And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea: 'Quiet now. Be calm.' And the wind dropped, and there followed a great calm.
This passage from the gospel of Mark (I use the Jerusalem Bible) brings to mind a curious incident in Faial when I first sailed Jester to the Azores. It was 1967 and there were no marinas or hotels, or normally other yachts, in Horta and people would thank you for coming so far to see them. The boat lay alongside the stone quay to long mooring lines, usually with a gathering of interested spectators looking down at her. On one occasion this included a bearded figure with long hair, dressed I thought, somewhat like a Sikh. He clearly sought my attention, and by way of breaking the ice I said, 'Are you Sikh?' But he misunderstood me and said no, he was quite well. He then started to preach, by no means to rant, but to explain to me the meaning of the scriptures and the significance of the deity whom he referred to as Sir God.
He was clearly something of a card, but I was touched by the homely way he spoke about the Lord and the disciples, and, of course, Sir God. He told me of the phenomenon of Mount Pico, which was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, and passed me a photograph of the island with a cloud above the mountain in the shape of a cross, a sign, he told me, that sometimes appeared on her feast day. It was an obvious fake, but clearly not to him.
By now it had started to blow up and I asked one or two of those standing about if they would help me warp Jester to a quieter berth. But the prophet would have none of it. 'Why are you so frightened? Have you no faith?' I am not sure that he quoted the gospel, but that passage was plainly what he had in mind. 'I will ask Sir God', he announced, 'to calm the waters'. He did, and within minutes the wind had dropped and I gave up all notion of shifting berth. To the prophet this seemed
not at all surprising; indeed, I imagine nothing that Sir God did would be. Before leaving, he offered thanks and, in the circumstances, I felt it would be churlish not to associate myself in some way. The scientific, or at any rate reductionist, explanation of all this would be coincidence. And so it probably is. But let us pursue the matter a little further.
'I am so glad', wrote Blondie Hasler some 30 years ago when I had just bought Jester, 'that you now have my little boat that has always looked after me so well'.
I was to remember the phrase on many occasions over the years when what might well have been good fortune gave me the impression of being looked after. The last occasion was comparatively recently, in 1993, sailing back on my own from America in the new Jester (convinced in my own mind that the new boat was but the old re-born).
One night, somewhere in mid-Atlantic, well off the shipping routes, I had turned in. If one keeps well rested in such circumstances, I have found, sleep tends to be very light. The wind was, I think, something like a Force 3, well out on the quarter so that the self-steering gear had no difficulty in holding a steady course. But something must have disturbed it, for I awoke suddenly to find the boat hove-to, the sheet slack and the fully-battened sail weathercocking. Looking round, I saw to port, perhaps half a mile away, the steaming lights of a ship. Had we carried on, so far as I could judge, we would have been on a collision course.
'They tell me', wrote Belloc, commenting on such matters, 'that a ship has no being at all; that a boat is not a person, but is only a congeries of planks and timbers and spars and things of that sort'. But that, he concludes, is simply to open up the whole debate. '... undecided, branched out, inexhaustible ...' between realism and nominalism. And in that frame of mind I thanked Jester once again for her solicitude.
The experience is by no means unique. In the course of his guide for lone sailors, The Wheeling Stars, Bill King,
who circumnavigated the globe in the junk-rigged Galway Blazer II, ruminates on how often, out of his set routine, he would wake at night to find the lights of an approaching ship. It was, he suggests, too frequent to attribute to coincidence and cites a dramatic example. At night on one occasion in the Southern Ocean, where the least of one's worries would be the presence of shipping, he stumbled out of his slumber towards the control hatch convinced of some danger. He was horrified to find a maze of lights ahead, among them the two reds of a vessel not under control and a dim green starboard steaming light. They were on a collision course. Bill, 'gulping with fear', tacked, and was finally able to slide under the vessel's stern. Why, he asked, in all this vast empty ocean had he the misfortune to cross tracks with a whaling fleet's mother ship towing whales? But, more important, what was the alarm system that had awakened him?
Bill suggests that some kind of emanation between minds may be the explanation and, no doubt, wary of the paranormal, hazards a guess that the neutrino, the smallest known particle with no apparent
mass or electric charge, may be somehow involved. This sounds to me no more convincing than coincidence, but I wonder whether he might be on the right track in that what we know as intuition, that ability to get inside someone else's mind that appears to be unique to human beings, may be involved. Certainly the phenomenon (if such it is) seems to be linked to people rather than objects.
I remember one occasion when people certainly came into it, many years ago, cruising in Jester somewhere in the vicinity of the Azores, again on my own. I had not seen a ship for weeks, but one day awoke from a nap, unexpectedly but with no sense of urgency, to put my head out of the side hatch, saying as I did so, 'Hello, there are people about'. A few miles away there was a Portuguese survey vessel, obviously from her slow speed taking a line of soundings. I would have been most surprised to have seen nothing. The feeling that human beings were about was very strong. There may have been nothing to it; but if an explanation is sought, I would not find coincidence a persuasive one.
Of course, the evidence in such matters is almost entirely subjective, not really the stuff of scientific investigation, and the matter itself of no real importance to seafaring. Nevertheless, all the evidence of those who sail alone seems to indicate that being awakened in time to avoid collision happens too frequently to attribute it to coincidence. The evidence of those who have not been awakened in time is, needless to say, not available.
Copyright © Mike Richey (Yachting Monthly February 1996)