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"Confessions of a Long-Distance sailor"
Copyright © 1991 — 2005, P. Lutus

An account of an around-the-world solo sail in a 31-foot boat, 1988-1991

Chapter 9 — The Caribbean to Oregon

January 28 — Day 2, St. Thomas to Panama

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and (within a few days) the 24th anniversary of the 1967 Apollo fire. I was just getting started in electronics in 1967, and later I worked on the Space Shuttle, so for me this date has special meaning.

The Apollo fire took place during a ground test, a sort of dress rehearsal of the moon mission, with the astronauts strapped into the command module. The command module was designed to be pressurized, so the astronauts wouldn't have to wear space suits while underway. Someone realized the spacemen could breathe pure oxygen instead of air, and the pressure of the oxygen would only have to be one-fifth as great (because air is only one-fifth oxygen). The spacecraft would only have to withstand one-fifth the pressure, it would weigh less, the booster rocket could be smaller, and so on.

When the spacecraft was on the ground, they had to make the inside and outside pressures the same, so they raised the oxygen pressure to normal air pressure. This was a terrible mistake. Pure oxygen, at the pressure of air, is very dangerous. In an oxygen atmosphere you can touch a flame to a piece of steel and it will burn with an unearthly white light. Almost anything will burn. Now: Try to imagine putting out a piece of burning steel.

They say a brief short-circuit made a spark, and the spark ignited nearby materials. Everybody was in a hurry to get to the moon before the Russians, so people were taking shortcuts — for example, using ordinary wire instead of the approved fireproof kind. In the investigation that followed the fire it was discovered that a lot of things that were safe while in space (at one-fifth pressure) would burn on the ground. And there were some things in the spacecraft that weren't safe anywhere.

By the way, the Russians were also racing somewhat recklessly into space, and they had a disaster of their own a few years before. While trying to launch a Mars probe something went wrong, a group rushed onto the launch pad to repair the booster, and it blew up. Many of their best scientists and engineers were killed.

I was a young, idealistic technician at the time, and I wanted to be an engineer someday, maybe build part of a spacecraft. When I heard about the Apollo fire I swore I would never cut corners, never risk the safety of astronauts.

Years later I got my wish — I designed some electronic devices for the Space Shuttle. And I got to see the politics of space first-hand.

I have to tell this story carefully, since the people I worked with are still in the aerospace business, and I don't want to single out anyone for what is normal industry practice.

But back to my story — my design was nearly finished, and met the strict safety and reliability requirements for manned space flight. Then some officials appeared and told me the voltage on the Shuttle would sometimes be higher than they originally thought — my design would experience greater stress than anticipated — could I reassure them no problems would result?

Within my company I let it be known that I would have to make some changes to keep the electrical stresses within safe limits, to prevent the possibility of smoke and fire. But there was another contract coming up and the managers in my company didn't want to make waves. So they overruled me — the managers intended to announce there was no problem.

Does this sound familiar? After the Challenger disaster it certainly did to me — it turned out an engineer had tried to warn NASA not to launch, that the solid rocket boosters were dangerous, but his managers overruled and silenced him.

My story has a better ending. After I was overruled, I wrote a letter of resignation. In my letter I explained the risks and said I would rather resign than allow dangerous hardware onto the Shuttle. And I pressed my letter into more hands than absolutely necessary. The embarrassment level got pretty high and the managers backed down — I was allowed to make the necessary changes.

Does this make me a hotshot, a moral person? Not really. I wasn't married, no children to support, I could afford to lose my job for a principle. Besides, I was able to imagine what would happen to me if I caused a Shuttle failure — kids on the street saying "There's the guy who killed all those astronauts and the schoolteacher."

I didn't become an engineer just to design things. I wanted to design them right. I was a bit too idealistic for the engineering profession, whose motto is "Ship it." So I changed careers — I got into computer science.

January 30 — Day 4

The wind gets above 30 knots every day and the wave heights are amazing. And the sea is too rough to go fast. I had been trying for better than six knots, but that was too greedy. A gust came up this morning and broke a sheet block.

I reduced sail after the block broke. Now I have the smallest sail plan I've ever used on a downwind sail — just the staysail on the starboard side and a small bit of the jib poled out to port. The ride is slower but more comfortable.

These are the conditions this boat was built for. Huge seas approach from aft and the canoe stern usually rises up and parts them. A flat transom boat would be shipping most of these waves aboard. Even this boat gets some of the bigger, breaking waves, so I have to stay inside a closed cabin most of the time. Sometimes my electronic tiller doesn't react fast enough and the boat gets twisted beam-to. Then the closed portholes momentarily fill with water, but the boat recovers on its own.

Last night a flying fish flew right through the overhead hatch and landed in my bed. He started thrashing about, wishing he was somewhere else. Then I woke up, felt his greasy little body on my stomach, and wished that too.

I am getting used to these seas, but I am missing a lot of sleep. It could be worse — I could be sailing upwind.

February 3 — Day 7

Last night I took a huge wave aboard, which rolled right into the cabin. It was the sixth night of the passage and I was beginning to suffer from lack of sleep.

I realized I was getting into a dangerous situation — the wind kept getting stronger, finally peaking at 45 knots, and I was sailing toward a coast that is continuous, with no large bays or passages. If I missed the entrance to the Panama Canal I wouldn't be able to turn about and sail against the wind, and I would be forced against the rocks.

Because of the wind and seas I had begun to spend more and more time inside the closed cabin, to keep the water out. But about midnight the waves seemed to be going down and I wanted to look for the entrance lights with the binoculars (remember my radar is out). I opened the hatch, crawled into the cockpit and began to scan forward for navigation lights or the glow of cities.

Then the boat began to roll violently, a sign of a big wave. I looked over my right shoulder to see a wall of water approaching from the North. The wave grew steeper and began to break, and rolled the boat down so the port side rail went in. Just then another wave, a reflected wave from the nearby coast, broke across the port side and the two waves completely covered the boat. I was seeing (and tasting) the much-feared "rogue wave," the multiplying effect of two or more waves that meet and break at once. As I was lifted off my feet I wrapped my arms around a shroud and watched the water pour through the open hatch into the cabin.

In a moment the water receded and my feet found the deck again. I dove into the cabin and closed the hatch. Everything inside the cabin was wet. All my clothes, bedding, radios, charts, everything.

I very much want to tell you that I whistled a tune as I toweled off my charts and electronic gear, but I was just too tired, scared and angry. I was completely wet and I hadn't even made out Panama's lights for my trouble. I crouched in the cabin and screamed my frustration. I said unkind things about the sea. I used words normally reserved for women of low character, usually spoken by men of low character. I tried to invent new oaths.

This was different from several years ago. There was no terror, no respectful silence now. I was in the position of the child that knows it is loved unconditionally. I was disrespectful to the sea because I know she loves me. She will punish me, perhaps even kill me, but she will not stop loving me. I know this.

Later I found a dry quilt in a locker the sea had not reached. I took off my wet things, wrapped myself in the quilt and lay down for a while. As my anger abated I reflected that the sea, even in its worst moments, has been kinder to me than any person I have known. This made me angry all over again, because someday I want to meet a person as kind and balanced as the sea.

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking — why is a grown man talking this way? For your answer, you must hear a minimalist composition performed by the wind, watch dolphins play in moonlight, and listen to the whales singing as you are rocked to sleep by the sea. If this happens to you once, you are still fit material for human company. If it happens to you every night for several years, you can visit the people who live on land, but you will not belong to them ever again.

(February 5)

I have visited enough offices now, filled out enough forms — I go through the Panama Canal in two days. I am anchored near the town of Cristobal on the Atlantic side. There aren't any marine stores here, but I have managed to repair most of the damage from the Caribbean crossing.

Panama's recent history is like a perversion of colonialism, which is itself a perversion. Ordinarily a small Central American country like this would have been liberated some time ago, and perhaps the Panamanians would have adopted a system like Costa Rica, their neighbor to the West: no standing army, few serious problems. But too many big and small players want a piece of Panama.

