by Ben Lowings
The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –
If I love the sea for its immensity, and adore floating on its eternity for the sheer hell of it, then I love islands for their compactness, their uniqueness. Islands are kernels packed with history, drifting out of time. The Arquipelago dos Acores, for instance, with their whitewashed, black-outline cartoon churches, on islands so green they look covered in felt. One with countryside doused in ash, another a Mount Fuji in Europe; yet another the tiny, cobble-streeted one-time capital of Portugal. The individuality of islands is to be cherished all the more because of the blankness of their surroundings, as the granularity of a leatherback turtle shell is intensified against the wide focus of a sun-polished sea.
Recently I had the opportunity to navigate a sixty-foot yacht from Madeira to the Azores. An Atlantic crossing in miniature, guiding the boat only by the sun and the stars. Satellite information would still be temptingly available. By shaking a mouse on the chart table, the navigator could all too easily be reassured by the computer screen coming to life. The window would give forth a blue-white light inside the little navigation station, like a sea-lantern switched on miles from anywhere. A red slash heading north-west would be our course in relation to True North, and the black cross at its tip, our position, courtesy of INMARSAT-C. That’s what I imagined it would be. I never looked at it. Together with my fellow trainee skippers aboard the MV Hummingbird of Plymouth, a vessel built for the first Clipper race, the challenge was to ascertain our position with sextant, watch and astro-navigation tables.
In his book ‘We, the Navigators’, the New Zealand doctor David Lewis puts his weight behind that other great wayfinder, Australian pilot Harold Gatty, and asserts there is no such thing as a “sixth sense”, the “sense of direction”. Yes, I would like to think I have it. That by using the sextant and working through the tables I get a result which just confirms where we are is what I already suspected. Perhaps it satisfies the vanity of the would-be navigator, who supposes that by applying these traditional methods, he is sprinkled with some of the magic of celestial ways, and through this mystique of leadership is raised. “Take that, James Cook! Joshua Slocum!” Observe the Admiralty Chart “North Atlantic, Northern Part”. Madeira is a yellow blob, and up to the north-west, only a hand’s breadth away. The Azores are a spatter of blobs from the same brush. In between and all around are the depths in metres, so far down as to be meaningless. Our voyage, then, will become a pencil line across this vacancy. I agree with Lewis and Gatty; there is no such thing as an inbuilt “sense of direction” – we do not, I’m sure, have iron oxide inside our nasal cavities, to make us tingle like a seabird when we face Magnetic North. But there is such a thing I think as a “sense of motion”, a mysterious faculty of confidence. We’re hanging on to that thin pencil stroke, carrying us over the abyss, the course joining the Atlantic dots. The feel of this thought is like when you go to grab the next rung in the monkey ladder. You’re holding tight onto Madeira, you gulp, swing forward (with enough momentum) and clasp onto the Azores with all your strength.
“Don’t fall,” I tell myself. “It’s a long way down.”
Passage-makers were coming out this way in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Carracks and exploratory vessels were casting about for the stepping stones required to get Spanish soldiers to the New World. They had the aid of specialists from up and down Iberia’s Atlantic seaboard – Portuguese and Galician fishermen – as well as Catalans and Genoese. I’d like to think I’ve a connection, too, with the Flemings who joined these trips and settled in the Azores. A tradewind will send you from Cape St Vincent to the Canaries and then Madeira. And you breast this wind to take you over to the Azores.
How did they do it, these first guys? I guess the confidence of swinging across from mainland Portugal to Africa, handing across from Africa to the Canaries, then from Gran Canaria to Lanzarote, this gets you into a rhythm of island-finding. It gives you oomph for that surge over to the Azores, or the slip down to Cape Verde. How did they first get from Madeira to the Azores, when they didn’t know the Azores were there? Well, it’s perhaps not a sense of direction, or a misplaced confidence in convincing oneself that some island must be there; it’s exuberance.
“The wild Atlantic will not scare or threaten me.” So you swing back and open up your hand for the rung that might not be there. (Just keep a hold of the rung you’re on and grip it extra tight.)
