Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Glimpse Of Heaven – Soko’s Transit From Subic Bay To Hong Kong

Our position was 18°N, 116°E when the dolphins visited, their juvenile play around Soko’s bow at once uplifting and humbling. Six or seven of these stunning creatures sped effortlessly alongside the hull, accelerating on occasion to leap ahead of the yacht and tease her bow, before veering away. 150 miles into our journey, the crew of six welcomed this playful incursion and wished the pod had stayed longer. The 580 nautical mile transit from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Soko’s home port of Hong Kong had begun the previous day when, after stowing aboard ample provisions, we set off at around 1100. Initial winds were unfavourable and we laboured to round the promontory. Before long, though, we were making over six knots on a steady course over ground of 320°. But in mid-afternoon we saw dead ahead on the horizon the black sky of a major storm system and knew at once that we would be experiencing some interesting sailing over the hours to come.

As we neared the storm it became clear that there were two systems, each of considerable width. The larger was dead ahead, the other 25° to port. With no opportunity of rounding either, the decision was made to head for the gap between them, despite the knowledge that they appeared to be converging. There were few, if any, real options. A considerable amount of lightning was active, right across the horizon’s span and as a precaution we laid an anchor chain along the full length of the deck, wrapping it around the backstay before trailing it in the water astern. Coming closer, we witnessed from a distance of perhaps two miles the formation of a waterspout at 20° to port, which seemed to grow from top and bottom before joining in the middle. By now there was lightning at every point of the compass and the wind was gusting at up to 35 knots, although surprisingly there was little rain. The six crewmembers remained calm throughout, in the knowledge that informed decisions had been made and every possible precaution taken. There was a philosophical acceptance that whatever happened next was a matter for fate to decide. Happily, our number in this dark lottery did not come up and after an hour or so – it is hard to keep an accurate track of time in such circumstances – we knew we were through the worst. Looking aft at the receding blackness as we continued on our way a silent, conciliatory electric storm played out horizontally in the clouds, as if in tribute to the survivors.

The oppressive heat over the next few days saw us huddling together under Soko’s awning to avoid the scorching sun. These quieter moments gave opportunity to reflect that the art of sailing may be thought of as lying in the alchemy of a number of sciences – the nature of the vessel and characteristics of her hull; sea conditions; wind and weather among them. Then also what is perhaps the least tangible component, which might be termed ‘sail science’ – but something, in fact, that is more of an art. For throughout Soko’s 90-hour transit the crew wasted no opportunity to adjust the mainsail or tweak the jib, seeking always to capture the most of what was offered by the winds, whether moderate or strong, and coming from aft or on the port beam. At around 1830 on day two we were treated to a spectacle that may only be witnessed at sea, where the broadest of all panoramas provides an uninterrupted view of the breadth and depth of nature’s finest exhibition – sunset. On this occasion not the textbook orb dipping with increasing pace into an azure sea, but beautiful in its lack of orthodoxy, nonetheless. A huge black thunderhead rose up in the foreground with layers of nimbus, alto and cirrus nestling above. A range of blue hues surrounded these clouds, themselves backlit by the dramatic orange fire of the sun. The whole composition appeared at once to leap towards us in 3D, projecting as if a page from a child’s pop-up book, opened momentarily for us to view. But within seconds, the vitality of the image was sadly gone: the book closed, its illustration flat again. Our glimpse of heaven was over for now, perhaps to return tomorrow. Then, in the silence of the night and under the reflected light of a nearly full moon, Soko seemed to produce a music of its own – the creaking of its halyards and sheets creating a discordant sirensong, calling those on watch to stay vigilant. The ‘three on, six off’ system meant that night and day were no longer relevant, the only matter of importance being preparation for one’s next stint in the cockpit. It was vital to ensure that enough rest had been taken to remain sharp throughout. The watch partners were staggered like bricks laid in a wall, meaning each would have two associates – one replacing the other – during each watch. They would swap anecdotes or snack on high energy food bars (and, as a special treat, a limited supply of some truly sensational Philippine pineapples!) in order to comply with the siren’s haunting appeals for continued vigilance.

Next day, a ‘letterbox’ rainbow hung in the sky – a strange apparition that was content to float, cloud-like, without seeking earth at either end. By now we were approaching the busy shipping lanes where tankers, container ships and other large vessels ply their trade, meaning that extra attentiveness was required – particularly at night. On one occasion a fishing vessel lying about a mile dead ahead made a series of movements that were at first hard to interpret. As we neared her it appeared she had been mapping out the extent of her nets, where small auxiliary boats were attending each extreme. Another time, nearer to Hong Kong, a large vessel was cruising at night a mile off our port beam showing no navigation lights at all. From the row of windows running the length of her hull we presumed she was a cruise ship, or perhaps a floating casino. For two days now we had been trailing a lure in the hope of catching a tuna or other fish large enough to eat, which we planned to do raw, sashimi-style. Our patience was finally rewarded when a brilliantly-coloured fish took the bait and we hauled its vivid green and yellow body on board. It appeared to be a young dorado, too small to feed six grown men, and so we gave it another chance at life, tossing it back into the sea. Perhaps in repayment for this gesture we were subsequently treated to the arrival of another pod of dolphins, larger this time, advancing on the starboard beam. Their amazing speed of movement as they leapt and ducked towards us gave them the appearance of a predator pack from prehistory – a marine Jurassic Park, perhaps. This pod was clearly on a mission and did not stay with us for long, teasing us for just a short while before continuing on its way, in the original direction. It was suppertime in the fishing grounds, we presumed.

We were now just 70 nautical miles off Hong Kong and soon we crossed what seemed a line in the sea, where the pure blue expanse of the lapping ocean gave way to the soup of the oily, clinging industrial waters nearer home. The closer we came to port the more our perspective was challenged – after more than three days at sea, coastal features that should have been easy to recognise seemed to take on an unfamiliar look. Everything appeared to exist on a smaller scale when compared with the vastness of the ocean we had traversed. Upon finally gliding Soko into her berth at her home port, we knew we had seen our last glimpse of heaven for a while. But the camaraderie, trust, togetherness, wit and laughter the crew had shared throughout the transit would remain permanently etched in our minds.

Dolphin Teasing Soko’s Bow

posted by Kirk at 9:59 am  

1 Comment »

  1. Good stuff. Notes of Conrad in there.

    Comment by Furriskey — November 24, 2007 @ 10:43 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress