in the mirror the sky gets brighter and brighter until you finally cross paths with it. The stars, on the other hand, float in unvarying velvet-black, so you need a big mirror to track them down. So I guess I’m looking at some work on the wooden box … the beat goes on.

Anyhow, that’s enough for Monday. I fly on Wednesday and arrive on Friday because of the International Date Line.

Tuesday evening … well, I got the sextant box all glued back together, and fixed the latch. And it wasn’t until after I took off the clamps that I realized that the delamination extended halfway round the top. Murphy never sleeps. So I did another round of gluing. It’s done now, as are most of the challenges that I wanted to finish before leaving. For me, oceanic passages are held together with endless lists, with things added to each list nearly as fast as they get knocked off. Yesterday I fired up the string trimmer and cut about a half-acre of grass around the house. Today I emptied the storage room and stowed the stuff away. I still have to vacuum the house and scrub the toilet, and track down and pack some long zip ties. And I need to beat the weight of my suitcase back down below the fifty pound limit, and some other things, but the list is getting shorter.

I’m immensely fortunate in that my gorgeous ex-fiancee has been totally supportive in my latest lunacy, just as she always has been. She knows that for most men worth their salt, somewhere inside there’s a rat that lives on adrenaline alone … and that from time to time a man’s gotta feed the rat, or it dies of boredom. And that’s a very ugly sight.

And besides which, she’s already sailed in a small sailboat from Fiji to New Caledonia and I haven’t even been to New Caledonia, much less sailed there, so it’s old news to her. I take my hat off to that good lady, she’s been a wonderful lifetime companion. I couldn’t begin to list the adventures we’ve had on the ocean, we’ve been in some rough weather, and we’ve sailed some tranquil seas. She’s been a hardy, upbeat, hard-working and adventurous shipmate in all climes, plus being a true sweetheart … how much more good fortune could a man have?

Nighttime. It’s been clouding up all day, another front coming in. They say that tomorrow the storm will blow through before the evening when I’m supposed to take off … it does feel like it’s rolling fast.

Wednesday … the storm front blew through early the morning and dumped a bit of rain. Now, it’s gone past and the air is washed sparkling. Here’s the view from the porch:

view from the porchEvery time I set out awandering like this, there’s always a point where I look around at my beloved hills and forest, and my own warm house and sweet bed, and that dear good lady, and I wonder why I’m going. Happened this morning, like clockwork. However, fortunately the fit usually doesn’t last too long, and I find that a session with the vacuum cleaner restores a man’s sanity remarkably fast …

In going through my book of lists this morning, I found something tucked into the back that I’d printed up thirty years ago, and that I’ve carried ever since, entitled “Tom O’Bedlam’s Song”. “Bedlam” is a corruption of “Bethlehem”, and refers to the hospital St. Mary of Bethlehem, an early insane asylum in London. So Tom O’Bedlam is Tom Of The Nuthouse … and having spent time in the nuthouse myself, I’ve always felt a great kinship with Tom. Here’s his song, at least as I heard it long hence:

With a host of furious fancies

Whereof I am commander

With a sword of fire and a steed of air

Through the universe I wander


By a ghost of rags and patches

I summoned am to tourney

Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s end

Methinks it is no journey

So that’s the plan—laid out by a madman, and impelled by a rat … what’s not to like? The toilet is scrubbed, the vacuum is stowed away. The sink is scoured, the spiderwebs gone from the corners of the rooms. I fly this evening. It’s early afternoon now with the Giants baseball game on, I’m doing final errands, so I’ll be online for a few hours. There’s wifi in LAX, I may be online later. If not … well, welcome aboard, we’re off to see what the poet called the “orderly clouds of the Trades, the ridged, roaring sapphire thereunder”.

Further reports from yr. ob’t correspondent to follow as time and the tides allow …


80 thoughts on “Sea of Dreams

  1. My sailboat goes back in the water next Saturday and I’m really looking forward to it. Will be taking two weeks to go around the Chesapeake Bay this summer along with a lot of weekend trips to Solomons, Cape Charles, St Michaels, Annapolis, Norfolk and other places. A foolish waste of money? Maybe, but one of the few pleasures I really enjoy.
    And Willis you will agree sailboat skippers are a breed apart, especially the closer to the equator you get.

    • For an old sailboat man, ICE means internal Combustion Engine?
      Bon voyage Willis. Geoff.

    • Me too, fair wind to you Willis, I look forward to living the trip vicariously. (At my age it’s probably the ONLY way!)