Cristobal is not so much a town as a camp for economic refugees — shattered buildings, piles of garbage, a sense of desperation even in daylight. Armed guards are everywhere. If there is something of value, a bank, a grocery store, there is a barricade and a man with a gun at the entrance. People are warned not to leave the marina after dark. Some boat owners recently disregarded this advice and went to town for dinner. The customers at the next table finished eating, paid their bill, then pulled guns and robbed them.

Yesterday I visited the bank to buy a stamp required by Immigration. As I walked back to the Canal office building I heard the sound of automatic weapons, a sound that startled only me. Later I was told bandits robbed the bank just after I left it.

Today I rode from the Canal office to the grocery in a taxi, and watched the town go by. I was struck by the terrible condition of the streets, and even more by the force of will and optimism in the faces of the Panamanians. I had seen this in other places — Sri Lanka comes to mind — people of such strength of character that they step over a pile of shattered masonry to meet a friend, push away a ruined environment with a wave of the hand, a shouted greeting.

These were real, living people, happy against all reason. They couldn't file a class-action suit, sign a consent decree, or sail away. I didn't have the strength of character to live as they did, nor even to witness their lives — in their wrecked streets I felt like a cardboard man. Then my vision started getting blurry for some reason. I didn't want my driver to think I pitied his people, so I paid him and walked the rest of the way.

February 12 — Day 3, Panama to Hawaii

I traversed the Panama Canal with a group of five sailboats, anchoring in Gatun Lake overnight. The boats are tied together in twos and threes in the locks, and then secured to shore with long lines, before the water level changes. Gatun Lake is fresh water, so as soon as the anchors were down everybody went swimming.

I didn't swim as long as the others because I had some chores to do before dark. As I sat in the cockpit planning my next move, I spotted a fresh-water crocodile about seven meters long, cruising slowly near the shore. I yelled "Crocodile!" And suddenly it was like the beach scene in "Jaws," people scrambling out of the water. Fortunately the croc remained visible, cruising along, his nose, eyes, and dorsal scales seen by all, or I might have been lynched.

As I motored along I remembered how much mechanical trouble I had at the Suez Canal. Then I began hearing an unfamiliar sound — but I decided it was my imagination. Later I checked and found a hole in the exhaust manifold, the same part that failed in Suez — but this is a new part that I had built in Spain, only six months ago. I couldn't fix it right then so I wrapped a rubber patch around it, held in place with some radiator clamps.

When I got to the Pacific side of the canal I found a taxi driver that knew the town and we spent several hours trying to locate parts. I didn't find the parts but I saw more of Panama. The driver pointed out an area that seemed to have been squashed by a big hand — it was Manuel Noriega's neighborhood. The story goes that Noriega drove out in a private car as the bombs fell.

This sail, between Panama and Hawaii, will be my longest passage, probably 40 days, possibly more. I had intended to stop in Costa Rica, but as I came near it the wind piped up and I realized I had better keep sailing, since this is an area of light winds and frequent calms.

February 15 — Day 6

I haven't gotten to the trade winds yet, so winds are light, and sometimes contrary. After dark a moderate wind blows from the North. After sunrise it weakens and shifts to the West, a small headwind, not enough to sail with. So I have to motor in the afternoon, in order not to go backwards.

I know this will be a long crossing, so I am trying to conserve my supplies — you know, fuel, water, cookies — the essentials.

I measured the inside of my favorite cup, then filled it with water by pressing the foot-pump. The cup holds 16 cubic inches and two presses of the pump filled it, so (skipping some math here) each pump is about 1/30th of a gallon. I have been counting how many pumps I use, and I find I'm using about six-tenths of a gallon a day. After I run out of sodas I think I'll probably need a gallon a day. I have 60 gallons on board. So I have enough water to make it to Hawaii unless I break my mast.

Did you know it takes eight times as much fuel per hour to make a boat go twice as fast? This is called the "Cube rule," because the fuel used per hour increases as the cube of speed (it's true for cars too, once air resistance becomes important). So when I have to motor I use the lowest throttle setting — I go only 2 1/2 knots but use a tiny amount of fuel. I have 70 gallons on board, a lot for a little boat like this. I packed it on board, mostly in jerry cans, before the Red Sea passage, only to lose my engine and carry a lot of fuel a long way for no reason.

That takes care of fuel and water. Now cookies. In my time as a sailor I have come to realize that cookies can sustain shipboard morale better than almost anything. So I packed an obscene number of cookies for this passage — oatmeal, chocolate chip, gooey vanilla filled, the worst examples of the baker's art.

In the evening, usually while watching a movie, I reach for a bag of cookies, resolving to have only a few. After the movie I sit in the cockpit, watch for freighters, adjust sails — and have some more cookies. Around midnight my hand is buried in an empty bag — It looks as if I'm designing an "Elephant Man" puppet.

But it's impossible to pack enough cookies for a long passage. About a year ago I tried saltine crackers instead — they lasted just fine, in fact I still have some of them — but I was a basket case. I mean, who wants to watch "Pee-wee Herman's Big Adventure" while eating saltine crackers?

Sooty Shearwaters on the bow
I've been seeing plenty of dolphins and whales. One morning I had to steer away from a breeding pair of whales and two young, California Grays I think, sleeping on the surface. Most evenings some dolphins play around the boat. A few nights ago I watched phosphorescent trails of dolphins — like in the Indian Ocean — but this time there was almost no wind and the surface was calm, so I could see the outline of their bodies in glowing green beneath the surface. I went to the bow and called to them, and remembered not to whistle, and they came up and looked me over (I have noticed some dolphins think your whistle is a warning and swim away).

A few days ago a group of six birds (sooty shearwater, puffineus griseus) landed on the boat when the headwind was strong. I guess they wanted to go West like me and got tired of flying. In the evening they crowded along the bow rail and looked cute, so I let them stay. The next morning the entire boat was covered in bird droppings. Some of the flock had taken positions on the mast spreaders during the night and, well, do you know the term "carpet-bombing?" So I chased them off, then washed my boat.

February 20 — Day 11

The trade winds have started — the wind is becoming more steady in strength and direction. The ride is smoothing out, I don't have to change sails so much.

Shearwaters on the mast
The sooty shearwaters are becoming real pests — every day they land on the spreaders and refuse to leave. They have figured out I won't hurt them — so my shouting and arm-waving has no effect. They carry on endless conversations using squawks, beaks and wings punctuated by, um, solid waste discharges. I tried to scare them by firing a shotgun round, just for the noise. They all crapped at once, then resumed their conversation.

Last night I was looking through the binoculars at the Andromeda galaxy and the nebula in Orion — both interesting objects and easy to see with binoculars. The Andromeda galaxy is a big spiral galaxy that is thought to have the shape of our own. But only a time-lapse photograph through a large telescope shows it as a galaxy — through binoculars it just looks like an oval of glowing gas. When astronomers first saw it, they called it a "planetary nebula" and thought it was a gas cloud close by. Now we know it is a galaxy in its own right, very far away.

The Orion nebula (located on Orion's "belt") really is a local cloud, a mixture of gas and dust, and astronomers believe stars are forming there. Supposedly some of the mixture falls together through the force of gravity, and as it comes together its density becomes very high. Then some of the atoms begin to fuse together and release energy. The energy radiates outward, preventing any further increase in density, and blowing any extra material out of the neighborhood — voila, a star.

Apart from being a star cradle, the Orion nebula is very pretty through binoculars, even on a rocking boat. As I watched I realized I hadn't seen this nebula or the Andromeda galaxy so clearly before — then I remembered it's usually cloudy where I live in Oregon at this time of year. Also there's (need I say) no city lights here to spoil the nice dark sky.

I put the binoculars aside and checked my sails. Then I saw something scary — my mast-head light had gone out! I've gotten adjusted to not having radar any more, but sailing without navigation lights is asking for trouble.

I checked the switches and circuit breakers with no result. I quickly realized there was only one remedy — I would have to climb the mast and replace the bulb. And it would have to be now, both because the water is calmer at night, and I didn't want to sail a dark boat even one night.