The sense of navigating hundreds of miles between oceanic islands is something like this, I believe. The sense of direction is not so much knowing exactly where you’re going. Because how can you know exactly if you’ve never been there before? The sense is a confidence in where you’ve been, and your sense of direction is how you can get back to where you’ve been. Of course, Columbus, Cabot, and my own hero, backstaff-wielding John Davis, didn’t cross the Atlantic looking backwards. But they would certainly start out so, orienting themselves with the lighthouses and mountains of their departure island, until their shapes and lights disappeared under the horizon. The shamans of Pacific navigation, Mau Pialug and his pals, would set out in their double-hull canoes in the same way. Their island villages would be afire with lines of torches, giving them help in aligning their craft, like airstrips lit with flares, to guide away planes lifting from the jungle.
I couldn’t see a good enough bit of Madeira when we left it. My mind was hollowed out with tiredness. The visible core of Madeira’s backbone had disappeared in the afternoon sunlight. Mountains sunk under huge clouds like conch shells. Here we go, 310 degrees on the ship’s compass, into the night. Damn those clouds, they will obscure the stars. In the morning, so far, so good, but there are no dawn stars I can see which can help us find our position to adjust dead reckoning. I look back a bit, and screwing up my eyes, I can just make out Sagittarius; its teapot pouring faint blue into the sea. With my sextant, I manage to take the altitude of one point in the constellation, but none of my sums work out. Alpha, Beta, Gamma Sagittari are all discounted, and then I rework all the calculations again with Delta Sagittari. It looks about right.
A sight of the morning sun puts us ten or fifteen miles away. The boat thumps down on the next wave, the fluid trickles past my ear on the other side of the hull. I dropped the boat between two pencil lines on a blank sheet of paper. Have I got us lost? Which plot do I trust? Which is the new baseline or starting position? At the start of the next watch, having lain in my bunk pondering it, I plump for the sun over Delta Sagittari. We’ve let go of the little distant star, our trusting fingers now clamped around a much closer thermonuclear fireball.
Five hundred miles out from Madeira, the stars pop out in the evening.
Under the red lights in the cabin, on the biggest-scale chart, the Azores are drops of dark candlewax. Up on deck, looking up at the clear sky, I’m suspended above a void. The sail waggles across the cosmos. Silence. Eternity. The Milky Way splits the sky open, and leaves me guessing about immortality. In the millions of years these asterisks of light have taken to get here, the Azores themselves have formed. Each island a blister bursting up as the Mid Atlantic Ridge peels away. Earth’s viscous blood pools and the island takes shape like wax congealing above the sea’s surface. The boat tiptoes across the celestial vault. Our course is branching across to the Azorean constellation. If I can get roughly in the right place, the array of Azores islands will catch us like a net. It's harder to aim at a pinprick of light, a drop of colour on the chart. But far easier to arrive amongst the screen of islands and refine one's position when in sight of land. Better to throw your dart at the dartboard, not at the bullseye.
Cloud closes in on the third morning, when I'm sure we've passed the Ilhas Formigas. If we did pass close to its lighthouse, it wasn't lit. We should be seeing land, but there's nothing. It's heartening to see the odd bird skimming the waves. Cory's Shearwaters have white underwings fringed with brown - Azorean natives, I read in "Wildlife of the Atlantic", but they can hang around hundreds of miles out from the shore.
"C'mon, land, where are you?"
The whole crew is on deck scouring the mist. There's no sense of arrival, no echoing like clanging swords to detect a cliff close-by, no sixth sense telling me we are "islanded" again. If anything there's a chill from the passing cloud like a passing ghost. Here Walter Raleigh passed en route to raze Horta to the ground and Richard Grenville in his Revenge came by for a sally at the Spanish. My skin is stained with the same salt. A white line becomes visible; it's just a gap between two clouds, I think, and then after staring at it for a good five minutes, I realise it's a line of houses.
"Hey," says Nick, the coastal skipper, as he pokes his head through the companionway. "My phone's got signal."
Photographs by Philipp Tremetsberger
Ben Lowings is a thirty-seven year-old radio journalist with a love of islands. Born in Yorkshire, raised in Devon, he also has strong family links to Malta. He’s been sailing since a child. His first experience was in a Mirror dinghy in the Summer Isles in western Scotland. He’s worked as a journalist in New Zealand where he found time to race dinghies in Wellington harbour. He’s reported from Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Niue. He once joined the crew of a Micronesian sailing canoe on Yap, the island of stone money.