  2. Beautiful. Used to have two boats on Lake Michigan. A ‘stink potter’ (aka twin 610HP diesels moving three staterooms, fully galley, full ‘laundromat’ on a 50 plus footer), and a ‘ragtop’ 36 foot sailboat with berths for four and a seaworthy galley ( we once crossed Lake Michigan in July encountering 15 foot waves midlake thanks to shoreline bathtub effect from moderate winds, so two feet of very cold blue water over the bow into the cockpit each short wave, so I was safety harness strapped in and nobody wanted to eat).
    For your friend Mike, a Chicago lake boater aphorism to ponder. The second happiest day of your life is when you buy your last biggest boat. The happiest day is when you sell it.
    BTW, on the Great Lakes there are no ships. Only boats. Even 730 foot iron ore carriers going from Deluth Mn to Gary In across the many hundred mile length of lakes Superior and Michigan. The ‘Laker’ Edmund Fitzgerald was just a boat. All US Navy ships visiting every single worldwide Navy trainee at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago are demoted to boats while there. Just is. Lake/ocean thing. Look forward to reports on your South Pacific adventure.

  3. Bedlam is the Imperial War Museum now.
    The item made me think of a poem which addresses the same urges.
    What is a woman that you forsake her,
    And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
    To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
    Harp song of the Dane women. Kipling.

  4. Saw this too late to help, yet fully understand.
    Felt the urge to say “avaiable if you need a Hand”
    Lived Aboard a few years,
    Not enough to stop tears,
    That you’ll be at sea, while I man the sand…
    Wishing you fair seas and a following wind, and wishing I were there.

  5. May the wind be always at your back, and the swells always rise under your bow. Smooth sailing, Willis. 🙂

  6. I generally follow road signs to get around and the closest I’ve ever been to deep water is the backyard pool, but I’ve always admired the classic sextant. Someday I’ll have to track one down and mount it on the mantelpiece, although that might be a rather undistinguished resting place for such a device. 😉

    • You will need some long tables of 3D trig to go along. Independent of Star/Sun sight tables he is taking along. Although these days Willis is undoubtedly carrying those in a simple calculator. I did.

      • ristvan April 27, 2016 at 5:02 pm Edit

        You will need some long tables of 3D trig to go along. Independent of Star/Sun sight tables he is taking along. Although these days Willis is undoubtedly carrying those in a simple calculator. I did.

        I have two apps. One reduces sextant sights for a variety of celestial objects. The other is the nautical almanac. However, I like doing it by hand. I feel part of a long tradition. Plus I learned back in the day when sextant by hand was the only blue-water option …

      • Willis, go in peace. I was only reflecting my own completely unnecessary Great Lakes celestial nav (a cheap plastic sextant plus an expensive electronic calc). My late father’s Pacific typhoon chaser stories– over 24 hour missions, his navigator figuring every hour how far they had been blown off course using celestial nav, so as to land again on Guam. A very small island in a very big ocean. Never missed. He did land one 36 hour mission B-29 with a horizontal stabilizer bent 19 degrees out of true from cyclone turbulence. Plane was scrapped. He was promoted. Rests at Arlington with the only other military neck order. (medal of honor is combat, medal of freedom is non-combat).
        Hence my interest and sextant semi skill. Highest regards for your sextant skill. Safe passage.

  7. I seem to remember that boat from some internet search I did last year on motor sailers. A long article on it’s build. Real nice boat – almost ship I guess. Enjoy!

  8. How exciting! Btw, you’ll take better pictures if you wipe the lens first. Cell phone cameras get fingerprints and oil on the lens. A quick wipe on a clean spot on your shirt or pants and your pictures will “pop” instead of looking washed out.

  9. Fair winds and friendly seas to you and the ICE!
    Though, just what discouragement one expects from a sailing friend puzzles me.
    What were you supposed to do?
    Tell stories about new boat sailing disasters?
    You’ve stated a portion of my life’s motto:

    “Hope for the best,
    plan for the worst,
    be content with what comes.”

    May the boat be all that Mike dreams it to be!

  10. With regards to a sextant; it seems that when I am in need of the most accurate bearing, my sightings come from a pitching deck, and, “dead reckoning” seems to be the most I can do.

    • ie she will puddle along under sail before the wind but be a dog into the wind without power

  11. Careful what you say at the airport security willis. Lord knows what they will think is in your luggage and with todays vocabulary is you tell them its a SEXtant you might find yourself detained. Have a fun trip.

    • Once had them confiscate a roll of black electrical tape. She said it could be used to make bombs. Totally ignored boxes of electronics in the same suitcase.

  12. “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
    And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
    And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
    And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.”
    -John Masefield
    Sea Fever
    P.S., I keep my sextant handy, too.

