Immensity

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 fifty 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 twenty years ago. We are now rebuilding nearly everything else. We now have the mast out and are detaching the steel rigging, 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. It has been famously described 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 and sometimes free 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. Hawaii is our goal, but to get there 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.

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, compressed into a high pressure system. It falls down on either side of the warm moist airs rushing up from the equator.

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.

As the planet spins toward the west, the descending air is dragged back, dragged eastward. From the perspective of a sailor in a boat, it feels like the wind is blowing eastward, blowing from Chile to New Zealand.

These are the tradewinds. Constant, generated continuously by the rotating relationship of the Earth to the Sun.

As well as being dragged eastward, the falling airs spread out north and south. These airs are squashed by the force of their landing on the ocean’s surface. They rush out sideways, some north and some south.

And because the planet is a globe, wide in the middle and narrow toward the pole, these airs behave differently depending on whether they rush north or rush south.

In the southern hemisphere, where we are, the air that spreads north from its landfall, discovers that the planet is widening. The planet’s rotation still drags it back west toward New Zealand, but this air now has a longer track to travel along. Energy is not lost, it just changes. With the same amount of energy but more distance to cover, this air slows down relative to the southern airs moving on the smaller track.

And, again, still speaking only of the southern hemisphere, the airs that spread out southward, discover that closer to the south Pole, the planet is narrowing. 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. It is dragged westward in the same direction as its brother north of it, but relatively faster.

Looked at from above, it appears that relative to each other, the airs south of thirty are flowing westward while the airs north of thirty are going in the other direction, relatively eastward. The bottom spins left and the top spins right, creating a clockwise circle.

In the southern hemisphere therefore, low pressure systems rotate clockwise.

And it is the clockwise spin we seek.

We plan to sail into a system that is rotating clockwise, and we want to enter 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 first. 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 as the globe of the planet narrows, the winds speed up, pushing us East, taking us in the direction of 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.

John M. Noble