I took down the sails to slow the boat as much as possible, and put the ladder over the side (in case I fell off the mast and wasn't killed, I could swim back and climb aboard). But once the sails came down the boat started bobbing like a cork and the mast swung wildly.

I started up the mast, taking a step when the boat wasn't rolling and holding on when it was. I managed to get halfway up when two sooty shearwaters suddenly took flight with a squawk, almost hitting me with their little wet calling cards. These two miserable birds had been perched on top of my mast on either side of the navigation light, blocking it from view!

Little web-footed gangsters.

I want to talk about batteries. Normally one doesn't spend much time thinking about batteries, but on a modern sailboat it comes to you that you must be nice to them or you will be punished — you might have to hand-steer your boat, in complete darkness, without sleep, forever.

My wind vane doesn't work, so instead I use an electronic tiller. I have electric navigation lights. My satellite navigation receiver requires electricity. I even need electricity to take a sextant sight, only because I am lazy and make my computer do the math.

If I had a complete electrical failure, I have a plan to carry on, but it would be a painful, sleepless experience. I would sail up to the latitude of Hawaii using the North Star for guidance, then sail West. That's the oldest and easiest method for navigation, used by the old-time sailors until accurate shipboard clocks were developed. I would have to figure out how to steer the boat without electricity, but there are some tricks for that also. Finally, because I would have no lights, I would have to stay alert, so no sleep.

In Israel I met an American sailor who doesn't worry about these things — he has almost no electronic equipment, and he sleeps a lot. He crashed into a freighter in the Red Sea. His bow was squashed but he was all right. Hey man — no problem.

I am thinking about electricity lately because of the masthead light story, and because my alternator stopped alternating a few days ago while I was motoring. An alternator is a fairly simple gadget, some coils of wire and diodes, the engine spins it, it makes electricity. I mean usually.

I have three ways to charge my batteries — the alternator, a windmill, and two solar panels. Unless the wind is brisk the windmill won't keep the batteries charged. The solar panels help but even on a sunny day they can't do the job alone.

So I realized if I lost the alternator, and I continued to have no wind and little sunlight, I might as well have lost the batteries. So pretty soon I sat in a pile of alternator parts, checking them one by one with a meter.

Everything checked out. The nine diodes, the four coils of wire, the brushes, everything seemed okay. I reassembled it and tested it again, thinking I might have cured it by taking it apart and putting it together. But no.

Finally I realized it wasn't a broken part, it was how two of them were (or weren't) connecting. The field brushes, a couple of pieces of carbon, were pressing against the contacts for the field coil (the part that spins) as they should. The brushes and the field coil tested okay separately, but when they were put together there was no electrical connection between them.

It turns out a thin layer of enamel had formed on the field contacts, probably because of the salt air. The brushes couldn't connect to the field coil, therefore no magnetic field and no electricity. I cleaned off the enamel and the alternator came back from the dead.

But I digress. I was going to talk about batteries. If you own a car and it isn't too cold where you live, you probably think about batteries every other year. I think about batteries every day. Are they charged enough? Charged too much? Has something been left turned on that will discharge them? Do they have enough distilled water in them? Do I have enough distilled water on board for the passage?

When I bought this boat, there were a couple of ordinary car batteries on board. They say if you completely discharge a car battery about five times, or allow it to sit discharged for a while, it will be ruined and you might as well throw it away. I realized mine were dead, so I bought some new ones for my first passage to Hawaii.

In Hawaii I left the boat in a marina for about four months while I traveled back to Oregon. One day there was a big rainstorm. Some of the rain made its way into my bilge. The automatic bilge pump tried to pump out the water, but there was too much water and not enough battery, so the batteries died. When I returned I bought some new ones.

By the time I got to Fiji I had destroyed battery pair number three. By this time I had learned something about batteries, so I bought some "deep-cycle" batteries, the kind that tolerate repeated complete discharge. They were pretty good batteries and lasted about a year.

In the Caribbean I couldn't charge them any more so I went battery shopping again. One shop reassured me they had some great batteries and I should come by very soon. When I got there they discovered they had run out of the great batteries but they had some pretty good ones in the warehouse. When we got to the warehouse they discovered they had run out of the pretty good ones but had some good ones. Since mine were dead I decided good was better.

But, in spite of some glorious labels saying "deep-cycle" and "maintenance-free" and "24-month warranty," these batteries died in one month of sailing. Naturally by that time I was in a completely different island and country — I was on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And I found a shop that actually did have some great batteries. They were unlike anything I had seen before. To begin with, there were no water caps on top. They could be mounted upside-down, it didn't matter. I had read about them in a magazine and heard favorable reports from other sailors. Two of them cost 650 dollars.

They're the best batteries I've ever abused. They charge in a shorter time and discharge over a longer time. I don't have to carry distilled water any more. They tolerate complete discharge, over and over. It came to me that if I had known about these batteries in the beginning, I would have saved money by buying them, at $650 a pair, instead of the five pairs of batteries I bought at about $200 a pair.

March 2 — Day 21

Today marks the halfway point of distance for this passage — as I write I am 2208.5 nautical miles from Morro Puercos, the final point of land Southwest of Panama, and the same distance from Hilo, Hawaii.

My average speed is increasing — the second half of this passage seems faster and I probably won't need 42 days to get to Hilo. And I hope I don't — by then cookies would be a distant memory.

For the last five days there's been a big storm to the Northwest, disrupting the normal trade wind pattern. Every day I pick up a weather chart on the radio, and in the area of Hawaii for nearly a week the wind has been blowing exactly backwards — from the West. My winds have been light but not contrary — I'm glad I'm not farther West right now.

I have been watching the ocean swell, and it gives ample evidence of the storm. Beneath the local wind-driven waves you can see a long swell with a height of about a meter, smoothed-out remnants of big storm-driven seas. But you can't feel the swell inside the boat, it is too gradual. You have to look.

I haven't seen a ship or boat in 18 days, which is all right with me. Early in the passage I saw a few freighters, then I realized I was in the middle of one of the great-circle shipping lanes. So I wrote a program that calculates my distance from each of the known lanes — I use the readout to avoid them.

I know modern ships use complicated methods to decide where to sail, but the average ship is still in the center of the lane. I have been steering to the South of the great-circle track between Panama and Hawaii, trying to keep clear by more than 100 miles.

I was thinking — at the moment I am more than 2000 miles from land in any direction (except a small bit of Mexico). That means (punching a few calculator buttons) an area of more than 12 million square miles of water, mostly empty.

The bridge on a typical freighter is 65 feet off the water. This means the visible horizon is (punch, punch) about nine miles away. So in my empty ocean with a radius of 2000 miles I can fit (punch, punch) about 38,000 freighters in such a way that they are invisible to each other, and me. I mean assuming they wanted to play my little game. Lucky for me, there probably aren't that many freighters in the world, and certainly not out here.

Let's see — a freighter is invisible nine miles away. That means a fast one, going 30 knots, can move from being invisible to being kissing close in 18 minutes. So if I wanted to responsibly watch out for ships, I would have to scan the entire horizon every nine minutes. Apart from from getting no sleep at all, in 40 days I would have to look 6,400 times.

Forget it. I want to read a book, listen to the radio, and I absolutely must sleep. Instead I'll rely on the kindness of the sea — and probability.

March 7 — Day 26

The sooty shearwaters, the web-footed gangsters, have gone. Now the only birds I see are an occasional Red-Billed Tropicbird, and another, smaller bird that never comes near my boat. I sometimes see him speeding across the waves at a distance. This little bird looks and flies like a swallow, has the swallow's streamlined wings and forked tail, and flies very fast. I can't find any ocean birds like him in my book.

The trade winds are back — the normal Pacific High has reestablished itself to the North, the sun is out, and the wind has curved around behind the boat for the first time this passage.

Now that I'm within 2000 miles of Oregon, the radio link to my house is working again — I can send and receive printed messages. It's nice to hear what's going on in my neighborhood. I can read a bit of news and pretend I am there.

In my time as a sailor I have adjusted — completely — to being at sea. In the beginning the isolation of the sea was overwhelming, a matter of immediate and constant attention, even a little anxiety. Now I am simply at sea — if I want I can enjoy the look of the water, imagine the empty expanse of water around my boat, or I can tune in the B.B.C. or read a book.

It comes to me that I may have adjusted so completely to the sea that I will have an equally difficult adjustment to living on the land. Out here I can withdraw from the reality of the sea, but what will I do when the sea itself is no longer available to me? When the neighbor's dog is barking at 3 AM and I can't just sail away?

On the other hand, there are places on the land I miss — the desert most of all. I have been thinking about the desert today, remembering places I have visited.

I used to prowl the desert in Eastern Oregon in a Super Cub, an old-fashioned, rugged airplane that you can set down almost anywhere. I would leave in the early morning, fly East until the afternoon, then find an old jeep trail or dry lake to land in. I would bring a sleeping bag, water, some canned food. And a telescope.

From the perspective of modern times, the most striking thing about the desert is its complete economic irrelevance. Rapacious real-estate moguls yawn, their eyes glaze over, at mention of the desert. No one is about to turn it into condos and malls — there lies its magic.

In the desert you can read nature's unblemished handwriting. No signs tell you why an anthill is in a particular place — there are plenty of walks, none of them interpretive. And in a few days the silence of the desert gets inside you, infects you with a sense of eternity, and the certain irrelevance of all our works.

I think this comes to me now, while sailing, because the desert is the part of the land most like the sea. With this difference — the desert's silence is deeper.

March 14 — Day 33

The weather has been awful for five days — high wind and waves, rain, no sunlight. But Selene is riding here better than the Caribbean, because there are no land masses to reflect waves. So, even though the waves are high and sometimes break over the side, they don't engulf the cabin like before.

A night's high wind blew my radio antenna away, so I rigged a temporary replacement and raised it on the main halyard. This antenna broke, too, and that left the main halyard stranded on top of the mast.

The main halyard is the line that I use to raise the mainsail, and so far it's been too rough to go up the mast and recover it. Fortunately the wind is so strong I haven't needed the mainsail anyway. The weather has been so consistently windy I think I may get all the way to Hilo (four more days) without having to retrieve it.

But I have worked out a plan to retrieve the halyard, just in case the wind goes down. I would trail a line and a float in the water to grab onto in case I should fall. I would fly only the staysail, to keep the boat from rocking too much. It occurred to me the mast would be steadier if I flew all the sails, but the boat would move too fast — if I fell off there's no way I could get back on board, even with a line to grab hold of. At the other extreme I could take down all the sails and lie ahull, not moving through the water, but I tried that when the web-footed gangsters hid my light — riding the mast was pretty violent even though the seas were moderate.

There are two ways to go up a mast — steps and bosun's chair. A bosun's chair is a cloth seat attached to a line, the line is raised up the mast and takes you along. But normally someone must winch the line for you, so there has to be someone else on board. If you have steps on your mast you can climb them alone, so I put in steps when I got this boat.

When the weather gets rough, the mast is the least stable place on the boat. So if you must climb it you have to choose a good moment — and then hang on. If you are in a bosun's chair and lose your grip, you become the weight on the end of a pendulum (the line) and you crash into the mast again and again. I know a woman who broke her arm doing this. On the other hand, if you are on steps and you lose it, you fall — either onto the deck or the water.

March 17 — Arrival Day

The weather is still windy and cloudy — I can't see much. But I am so close that the Big Island has become a dark mass in front of me.

I am thinking today about arrival — how I adjust to the land. I remember the first time I approached this island — I tried to imagine sailing in, dropping my anchor, but I was still completely at sea, embraced by the timeless waves. Then a propeller-driven airplane passed overhead, and its droning announced the existence of land activities: governments, armies, populations of happy shoppers. In an instant I awakened from the sea, became a citizen of a western country with certain privileges and responsibilities. After the airplane passed there was a silence that had not been there before — the machine had spoken and I had heard it. I was breathing but holding my breath.

Since then I have moved from sea to land many times, and I don't change so completely when I come to shore. In a way I don't yet understand, I am no longer a citizen — I am given over to the waves, even while on land. My experiences on shore have come to seem metaphorical — reefs and passages, risks and opportunities, and a sense that I must keep the boat moving.

Return to Hawaii (Selene at left)
But there is one difference between my experience of sea and land: when I am at sea, women are perfect. Perfect in form and thought, creative, ingenious, heart-stopping. I know this is a defect in my character, unfair to actual women, and it might be why I put to sea again and again.

The water is turning light green, becoming shallow. I see floating bits of wood.

(March 24)

I arrived in Hilo on the 17th, a very wet day, 35 days after leaving Panama. And 724 days from the day I left Hilo, in March 1989, to sail around the world. My little sea-level spacecraft has taken almost exactly two years to orbit the earth — the Space Shuttle covers the same distance in 90 minutes.

What if Selene really were a spacecraft — what kind of planet takes two years to orbit? If my boat made the same two-year circle in space that it's made on the sea, the central planet would have to be very small — just 350 miles in diameter, smaller than many asteroids. A planet with a surface area greater than Texas but less than Alaska. Standing on it I would weigh a quarter of an ounce. My boat, which on Earth weighs 16,000 pounds, would weigh one pound six ounces. A jumbo candy bar.

It's coming to me as I write this — I have sailed around the world alone. The earth is round, I can report this to you as personal experience — I wonder whether the Flat Earth Society will have me as an honorary, sacrilegious member?

I met a sailor here in Hilo whose rigging broke as he sailed from Los Angeles. His mast came down, after which he could only sail downwind slowly. Then he was hit by the storm I saw on my daily weather charts, the one with the backward winds — he was blown back toward California 300 miles. He ran out of food and water in his 89 day sail to Hilo. My worst passage was a walk in the park by comparison.

I have been shopping here in Hilo, and some products seem dramatically better, especially for someone who has been out of the country for two years. My new mountain bike is better, shifts easier, has more gears, and was $200 less than the salt-water casualty I threw overboard in the Red Sea.

I have always compared bicycles with my first, which I found in a junkyard when I was 12. I rode that bike until I was 18 and working. It was horrible the first day I owned it and as the years went by it got worse. It was uniformly rust-colored and I never had to lock it up. It didn't need a bell or horn — the sound of grinding metal was enough warning. I rode it to my high school, a place where some people had better cars than other people. My classmates dreamt about bigger engines — I dreamt about having a front fender.

If I had seen this new bicycle when I was 12 I would have started salivating uncontrollably and been put under sedation. I would have ridden it to school beside myself with joy — and I would still have been a complete misfit when I got there.

I like this new bike, but shopping in Hilo seems different from two years ago. But it comes to me that the town is the same — I have changed. I have a different view of what's normal. I visited the shopping mall to buy all the things that broke or wore out at sea, but I could hardly stand to be there — inside the building there was an atmosphere of relentless seriousness, an almost religious commercial fervor. The bright, colorful stores faced onto a drab corridor, like altars in a secular church.

I made my way to a bench in shock. I will confess that I was once an outright lover of shopping malls, but in spite of the muzak and the sound of beeping cash registers, there was no sign that this was a real market — no one arguing a price or visiting a friend, no food vendors with little carts, no dirt.

But I had to buy certain things to make my boat whole again. I had to stay and visit this place, so I tried to raise my spirits with memories of a more pleasant market. I remembered the fish vendor from Sri Lanka, whose entire commercial establishment — fish, balance scale, profits — fit on the back of his bicycle. A man who could be wiped out by a thorn, but who smiled everywhere he went.

I thought about the taxi driver on Cyprus who took me home for lunch — it was on our way, he was hungry, why not? And I recalled the day my friend Ursula and I shopped for a knitted cap in the Arab Quarter of Old Jerusalem — we knew we had bargained as low as we could when the proprietor asked us to leave his shop.

Sailing by a volcano's glow
In America we have better goods in greater quantity than anywhere in the world. So why do we turn customers into robots, and markets into automated factories? At the mall I forgot where I was for a moment — I turned to a salesman and said "This is too much — I can't afford this — how about --" but then I saw the expression on his face, the curious look of an entomologist who has just found an alien bug.

