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Enroute Tuamotus: Becalmed

July 13, 2011

Noon Position (Marquesas Time): 14.04.708S by 142.22.896W
Course: 280t +/-
Speed: .5 knots +/-
Wind: 0
Sky: 10% cloud
Sea: 1 foot
Bar 1400
Temp: 83 degrees

54 miles since last noon.


Wind softened all night until by morning any propulsion left in the sails was due to Murre’s heavy roll. From my bunk below the sound of sails slatting, blocks slamming one way and then the other, and the infinity of stowage shifting its position ever so minutely on each wave was a devil’s jam session. Imagine a bus load of pre-schoolers let loose in the percussion section of a high school band room and there you have it. That I slept soundly (not to mention at all) is a testament to a conscience at ease and the several glasses of wine that lubricated it before bedtime.

What small wind had managed to survive the night evaporated with the sun and all day the sea has been like undulating glass. Sails are furled. How we are making forward motion through water–half a knot, all west, all day–is beyond me.

In truth I was looking forward to being becalmed. A sailboat on the move implies wind and waves, and one’s speed through the water and the water’s churning disallow any view of what’s inside. One rarely has time to meet the neighbors when sailing through, and that’s usually the point. But I’m curious to know what’s down there. I wish to terry a while in a place where the water’s too deep to anchor. Today I’m getting my wish.

Given deep ocean’s reputation for being the aquatic equivalent of desert, you’d expect just clear blue water and the occasional scorpion.

You’d be wrong.

For starters, there’s a small, white water strider on the surface just bigger than a mosquito. That an insect can live atop water itself often whitecaps astonishes me. And within the hour of being becalmed, five inchling fry fish begin to use Murre’s shadow as protection. I try several times to net one for purposes of identification and maybe a snack, but they are too fast. They’ve been through this before.

My green plastic aquarium net is able, however, to bring up a few examples of what proliferates at and just below the surface–that is, small, clear “jellies”, not animals, but jelly-like capsules containing separated dark spots I presume to be eggs. Many capsules are perfectly planet shaped and range in size from that of a BB to a large pea. Some are like a short piece of thick noodle. Others are much larger, up to the size of a penny, and have irregular, amoeba-like shapes. All are clear and all contain the evenly spaced, suspended eggs of different colors, sizes and densities. Because they are clear, it takes a few moments to pick out their shapes from the moving, reflecting water surface, but once seen, these capsules are seen by the thousands.

This reminds me of a recent dinner with Glenn and Cynthia aboard COLUMBINE where the subject unexpectedly turned to species radiation. Yes, that was my doing, but I had first ascertained that my hosts were marine biologists and were thus trained to handle the excitement of such a subject. And I’d waited until our second round of beers before debuting my quandary, which was that land animals arrive at distant, remote places rarely and then often evolve out of all recognition (e.g. Honey Creepers of Hawaii) where as many of the aquatic species I’ve seen are exactly the same in the Marquesas as in Hawaii and Mexico, and each geography is separated by thousands of miles of water. Cynthia explains that the sea presents fewer barriers to entry for sea creatures. For example, it would be highly unusual for a finch egg to survive a 120 day drift from Panama, say, to the Marquesas, but that is exactly what the spawn of many fish are designed to do.

So then, are these capsules I’m seeing today tropical fish in the oceanic equivalent of suspended animation?

I dip my net and let its contents loose into a glass of seawater, and it is like watching a tiny solar system swirl. Beside the capsules, I also catch what appears to be a sapphire blue squid, but the size of a broccoli flower, and a small, classically shaped jellyfish of the same color but about half that size. Two or three other animals swim in the glass that are so small I can’t ascertain their shape or configuration, even with a magnifying glass.

A clear piece of ribbon floats by roughly a foot in length and an inch wide. I scoop it up and into my glass and see that its dark spot at one end appears to be a head and mouth. The head swims around looking for the exit, and the clear ribbon of body follows. It is so delicate, lifting it back into the water tears it in two.

There are Portuguese Man-o-War, lavender, moon-shaped, and Box-like jelly fishes.

A tiny insect jumps across the water top as though it were a frog.

And well below the surface from a foot to several swims an animal that shines back at me in green iridescence. I have been seeing this animal, and millions of its kind, almost since departing Mexico, but have no clue what it is. Today, though I am successful in getting it into the net, it either swims right back out or simply switches off its glow in my glass. In either case I remain as mystified now as ever.

One of the fry fish has gotten too use to me and my net, and a quick flick puts him into the glass too. His sides flash with black and blue stripes and his full-body dorsal fin reminds of a Dorado. His breathing is sheer panic, having never seen the world from a glass before–hideous, especially that perspiring monster with the flaming red nose.

For much of the day, so long I fear I’ve sun burned the bottoms of my feet, I lay on my stomach on the side deck gazing down, down into the water and flicking my wand, the net.

_ . _ . _

The quiet of being becalmed is startling. I had never expected to experience quiet here. A boat on the move is noisy. Her bow wave can sound like the roar of a jet engine. Her rigging moans like a choir. Then there’s the whipping of wind in your ears. But being becalmed is more like camping in the mountains in summer where the call of a stellar’s jays or the thud of a falling pine cone are such singular events, so separated by silence, that it’s the silence you hear. Today I have been hearing the silence of a rolling sea and billowing cloud.

_ . _ . _

Sunset and then dark. Anchor light or running lights when I am neither?

_ . _ . _

Still, I’m now ready for some wind. The dragon’s teeth of the Tuamotus are calling. I had wanted to get there before the full moon’s extreme tides, but the moon she is getting full. And I had wanted to get there before the big winds predicted for the day after tomorrow, but with 160 miles remaining, that is unlikely. For an hour now, a whisper of wind from the southeast. Will we be sailing again by midnight?


  1. Lyle Harris permalink
    July 13, 2011 5:52 pm

    Hey thanks for the great write-up. What fun a fun read.
    really enjoying the continuing story; makes me more and more eager for my upcoming month about Greywolf.
    Lyle Harris

    • Lyle Harris permalink
      July 13, 2011 5:53 pm

      meant to write “aboard” Greywolf…
      (greywolf is my M31)…

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