“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry
We are drawn to the endless, but today, we are still working on confined land. And what keeps us working, all day, every day, is our need to finish this small business and enter the immensity.
This world-crossing sailboat has spent seven years swinging in a circle one hundred and forty feet in diameter. Recently we took her off her mooring and sailed her ten miles north and into a small marina for a haul out and more work. And now she is on dry land, standing absolutely still on support poles. The hull of this ship was built eighteen years ago. We are now rebuilding nearly everything else. We now have the mast out and are detaching cables, struggling with dissimilar metals that have welded themselves together.
I am in Auckland regularly, picking up gear. I thought Vancouver was a sailing town, but no. The Viaduct in Auckland harbour is solid Ship Chandleries. Shops that do nothing but carbon fiber for multihull racers. Shops that just weld. Shops that machine shape new things into existence. And of course shops that sell comforts to sailing civilians. Eventually we will leave this confined space and spend some weeks sailing around the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. In the Bay of Islands, in the Poor Knights. That will be enjoyable. But that will also be a form of work, as we will be testing systems as we go. And we will still be confined.
But soon we head East and soon we enter the endless immensity of the sea. A Saskatchewan sky is immense, certainly. A friend once famously described it as a place where you can watch your dog run away for three days. But the sea is more. The sea is immense in all dimensions. At night we will see the moon and stars rise out of it. At day we will dive and observe from inside it. This boat will ride over eleven thousand kilometers of it. The Pacific ocean is as large as some planets. I have entered that blue openness before. Sometimes sailing in replicas of Tall Ships and sometimes scuba diving. Underwater, if you turn away from the coastal coral and fish, you gaze into the soft open blue until your sense of self begins to dissolve away.
Our planned course depends on immensities. Our course is large enough that we can benefit from the rotation of the planet. Vancouver is our goal, but to get there straight from here, would mean banging and crashing upwind. Not pleasant. So instead of going up, we will turn right. We will run east and even somewhat south until we run into Hadley Cells.
In weather, everything Big and Interesting comes from the ITCZ, the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone. We look forward to seeing that. A thin band, running around the center of the planet, near the equator. It is the band directly under the Sun, and the area where the direct heat of the Sun creates most of the world’s evaporated water. Most of the planet’s clouds. And from within the ITCZ, vast immense clouds rise up from the ocean. These white clouds rise up seven to ten miles, up through the entire Troposphere. When sailing into the ITCZ, you can see them rising above you. They are Himalayan mountains of white.
The word Troposphere comes from the Greek word Tropos meaning “mixing.” And certainly this is the area, this ten mile thick stack of cloudy vapour, where the planet’s mixing takes place. As the planet rotates, the Sun does its heated work and this thick rising stack of clouds encircles the globe. The moisture rises up ten miles, and then cools and descends. It falls down with force, with energy, as a high pressure system. It falls down on either side of the uprushing airs. So this cooler descending air is now split in two. It now flows down on either side of the equatorial band from where it arose, with one band landing at about thirty degrees above the equator and a second band landing at about thirty degrees below the equator. There are now two descending rings of air, each a torus, and they circle the planet like a pair of doughnuts. One thirty degrees north of the equator and one thirty degrees south of it. And as each falling doughnut of moist air lands on the ocean, it of course spreads out sideways. It is a high pressure system, landing with immense energy. And landing with such energy, each doughnut spreads out north and south.And this spreading out would happen evenly. Except that the body it is landing on, is spinning. And even the spin would have little effect, if it was the same along its length. But it is not. This is not a cylinder that is spinning. It is a globe. Energy is not lost, it is just changed. And when energy finds that it now has a narrower end of the globe to travel around, its energy morphs into increased speed. So like an ice skater pulling in her arms and spinning faster, air spins faster around the narrow poles. This means that in the northern hemisphere, the descending air that spreads out northward, will speed up as it encounters a narrower track to run around. And running faster, it speeds ahead of the other clouds and moves westward, toward British Columbia.
And the descending air that spreads out southward? The opposite happens. As it approaches the widening equator, it has further to travel, and slows down. it is actually dragged backward, relative to existing winds. It appears to be dragged eastward, toward Japan. These descending airs press down hard as they land. They are a high pressure system. And in the north hemisphere, the fact that the top speeds right, toward British Columbia while the bottom speeds left, toward Japan, creates a clockwise circle. So high pressure systems spin clockwise in the northern hemisphere. And with low pressure systems, the opposite happens. Where a high pressure system is air falling down, a low pressure system is air rising up. High pressure systems are powerful. They start energized, and as they fall, they become more and more powerful. They spread out as they land. But low pressure systems start out with less energy. And as they are squeezed upward, their energy decreases. As they gain height this potential energy means they must lose some internal energy to compensate. So as high pressure systems spread outward and are pulled by the Coriolis effect, low pressure systems contract, become smaller, and spin in the opposite way.
So in the northern hemisphere, low pressure systems spin counter clockwise. And in the southern hemisphere, everything reverses. Southward means moving toward the narrow end. Toward the place of higher speed. So high pressure systems spin counter clockwise and low pressure systems spin clockwise. And it is the clockwise spin we seek.We plan to sail into a system that is rotating clockwise, and we want to strike into its nine o’clock side. We want to hang on to it while it rotates clockwise, lifts us up toward midnight, toward the French Polynesian Islands. And at the top of the clock we will break free. We will turn left and pop out of the rotating system. So in the southern hemisphere we must seek a low pressure system. We must seek the storms. We will be using what bluewater cruisers call the “slingshot effect”. We want wind that will push us toward Hawaii. We want to sail in downwind conditions. It should lift us up and spin us into French Polynesia. We will spend a few weeks in those islands. Then we’ll try to muscle our way across the equator and to Hawaii.
At Hawaii, at 20 degrees, we will still be in the “trade winds” blowing east. But once we rise to thirty degrees, we will be in the Westerlies, the doughnut of descending air that spreads north and therefore speeds up, moving east, taking us to Vancouver, British Columbia.
So we will be in the slingshot of the Planet. We will soon be a floating point, a leaf in the endless immensity of the sea.