(April 23)

The day I left Hilo I circled around the Big Island clockwise, one of my favorite sails, but one most sailors don't make because it's the "long way." Because the sail takes almost a day, I started in the afternoon so I would arrive at my destination in the light of the following day. As darkness fell I sailed past an active lava flow — lava comes out a vent on Kilauea and flows several miles to the sea. As the lava spills into the ocean it makes great clouds of steam, glowing red from inside. It is a fantastic, primal vision that cuts through you — you are watching the earth bleed.

The next day I sailed into a small bay on the Southwest of the Big Island, a beautiful, remote bay. It is one of the few Hawaiian bays still in a natural state, and the local people have asked me not to say its name. The coral is very pretty and almost untouched.

One afternoon I went for a free-dive, just fins and a mask. I would dive down about 10 meters, grab a rock on the bottom and listen to the whales singing in the distance. Some time ago I realized why I could only hear the whales in deep water — near the surface of the water the sound waves take the path of least resistance and escape into the air, but deeper the waves can't escape and travel horizontally a great distance.

Along with the whales, I could hear some dolphins nearby. As I came up for air, I saw them too — a pod of about eight spinning dolphins, so named because they sometimes jump into the air, spin around, and fall back in. At first I thought I would swim over and take a close look, but before I could act on this idea they swam over to me.

I was in such a remote place that these dolphins hadn't seen many people, and they were as curious as I was. They swam up and surrounded me, looking me over and squeaking their comments. One of the larger members of the group abruptly moved close and I touched him (or her), more or less instinctively, as one might do in a group of people. I know that spinning dolphins are quite shy and don't like to be touched, and I don't think this dolphin meant to move quite that close. But it was nice anyway.

Looking up at passing fish
The dolphins soon lost interest in me and began to swim away, and I followed for a while. It struck me how much they resembled a group of people as they moved along — a family or a group of friends, the younger, smaller individuals trailing behind, exploring, then sprinting to catch up to the group.

And each one so beautiful. I know what I think when I see a beautiful woman — call it a fascination with architecture — but the dolphins put us at a disadvantage. Let's face it — people are pretty lumpy and irregular. Funny little bits and pieces hanging off the oddest places.

As the dolphins left me behind, hanging in the water, wearing a mask to make up for my eyes, and fins to make up for my feet, a floating lump pretending to be a fish, I tried to imagine being a dolphin in love with another dolphin.

The "green flash" is real. For some time I have been watching sunsets, trying to satisfy myself that the phenomenon was real or some kind of optical illusion. One of my theories was that it might be something called an "afterimage," the result of staring at a bright light. If you stare at, say, a red light for a bit and then look away, you will "see" a green light in the same position. This afterimage is produced by your eyes' light sensors being temporarily overloaded, and this was my explanation for the green flash.

Several days ago, here at Puunoa Point on the West side of Maui, I again watched the sun drop below the horizon. This time everything was perfect — there were no clouds or haze near the horizon, the air was calm and clear. And as the sun disappeared, for more than a second the last visible part turned a bright emerald green.

This was impossible to confuse with an afterimage — it lasted too long and was too bright. So I think another of my explanations is correct — the atmosphere acts as a prism, breaking the sun's light into individual colors which take different paths to your eye, and the path for green happens to be the last to disappear. If the earth's atmosphere was completely free of dust and pollution, we might see a "blue flash," but the shortest wavelength of light in the setting sun is green.

Another pretty sunset
I feel kind of silly, having sailed all the way around the world watching sunsets with the aim of proving or disproving the existence of the green flash, only to have a conclusive example presented to me here where I started.

When I visit the West side of Maui I always make a pilgrimage to Olowalu Canyon, a beautiful place in the Western hills. To get to the canyon you have to walk or ride a mountain bike through the sugar-cane fields that separate the narrow developed strip near the beaches from the island's high country.

The route into the canyon takes you across a farmer's land, the canyon itself is extremely rough, becoming nearly a technical rock climb in places, and it is very hot. But it's worth it — a display of rocks and foliage not to be seen elsewhere. And a stream runs through the rocks, augmented by small waterfalls along the way.

Life can be complicated for a farmer. He owns the land, you have no right to be there, but (inevitably) there is something on the other side of his land you want to see. He can't afford to let you think it's okay to cross his land, especially now that anybody can get sued for anything, but fences and signs are expensive, and it's a lot of work jumping up and down and yelling.

So you try not to let the farmer see you. You don't touch anything, you stay away from buildings and vehicles, you conduct yourself with respect and near-invisibility. This was a lot harder when I was 12, but I have more impulse control and sympathy for farmers now.

So I make my way into the canyon. I bring along some sodas and food and I usually stay all day. After I have made my way up to a particularly attractive swimming hole I sit down and take off my shoes. The water is a lot colder than the sea.

The canyon is about 15 miles from the population center of this part of the island, where about ten thousand tourists dwell on the sand. But I almost never see another person in the canyon — hiking in a hot, rocky place isn't part of the "package," the reason people come to Hawaii.

(May 19)

I am anchored in Hanalei Bay on the North coast of Kauai, near the Western end of the Hawaiian chain. This is my favorite island in Hawaii, a green and pretty place.

There are some nice bike rides and hikes here. One of the hikes takes you through a tropical jungle to a high waterfall and a pond — the water is cold but by the time you get there you don't care.

I have been fixing up my wind surfing board — there are some perfect windy beaches nearby, ideal for flying off the tops of waves. I'm about to move to one, so I can windsurf directly from the boat.

I have my summer planned out, and it is a bit more complicated than one would expect for a Hawaiian odyssey. You see, there's a solar eclipse in July, only visible on the Big Island of Hawaii, about 250 miles upwind from here. I've never seen a total solar eclipse, a peculiar situation for someone with a lifelong interest in astronomy, so I'm not going to miss this one.

I want to depart for Oregon in early August, and I naturally enough anchored in Hilo on the Big Island at the end of my crossing from Panama. Normally I would have moved slowly West during the summer and sailed away from Kauai for Oregon, a natural downwind progression — except for the eclipse. So, at the end of June I am going to sail back to the Big Island for the eclipse, which is why I am here at Kauai so early in the season — I didn't want to short-change my favorite island.

Because of the eclipse, people on the Big Island are going crazy. All hotel rooms are booked and have been for a year. They expect an additional 40,000 people, beyond the normal tourists and residents. Officials plan to handle the event as they would a natural disaster.

My plan is to sail to the Northwest part of the Big Island and drop anchor in a little-used bay I know about, then go ashore with my bicycle. But if things are crazier than I imagine, I will drift offshore and watch the eclipse from there.

Planning for the eclipse reminds me of what I realized in 1987 when I first visited Hawaii by airplane and rental car — it's a lot easier in a boat.

(July 16)

The eclipse trip turned out better than I imagined, in fact better than I could have imagined. Before I set sail for the Big Island, a wind surfing friend with an interest in astronomy discovered she couldn't get an airplane seat to the Big Island, so she asked if I would sail her there. She was an experienced sailor, also I had become rather sweet on her in my time on Kauai, so I said yes. I had just sailed around the world alone, thinking from time to time how nice it would be to have some company, so I was ready to try sailing with someone. My friend likes sailing, we knew we would get along, she was a perfect choice. As we began our sail I was in heaven — by the time we got back I was in love.

But I digress — this is supposed to be about the eclipse. We packed her bicycle with mine, bought some extra food and treats, and sailed. On the night of July 9 we crossed from Maui to the Big Island, arriving just after dawn. Before we left Kauai, people said the bay I had chosen was packed full with eclipse-crazed boaters, but that was just talk — it was scarcely more crowded than when I visited in May.

The sky was completely clear that morning, just 24 hours before the eclipse. The weather report called for clear skies — I chose to take this as a good sign, even though Hawaii weather forecasts are incredibly unreliable. We went ashore with our bicycles and toured the area, scouting for places to sit and look at the sky.

