Friday, May 27, 2022

How Big Is the Ocean?

On a boat headed nowhere, we begin to talk about teleportation. It’s dawn watch, the six hour shift from 1 am to 7 am where the largest event is watching the first lights come to the horizon and the stars wheel out of sight, and we’re two days’ sailing away from Palmyra Atoll and hovering a few miles away from Kingman Reef. There’s more science to do here, more things to uncover in the water, and our only task tonight is to remain within a set box on the map. The Intertropical Convergence Zone has dipped down to our latitudes and the seas have flattened out. An hour ago we gave up on steering and left the helm to itself so our watch can gather on the quarterdeck and drink tea (or, in my case, my latest attempt at improvised hot chocolate – hot water, nondairy creamer, and a spoonful of Nutella). The engine’s off and the sails are down and we talk in low voices while the boat drifts through the equatorial Pacific.

We talk about what super power we’d choose, given the choice, and someone suggests teleportation. Wouldn’t it be cool to Apparate (“Wait, guys, what’s Apparation? I don’t get it,” Lilah says) from place to place with just a thought? I’m surprised at how viscerally I reject the idea. Two weeks away from Honolulu, the two flights I’ll have to take to get home are becoming more real before me, and the many journeys beyond that to get where I’ll need to go. Everything would be easier if I could disappear somewhere, reappear somewhere else. But embedded in the question of teleportation is also the question of why we’re here, now, on a boat with no direction. A flight to Palmyra is two hours and we spent two weeks travelling the same distance. In every nautical mile we cover, the aphorism echoes: the value is in the journey, not the destination.

But what has it meant to go somewhere out here? I expected to spend every second on the boat overawed by the size of the ocean and its vast unknowability. Instead I’m surprised at now, three weeks in, how familiar it all feels. Rather than a foreign expanse, the waves until the horizon feel almost intimate in their companionable repetition. Each swell is framed within the same metal poles of the awning, the netted triangle of the bowsprit, the curved hull of Gene, the curved shape of Wayne’s World, the fishing poles on the quarterdeck, the contours of the tubas, the large cream wings of the sails in their various configurations –the stays’ls, double-reefed main, the jib, the jib tops’l, or all doused, the sails rising and falling with the wind around us – the ocean is drawn out for us, always, in the outlines of the boat we’ve circled hundreds of times in the last three weeks and have sweated on and cried on and laughed on and sung on and grown to live and love in so many ways. When I come up on deck every morning and go to the rail and look out (morning being a relative term, defined at any time between the hours of 1 to 11 am), it’s not awe I feel but a rush of quiet recognition. Oh, it’s you again. The horizon-line is a belt cinched at our waist, as much a part of our vessel as the wood of the helm.

How do we know we’re going somewhere at all? If not for the numbers we collect every hour in our boat and science checks, with the evidence of our minds and bodies there’s only the subtlest of signals: our shadows switch directions as we pass from one side of the sun’s ecliptical to the other. The Southern Cross fixes itself just beyond the bowsprit. Night by night the moon stays up for longer in the sky, and then shrinks once more. Each sign is easier to miss than the last, when I don’t pay attention, and it’s the simplest thing to forget to, as I move from helm to lookout, coiling my lines and palming my turns, watching the chlorophyll samples drain with the hum of the vacuum pump in the background. When Palmyra emerged on the horizon, it was a shock to have a new shape there, and as we motored into the lagoon, pressed against the sides of the boat, part of my gaping incredulity at the fabulous green islands and beaches and sharks and rays came from the realization that there could be something else around us. That we had, in fact, changed our place in the world. A few days out, I’m still not convinced that the days basking in the sun-warmed shallows there weren’t all just a pleasant shared dream.

Part of what I’m learning out here is how to pay attention to the signs of place in the ocean, in the calming of the waves as we enter the lee of a reef, in the appearance and disappearance of boobies wheeling around us (and occasionally getting too close for some people’s comfort), in the changing directions of the winds we track every hour, in the declination of the sun and stars. It’s a new vocabulary I am only just familiarizing myself with and it will take lifetimes to learn fully, to be able to read the world around me and place myself precisely within it.

But part of what I’m learning, also, is that going somewhere here is not the same as what I’m used to on land. The ocean’s expanse is not the same as walking across an expanse of mountains of land, as standing atop a peak and looking out and feeling in your limbs the size of it all compared to your own body and everything it would take from you to cross it. It’s another dawn watch discussion from some weeks ago: is the ocean big or small? In lab at 1 am, we were divided on the matter.  I maintained the ocean is small, or at least smaller than I expected. More people agreed with me than I expected. When you look out into the ocean’s distance here you know anything there will be in reach within a half hour, if not less; it’s the basis of our strict lookouts, that any vessel in the vicinity presents a possibility for collision in a much shorter time than you expect. And when you add up half an hour on half an hour on half an hour and entire degrees of latitude are disappearing behind you in a few days, how big could this all be, really?

The true answer, which I see every time I plot our position on the chart, is mind-bogglingly, dizzyingly, frighteningly vast, so large we haven’t seen another boat once, that meters-long fish become toys among the waves, anything we drop off the boat vanishes from sight in minutes, so truly, spectacularly enormous we probably won’t see another boat till we’re within a few nautical miles of Honolulu once more. The biggest difference between seeing scale here and seeing scale on land is responsibility. When you’re going somewhere on land, most often it’s a solitary or small group effort. You can feel how big it is because you’re the person covering the distance; you’re comparing the size of it to your own body. Here, one among a crew of forty, the ocean’s size is compared against everything the forty of us build to together. The scales may feel small because most of the time it feels like I’m not doing much of anything to go anywhere. But out of sight it’s adding up, mile by mile and boat check by boat check. With ten of us to hoist the mains’l each person only puts a few seconds of effort in. But by the end of it a ton of sail has been lifted against gravity. That it will all assemble into a concrete whole is an act of trust. But it’s trust that’s paid off until now.  

Yesterday, we reached the southernmost point of our voyage and prepared to turn around. During our daily gathering, we held hands in a circle as the waves broke over Kingman Reef in the distance, an echo of the first day of class when we stood in a much smaller group by the shores of Monterey and tried to imagine this moment. It’s 1500 nautical miles since then. I’m trying to look at my line-calloused hands and the Teva tan on my feet and remind myself: we’ve gone somewhere since then. I’m looking up at the horizon and remembering: we have more to go. 

Tanvi Dutta Gupta

P.S. Neel, I know I’m a few days early, but happy graduation! I hope it goes well and I can’t wait to hear all about it and celebrate with you and Mama and Dada and Luchi and Kala Didi.

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