A trick of the eye on a flat-calm sea

Do you know the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts out, "once upon a time." A sea story starts out, "now this really happened."

Now this really happened. The horse latitudes make up an area of the ocean, north of the trade winds and south of the prevailing westerlies, or roughly the latitude of, say, Miami to Charleston. The sea is flat, the winds are light and fluky. Before the days of auxiliary engines, sailing ships could take weeks to cross this zone. Frequently the fresh water would run low, and any horses aboard would be the first to go. Hence the name.

In the days of underpowered auxiliary sailing yachts it could still take days to cross this area. Which is what Jennifer (not her real name) and I were doing in my slow but classic (underpowered) sailboat on our way from St. Thomas to the Chesapeake.

I mentioned the sea is flat. I mean flat. Kansas. Basketball courts. Flat and boring. People in our situation have been known to motor miles out of their way just to look at a Styrofoam coffee cup floating on the flat and boring sea.

I also mentioned that the whole crew available to drive the boat was Jennifer and me. That’s four hours of driving. Four hours of sleep. Four hours of driving. Four hours of sleep. For days and days. If you’ve ever tried to get by on only four hours of sleep, you know our state of mind.

So, anyway, we’re driving along in the horse latitudes, and I’m scanning the sea with my binoculars, looking for coffee cups. I see something. A dot. A speck on the flat and boring horizon. "Hurrah," I say. "It’s a something. Let’s go over and look." Being as bored as I am, Jennifer puts the wheel over, and we slowly approach the something.

Now, if you’ve ever looked at a something through binoculars, you know there are a few moments of uncertainty while you decide just what it is you are looking atclues of shape and light and texture and coloruntil suddenly you see you are looking at a man in a liferaft.

I’m much more accustomed to looking at coffee cups and a bit uncertain of my identification. So I give the binocs to Jennifer and ask her "what do you think it is?"

Jennifer has much better eyesight than I do, and at this point even less sleep. It takes her less than a minute to say, "It’s a man in a raft. And I think he’s dead."

Sailboats have to prepare for a lot of unlikely but possible scenarios. Hitting a large floating object. Breaking a mast. I’d thought about things like that and knew what I would do. I’ve even gamed out finding survivors and had a plan. Pick ’em up. Food and water. First aid. Turn on the EPIRB. Turn on the VHF and call for help. Head for a shipping lane. Shoot off flares. Stuff like that. Never had to do it, but if I was in that situation I know what I would do.

Picking up dead guys is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about.

"Give me the binoculars."

Damn. She’s right. He’s dead. Looks like he’s been dead a long time, too. Head’s slumped forward. Sunburned body. Wizened and desiccated. Even the raft’s lost its color. Kind of a gray brown.

"What are we going to do?" Jennifer asks.

"We’ll have to take him aboard."

"We can’t take him aboard! We’re 10 days from land! Ten days with a corpse lashed on deck?"

"But we can’t leave him! Someone wants to know about him. We’ll have to get some identification," I say.

"Let’s hope he has some."

"Well, what about fingerprints? We could take fingerprints! Wait, I know. We’ve got bolt cutters aboard! We could take a finger"

"We’re not taking any fingers aboard!" she says.

"Well, how about some teeth? There are dental records"

"Get a grip! We’re not taking any teeth! Let’s get over there and see what we’re dealing with."

So we drove slowly over there, passing the binocs back and forth, not saying anything. Wishing it was a coffee cup. Trying not to think of all the World War II stories I’ve read about corpses in rafts and what the seabirds do to them.

Now, if you’ve ever looked at a something through binoculars, you know sometimes it’s absolutely positively one thing and, when you get closer, the mind’s eye goes click, the next frame advances, and it is quite clearly something else.

So it was here. We were about 50 yards off when the eye went click and the man in the raft in the binoculars became something else. I gave the lenses to Jennifer and said, "What do you see now?"

Ol’ eagle eye took but a few seconds to say, "It’s an expletive-deleted palm tree and a coconut."

She was right, too. The trunk was floating just the way a soggy raft would. One branch was curved just the way a slumped over body would. The coconut was just right for a head.

We went alongside. Pulled the palm tree aboard. There was no identification so we cut the coconut up and ate it.

We gave the remains a proper burial and motored off.

Looking for coffee cups.

By Ocean Navigator