The eclipse was to take place at 7:30 in the morning, when the sun was just 20 degrees above the horizon, so I had to choose a spot carefully on such a mountainous island. But I had thought this out during my earlier visit — I was confident we would see the big show unless the weather flaked out.

And guess what? In spite of the weather report, it began to rain during the night. And rain and rain. My friend and I decided to be philosophical about it, maybe we would miss the eclipse — we were having a nice time sailing around, we didn't want to be greedy with nature.

Shortly after dawn we rowed ashore and pedaled our bikes inland a short distance. It was completely overcast. There was a park on the side of the road and I suggested we stop. I figured if we stopped then, we would conserve energy to chase sunbeams later on.

I learned later that 15 miles South of our little park, a group of eclipse watchers, organized by Honolulu's Bishop Museum, waited under cloudy skies. They had paid a lot of money to join the museum tour, and their site had been chosen by experts. Each was armed with a camera and a "sun peep," a little plastic filter that would protect their eyes from the sun's direct rays, assuming the sun ever come out.

During the next hour, my friend and I sat in the little park near the boat, watching the clouds dance and tease. About seven, when the sun was half eaten by the moon, the teasing stopped and a great hole opened up. Some of the people there had gone inside to watch the eclipse on TV, but the sunbeams playing on the ground brought them out again.

At 7:28 the moon gobbled up the last morsels of the sun, and a great shadow swept in from the West. The sky became dark — not black, more like deep twilight. It would have been completely dark except for two things: there were still some clouds around, scattering light from outside the moon's small shadow, and a volcano in the Philippines named Pinatubo had recently erupted, filling the high atmosphere with dust. This dust, which had been making pretty sunsets lately, also scattered some light into the cone of darkness.

But I must tell you — I saw the moon's black disc relentlessly eat the sun, finally blotting out all but a golden ring. We shouted, we said things that would have gotten us in trouble with the Church, then, as the darkness swept in we became animals, silent, primitive, all eyes. But some part of my brain was still working — I looked through my binoculars and saw beautiful purple streamers coming out from the sun, charged particles riding magnetic loops into space.

The show went on more than four minutes — a long time to be turned into an animal. Then the sun reappeared. I knew it was coming back — honest I did.

To the South, the several thousand people in the official Bishop Museum Tour, sun peeps in hand, waited under a total overcast. It became dark for four minutes, then it got light again. They put their sun peeps away and got on the bus.

(July 20)

I am spending my last few days in Hawaii back at my favorite wind surfing beach on Kauai. I have made more friends here than the other islands, also it's prettier and less spoiled. For now.

While in Hawaii I have been exposed to something called "New Age." I was originally going to say "New Age Thinking," but that would be a contradiction in terms. I think this New Age business came to full flower while I was out of the country, not that I could have done anything about it.

New Age is, among other things, crystals, pyramids, astrology, numerology, mysticism, UFO's, ESP, and channels. If you were born before the complete disintegration of reason, i.e., sometime around 1960, you might think these things are harmless and not very interesting. But if you have no training in reason or skepticism, these things aren't quite so harmless.

I heard some amazing things from the New Age people. Naturally I was seen as completely ignorant, after all, I didn't even have an astrological chart with me — how could people relate to me without my chart? So I was given some New Age books to read. And I read them, carefully, more carefully than their owners.

Normally — I mean, once upon a time — a book that presented a new idea did so by supplying: (1) A statement of the idea, (2) scientific proof that the idea isn't bogus, and (3) examples of the idea's usefulness to the reader. Each of the New Age books had (1) and (3) but no (2). One of them talked about blood types — supposedly if you know someone's blood type then you know all sorts of important things about him. Another extolled the magic power of crystals. Yet another explained pyramid power.

And, of course, a book about UFO's — you aren't really New Age if you haven't been contacted by extraterrestrials. Usually they grab you on a dark road with no witnesses, take you inside the UFO and examine you, and tell you things about their world. They won't let you take any souvenirs for proof, not so much as a space gum wrapper. You sneak some photographs, but later you discover the film has been fogged by the aliens so you can only see dark blobs, which the National Enquirer publishes anyway. Naturally the aliens are extremely advanced, and they tell you secrets so important you can't tell anyone else — except the President, who for some reason hasn't answered your letter. Yet.

And channels. Channels are people who are wired in such a way that they have regular contact with (usually famous) dead people. If the dead people were painters, then the channel can paint using their skills, if they are musical composers, then the channel plays for them. You get the idea. But it seems these channels only tune in famous people — I want to meet a democratic channel, who talks to a shoe salesman from Cleveland, someone so boring death was an improvement. Or a tax accountant — you visit the channel and he says "Mr. Ubergeist wants to know, did you file that extension yet?"

So I returned the books, and explained what I thought of them. I really wanted to say that when they were true they weren't interesting and when they were interesting they weren't true, but I thought this might be impolite, so I just said I didn't find any proof between their covers. The response startled me: "But they're books!" That was it — how could they print something that wasn't true? I remember believing this until I was seven.

But even then I didn't realize what I was up against. While visiting the New Age house of a crystal fanatic, I asked what material his crystals were made of. He answered "quartz." I know something about quartz, so I told him what I knew. I explained if you bend quartz, it responds by producing an electric field, and conversely if you apply an electric field the quartz responds by bending. It is this property of quartz, called the "piezoelectric" effect, that makes it useful in clocks — all those digital watches have a little bit of quartz in them, vibrating, keeping them accurate. And computers, and VCR's, anything that needs accurate timing.

By this time my friend's eyes were the size of flying saucers. He had no background in technology — it was all magic, and now I had made his crystals magic by association. I had hoped to show a normal property of quartz, and an everyday use for it, but all I had done was increase its mystery.

At first I was angry — believing in things that are untrue is wasteful and sometimes dangerous. Why would these people believe in things that had no proof, when they could select equally amazing things that were true? But slowly I realized it wasn't a rejection of science and technology — they simply hadn't been taught how to think. They couldn't distinguish between amazing lies and amazing truths — pyramids and penicillin were equally mysterious.

I know some of the reasons for this decline in thinking power. First, public schools tell you what to think instead of teaching how to think. In public school there's an answer to every question — it's simply a matter of consulting the right authority. In real life the most interesting questions have no known answers, or several answers of equal value. But public schools can't prepare you for real life because they are financed by governments. Governments prefer citizens who don't think for themselves, and absolutely love citizens that cannot think at all.

Another reason is the isolation of science from everyday life. Scientists once walked among mortals, but now they are paid by governments and large corporations to work on problems that often have no connection with everyday life. Only rarely does a scientist try to explain science, or scientific reasoning, to the public. Most scientists don't have the time, between teaching more young scientists and trying to conduct research. I worry that science will become something understood and practiced only by specialists, and the skeptical, rigorous scientific outlook will vanish from the lives of ordinary people.

There are other, more subtle forces at work. Once I gave a lecture in which I tried to explain some of Einstein's Theory of Relativity to a group of regular people. I used simple examples, mostly blackboard drawings, and no mathematical equations. The audience began to show signs that they were getting it — they started to understand how it was that the moon stayed up in the sky.

Then a specialist in relativity (who somehow sneaked into my audience) objected that I was making it too simple, I was leaving out a lot. He was right, of course, but I had achieved my aim — my audience wasn't terrified of relativity any more. Now they might open a book and acquire a firm grounding in the subject, where before, relativity had been up there with calculus on the terror scale. I was willing to oversimplify to achieve that.

Some scientists dislike simple descriptions — they worked hard to master their subjects, and see no reason to explain them to ordinary people. I take the opposite position — people must learn about science, the discoveries, the way of thinking. If this doesn't happen, science will become the sole property of governments, people will not grasp the public issues of the future, and democracy will become irrelevant.

July 31 — Day 5, Hawaii to Oregon

This is going to be a tricky sail. To sail from Hawaii to the mainland, you try to move clockwise around the East Pacific High, which has a clockwise wind pattern that carries you along. But the high keeps moving and breaking into pieces. I receive weather charts every day by radio, so I know where the wind is blowing, but the high can move a lot faster than my boat can — sometimes it catches me. If it comes to where I am, the wind dies and I turn on the motor. Like today.