  13. My wife and I thought about buying a boat in case we need to make a rapid escape (for whatever reason) from our community on the water; however, we know that a boat is really a hole in the water into which you are required to pour money. Therefore, we are seeking friends who have a good get-a-way boat. We will supply the guns and ammo.
    I have not done any celestial navigation since I left active Naval service in 1976, but I still have my navigation and piloting texts from “boat” school, so I can brush up, but I do not have a sextant like the one pictured above. I understand that the “boat” school is bringing back instruction in celestial navigation because depending on GPS is not prudent because the navigation satellites may be targeted in a major conflict.

  14. Got off the water & still recall day was told: “It is better to have sailed, than to sail.”

  15. Careful now W, Polar Bears are now climatise to Pacific climates, watch out for Polar Bears!
    have a good one lad, no buggery now, we know what you sailors are like :p

  16. I use the “Long Term Almanac 2000-2050 for the Sun and Selected Stars” by Geoffrey Kolbe with my bubble sextant. It covers 40 stars and can be reduced to 10 laminated A4 sheets. Including a flat Bygrave ruler, plotting sheets and work form for the reduction tables. In short, all you need to do your sight reductions where ever you are for the next 35 years. The bygrave ruler may introduce a little reading error, but it should put you within 2 minutes of your location, plus measurement inaccuracies of course.
    All in a neat little package for the modern navigator on the go (they usually are).

  17. My wife has a rule of thumb too: never set foot on any boat from whose deck one can see the water on both sides at the same time!

  18. Another- the two best times with a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.
    As another Boat School grad, I was navigator on my second ship and took star sights and apparent noon fixes daily. It is a honed skill. Every evening all ships in the group submitted their positions and it was interesting how different they were.It is not just the sight, but all the wonderful math errors that await.

  19. A couple of young lads [pre-teens] at a local school were photographed at their eco-day or something similar.
    They had designed an environmentally friendly wind powered boat.
    Didn’t like to tell them that it already been done

  20. Lovely, lovely writing Willis.
    My best friend is an MM and I pass on the lines I sent him before a recent and successful voyage from Brisbane:
    Travel slow
    enjoy the ride*
    *Bernard Fanning Departures

  21. “Anyhow, that’s enough for Monday. I fly on Wednesday and arrive on Friday because of the International Date Line”
    You reminded me of my lost birthday. On April 4, 1967 I was en route by airplane to South Viet Nam as a newly minted Army helicopter pilot about to begin the real part of his aviator training. As midnight approached I anticipated turning 23 years old on April 5. At the stroke of midnight the stewardess strolled down the aisle announcing that we had just crossed the International Date Line, and welcome to April 6. I therefore count myself as only 71 this year instead of 72!

  22. Fair winds, Willis, I am quite jealous.
    Thorkild’s Song excerpt:
    “So all you Gods that love brave men,
    Send us a three-reef gale again!
    Send us a gale, and watch us come,
    With close-cropped canvas slashing home!
    But–there’s no wind on all these seas,
    A long pull for Stavenger!
    So we must wake the white-ash breeze,
    A long pull for Stavenger!”-Kipling\
    Had that on the bulkhead of a DC-7 Airtanker..
    At the end of a long fire season iit spoke to me..
    You, like me, have a tolerant first mate…

  23. Bula,
    Our paths will cross (Nadi Tuesday, Labasa Wednesday, Suva Sunday). Note that the Fiji government is heavily invested in “Climate Change” for the sake of handouts and aid. The papers have a climate change story pretty much every day without any scepticism or questioning. The trades are blowing from the south east so you should have fair weather…cyclones not withstanding!

  24. Being a lazy SOB, I’ve discovered that noon sights are perfectly adequate for Ocean crossings. Get you within a mile or so. Also great on days (twilights) too cloudy for a star sight, but with a blurry image of the sun through light clouds. Modern timepieces are plenty adequate for this task. I start at 11:45 local, keep logging sights til 12:45, then taking the highest as local noon.
    Works for me, I know where I am.

  25. Thank you. Always a pleasure to share a visit with you. My first mate has put up with my bullshit for 50 years. A good one makes a good life.

  26. God’s speed on your travels.
    I have read every comment on this thread and had a good laugh at many.
    You are now duty bound to give us a full report on your travels either as you go or upon your return from the adventure.
    My boating has been done on the canals of the UK putt putting along at 3-4mph with friends, we tended into two groups those wanting to get to a specific place for the night and those who were just happy to potter along and get to wherever we ended up I was in the latter group and life was slow and pleasant no pressure other than should we have a cup of tea?
    James Bull

  27. ‘Ice’ looks like one of George Buehlers ‘Troller’ motor sailer designs. Nice boats. They’ll get you from port to port at a nice and steady 7-8 knots under power, or 3-4 knots under sail, which isn’t bad.
    Fair winds and steady seas to you.

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