On the other hand, it's pretty and the sea is almost flat. Little puffy clouds. I am traveling North — eventually I get to about 40 degrees North latitude, where the wind is more reliable. Then I sail East to Oregon. But it's about 900 miles to the good wind. I have to manage my fuel carefully, and use every bit of wind that comes along.

I hated leaving Kauai. I spent part of the first day watching it get smaller as I sailed away. I wanted my friend to come sail with me, an idea she found charming but impractical. I would have liked to windsurf some more, visit people I got to know, hike to the Hanakapii waterfall.

Finally I turned around and looked forward again. When sailing it's not a good idea to dwell on where you've just been, some even say it's bad luck. So instead I'll look forward.

When I get to Oregon I will have sailed more than 30,000 nautical miles over a period of 4 years. I haven't seen my Oregon friends in over two years, although I stay in touch with telephone and computer messages. I miss my friends, my house.

I don't know what it will be like living in town after so long at sea, but some things are forever changed. My attitude toward water, for example. I get by on about 1/2 gallon of fresh water per day, both at sea and while visiting ports in the Third World, where water is precious even on shore. In Sri Lanka I collected rain water on tarps and sails, because the shore water was unsafe. But I had it easy — for an African villager, finding unpolluted water is a matter of life and death.

When I want to wash myself I put some sea water in a special plastic bag that heats it up with sunlight. Then I wash. For soap I use Joy, the dish washing liquid, which works even in cold salt water (I don't normally identify a product like this, but Joy works). I can even wash my hair this way, which the sailing books say is impossible.

I use as much salt water as possible, to conserve the fresh. I have 60 gallons on board at the start of a passage, and I rarely use up even half. Consider this: a person taking a five-minute shower uses twice as much water as it took me to get from Panama to Hawaii (35 days).

According to the World Almanac I carry on board, an average American uses about 160 gallons of fresh water per day. This doesn't count really obscene things like washing cars and watering lawns. The average household uses 107,000 gallons per year. With the water used by one American house I could save an African village — if I could just get it there. Then I would teach family planning. But I wouldn't just teach it there.

I recently read a book called "The Population Explosion" by Paul Erlich. Did you know America has five percent of the world's population, but uses up 25 percent of the world's resources? This means, in terms of resources used, each American born equals five world citizens. This is a different way to think about family size, and I wish more people would try it. But it gets worse: the average American uses 100 times the resources of a person from, say, Kenya in Africa.

Today, when an American decides to have a child, 100 African children are cramped a little tighter against the world's unequally shared resources. Some might even die. But in the future it will be much simpler: Each new American born will kill 100 African kids, period.

This way of thinking is called "Lifeboat Ethics." In a crowded lifeboat, if someone new comes on board, someone else has to be thrown off, otherwise the entire boat sinks. It's an awful vision, but because of our uncontrolled birthrate, the earth is more like a lifeboat every day.

Most parents don't think about these moral issues when planning their next child. But when they are cornered into thinking about them, things get interesting. This summer, one young parent-to-be heard my "100 African kids" argument and responded "But smart people should have more kids, to make up for all the dumb people having kids."

She wasn't the first person I've heard this argument from, and she probably won't be the last, but I still wanted to give her the All-Hawaii unlimited-class ethnic insensitivity award. I saw right away she placed herself in the "smart people" category. What she didn't know is that Adolf Hitler had once used the same argument, which (I thought) placed in doubt her high opinion of herself.

Let's assume for a moment that smart people are better people, a view I don't actually hold, and let's further assume that smart people have smart kids (only sometimes). Somebody could decide who gets to have kids (and who doesn't). The problem then becomes: Who decides? The government? The churches? Everybody for themselves (the present system)?

If governments were called upon to decide who the "smart people" are, they wouldn't be able to resist selecting people who are friendly toward the government, or who are politically powerful, or who spend a lot of money — it would be like the present House of Representatives, a total disaster.

And churches would have the same problem, multiplied about ten times. One church had its chance to rule the world and it blew it. It was very dark for a long time. Modern church leaders with an ounce of common sense would politely turn down this chance to play God.

Which puts responsibility in the hands of individuals, where it belongs. People are free to do exactly what they want — I just hope they think more about it than they do now. And I hope they come up with something better than the "smart people" argument. Are smart people necessarily better people? I don't think so. Most mass murderers are above average in intelligence, some are way above. And some smart people do terrible things with their skills.

Take Edward Teller, for example. He was a physicist on the Manhattan Project, the World War II project led by Robert Oppenheimer to build the first atomic bomb. Teller realized the atom bomb could be used to trigger a much more powerful device called the hydrogen bomb (then known as the "super"). He wanted to build the "super," he was tired of working on the atom bomb, and he was especially tired of Oppenheimer's restrictions on his activities.

A few years after the end of the war, in the time of Joe McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee, in testimony Teller cast doubt on Oppenheimer's loyalty. As a result Oppenheimer was barred from government work for the rest of his life, and Teller was free to pursue his superbomb project. Teller then claimed the Russians were working on a superbomb, so we had better catch up. The superbomb was designed and tested. Then the Russians had no choice — they built one too. Later we discovered the Russians didn't intend to build a "super," but when we forced them to, they saved some time by stealing secrets from the West. This is a story most Americans haven't heard — I call it "smart people making policy."

But for those who can't be dissuaded from the idea that smart people are better people, I have to ask "how much better?" Is one smart American kid better than 100 African kids, who might turn out to be just as smart if they lived? And to the smart American parents who make the choice to bear a child without thinking about any of these issues, I have to say "How smart can you be?"

The biggest flaw in the "smart people should have more kids" argument is that no one is going to be the one to say "I'm really dumb so I won't have any kids." The only solution is for everyone to have fewer children — the larger questions must be answered by nature, in her own time.

More than a quarter million new people arrive on earth, our space lifeboat, every day. Now get this: each of them is either going to die young or grow up and think about having children. Some will think how smart they are, while they sprinkle their lawn with perfectly good drinking water.

I just sat and watched the sea go by for a while, and another thought came to me: Remember the dinosaurs? There was a time when they dominated the earth. And compared to us, dinosaurs were really stupid — it got cold for a while and they were too dumb to invent mittens and wool socks (and sheep!), so they died out. If they hadn't, we might never have come into being.

Now consider: Why do we think we're the end of the line? We might be the dinosaurs of the future — we may be only a step in the development of some future beings, of great beauty and intelligence, who may someday regard us as we regard dinosaurs. But only if we leave something behind — we're using up the raw material of their future. We're smarter than dinosaurs — but perhaps only smart enough to do something really stupid.

August 6 — Day 11

For the first 10 days the wind blew more or less from the Northeast. I sailed as close to the wind as I could, not very fast, and went North according to the plan. I knew if I sailed North far enough, the wind would eventually switch to Northwest and then West. Yesterday the wind finally switched — dramatically, within about four hours. I had been sailing almost at right angles to Oregon, to get far enough North — now I am bearing directly toward home, for the first time this crossing.

I was concerned that I would sail into the center of the East pacific high, which would have stopped me dead. But nature gave me a break — a storm came in, pushed the high out of the way, and now blows hard from the West.

I am a different sailor. Four years ago I would have avoided stormy weather — this time I hoped for it. It's wet and bumpy, but the boat is moving in the right direction, fast.

When I first sailed, I felt secure tied up to a dock and petrified at the thought of going on the ocean. I have since learned the middle of the ocean is the safest place you can imagine, and approaching land is the big danger — there are more ships there, all those nasty rocks to bang into, even the marinas are risky.

I came to my personal turning point on Ibiza, off the coast of Spain — as I wrote earlier, a storm was brewing, I got blown off my anchor, and I sailed into the marina. That's what normal sailors do when the weather is bad. But within an hour I was tangled in lines, bashing a concrete dock, with my drive shaft pulled off my engine. Without a thought I started fixing things so I could get out on the sea as soon as possible, storm or no, because I knew my boat would be safer there.

Later I decided leaving during a storm wasn't even a little reckless, in fact going into the marina was the reckless choice. The open sea was all bumps and gusts of wind, and spray filled the air, but there was all that space to move around on — just birds and water. As I pushed the tiller against the wind, I thought how much better off I was than two hours before — I thought it was safe to make breakfast, but the wind slowly built up outside, my anchor started to drag an old car tire across the bottom, and Selene inched toward a large concrete mass.

August 10 — Day 15

Today is the halfway point, about 1100 miles from both Hawaii and Oregon. It was wet and bumpy for two days — at one point a wave crashed into my boat and a splash of salt water hit one of my navigation receivers. It died right away, without lingering. Now all I have are the satnav and my sextant — but that's more than enough to find Oregon.

There are some things about modern electronic equipment that make it especially vulnerable to salt water. One is plastic integrated circuits (you know — those little black rectangles that can do anything). These plastic packages have metal pins, and when it gets hot the metal and the plastic expand at different rates, so they slip against each other — so the seal isn't perfect. On a boat, salt water eventually works its way inside the package to a very sensitive silicon chip. When the salt gets to the chip, it dies. I think this is why my receivers, radars and computers have had such short lives. I almost never see equipment survive longer than about two years, unless it's located so that it never feels drop of salt water. On a boat, that's harder than it sounds.

Right now the sailing is nice — a beam wind, smooth seas. The boat is moving briskly, and because the wind is even and the sails full, she is rocking less than when anchored.

I have seen two ships since Hawaii — one boat that passed in the night, just a light, and a freighter sailing from San Francisco to Indonesia. The captain, an Australian, called me on the radio and we talked about sailing. He said, "I've done this for a living so long I can't imagine doing it for fun." Naturally I had a snappy comeback — "I've done this for fun so long I can't imagine doing it for a living."

August 12 — Day 17

The wind is still blowing from a nice direction, and the sky is clear until after dark. The Perseid meteor shower is going on now, but the nighttime clouds are hiding it from view. Too bad — but I saw the Hawaii eclipse, so I shouldn't complain.

When the wind blows steadily, my boat goes on automatic — I don't have to change heading or sail plan for days. Then I make journal entries or write computer programs. Today I've been looking through my log, and typing some of the numbers into my computer.

During my sail around the world I averaged 4.5 knots, or 108 miles per day. The highest speed I recorded in a 24-hour period was 7.2 knots, although that might have been the result of a bad satellite fix — I have a hard time believing Selene can go that fast for more than a few seconds. The slowest speed was 1.2 knots, which happened when I tried to move in very light winds without using the motor, or when I was beating up the Red Sea, sometimes sailing away from my destination.

There's an ideal path between any two points at sea — it's called a "Great Circle" route, so named because it's part of a circle that runs completely around the earth. But sometimes I have to sail around a high as I'm doing now, or sail upwind, or ocean currents pull me in a direction I don't expect — anyway, the actual sailing paths aren't always great circles.

At discouraging times I thought I might be sailing, say, 50% farther than the most efficient path, but I have just added up my daily logbook distances and compared them with the ideal paths. It turns out that the least efficient sail (my sail from Oregon to Hawaii) was only 16% longer than the ideal, and the average of all my passages is 6% longer. Some downwind sails, where I could point the boat as accurately as I pleased, were within 1% of the ideal.

The Red Sea sail was probably the least efficient sail of all, but in order to know I would have had to log a position at the end of each tack, so all the zigs and zags would be included in my log. But I didn't — I had enough to do with steering around all the freighters, adjusting the sails, and keeping the boat pointed very close to the wind, but not so close that the sails "backed" and the boat did a graceful but annoying 360 degree circle while I tried to sleep.

It was during that sail that I wished for a boat with a fin keel, a keel that looks like an airplane wing sticking out of the boat's bottom. That kind of boat goes upwind very efficiently — in exchange, if you bang a rock with the keel, it might just fall off the boat, after which the boat turns upside down (and then sinks). My boat's keel is part of the hull, and it doesn't extend down into the water very far, so I can't sail upwind very well. On the other hand, I've banged a lot of rocks and coral and I'm still here — I guess you have to balance your plans for your boat against nature's plans for your boat.

August 20 — Day 25

Today I should arrive in Brookings — the mainland is starting to peek through the fog in places. There hasn't been very much wind lately, today none at all, so I am motoring.

A few days ago a big oil tanker, enroute from Long Beach, California to Valdez, Alaska, sailed by. The captain called me on the radio, just as his ship was becoming visible in the South. He told me he was changing course to avoid me, and I should keep my present heading. But, since he was a "working boat" and I was not, I offered to change course so he wouldn't have to — after all, his vessel was a quarter-mile long, a lot more trouble to steer than mine! He diplomatically let me know that he was moving so fast (and I so slow) that no course change I could make would matter very much.

As it approached, I saw his ship really was moving fast, but it still took forever to pass by.

In a way, the oil tanker was the start of my arrival on the mainland. I knew the tankers stayed within a few hundred miles of the coast on their way to Alaska — I had been especially watchful as I came into their zone. Since then I have been seeing a lot of smaller freighters and fishing boats.

I have naturally been thinking about the ways a modern sailor figures out that land is nearby. In the middle of a long passage, the bow of the boat is not special. The ocean looks just the same in all directions, always pretty, and one's attention isn't drawn forward as it might be in a car or an airplane. In fact, it isn't at all odd to pass long spells looking at the boat's wake, perhaps thinking about the place and people just visited, or noticing an entourage of fish that (at least with my boat) have no trouble keeping up.

But as land approaches, things change. The short-range VHF radio comes to life. I always monitor the VHF calling channel, day and night, for the entire crossing. Because I don't have a working radar any more, the VHF radio is cheap insurance — someone might see me and call on the radio instead of running me down. But I rarely hear anything until I am within, say, 300 miles of land. Then I start hearing boats, mostly talking to each other, and I know I have to watch more and sleep less.

Sometimes I listen for AM and FM broadcasts. I begin to hear AM stations from towns on the coast, and I can spin the radio around to be sure I am on course (AM stations fade out when the radio's long axis is pointed at them).

I receive FM stations at a surprising distance, 200 miles or better. Normally you expect the high-frequency FM radio waves to travel in straight lines (like light beams), but apparently they bend a little. Also some American FM stations are so powerful and well located that if there is a theoretical chance to hear them, you will hear them.

Then I have the direct evidence of my senses. I remember as I came within 200 miles of Sri Lanka, big flying cockroaches came out to meet me. But, in fairness to Sri Lanka, I want to say the last evening of that crossing was beautiful in an unexpected way. As darkness fell, hundreds of tiny fishing boats near the coast ignited orange lamps. As I came nearer and passed between them, I could see people lifting nets from the ocean. I could hear voices across the water. It was the most moving arrival of the entire sail — it was as if people took the time to bear candles into a big field in gratitude for the evening, except these were fishermen, and the lights attracted fish to their nets. So the sight of hundreds of orange lights on the sea was a side effect of something practical — but the side effect was no less beautiful for that.

The sound of small, local airplanes has told me I was coming to land. And the color of the ocean changes from a deep blue (signifying purity and great depth) to a slate gray, finally a bright green in the shallowest waters. Floating things, wood, grass, close in. Reflected waves are a sure indication of land nearby — in the Caribbean they didn't just rock my boat a little extra, they came aboard, into the cockpit, into my cabin.

Actually seeing the land is usually anticlimactic — and often you don't see the land very well. When you approach small islands in the tropics, you may only see a palm tree, which is why it's so risky there, especially at night. When I came to Hawaii this March I barely saw it through the awful weather — I saw individual trees and buildings before I made out the mass of the island.

All of these land clues have an effect — you become aware of land, of people. You find yourself looking toward the bow of your boat, as if there is something special lying in that direction.

By the time you tie up to the dock, you'll be able to form sentences, describe the ocean clearly, sit down with other people. The land takes hold of you — but the sea never really gives you up.

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