The Lonely Sea and Sky

I wrote this two summers ago upon returning from a sailing voyage to Cuba and Mexico

Keeping watch, I'm hand-helming because our auto helm doesn't like this swell. Skipper Rupert is down below making the ever bolstering tea, or snoozing on deck, off-watch... a blanket over his head to block out the scalding hot-bath heat of the Caribbean sun. Dew settles on us at dusk and our nearly-naked boat clothing gets hastily swapped for warm neck hugging boat jackets and dungarees. Things are out of proportion at sea, or is it that they are in perspective? I'm never quite sure, certainly the effect of no longer having land in sight does something to the psyche. The expanse, and the quiet is a better, more relevant version of a frankincense shadowed church, it makes me muse over and pray for the people in my life, obscure domestic memories suddenly rolling in like a set of waves.

A grey shadow puppet of a great freighter on the port beam horizon shatters this meditation as we try to work out if we are going to hit or miss them. They come from any direction on the horizon, their massive churning engines propelling them and their boxy cargo through the fast lanes of the sea, I look around every ten minutes for them. If they come close, and it's daylight then they're beautiful in a fat aunty kind of way, flagged out of some weird foreign port to avoid insurance, or is it taxes? The containers they carry look as innocent as lego in the distance, and then they're gone, as quickly as they came, soon only transparent shadows against the horizon again. At night it is harder because they are only pinpricks of light, international maritime codes signalling their size, course and position, once you've squinted long enough to establish what light is where and what colour it is with your watch-tired eyes.

It's not these metal monsters of commerce but rather the power of rare sightings of nature on this indigo two mile deep sea that stop it from being lonely. Passage making between two countries our path is crossed in the late afternoon by a pair of the purest white birds, they fly between the mizzen and the main mast as though they are dodging traffic and carry on their migration northwards, they dazzle me with their determined course and I feel like cheering. The next morning, startling splashes, like hot fat in a frying pan, surprise the oily swell as with triumphant punches muscular, long fish avoid their pursuers by bending into the light for a moment. Flying fish confuse me at first, I think they are birds, they are more delicate and shimmering than the sea splashers, they skim over the waves more out of the water than in, such beautiful fish. Each sighting is like a gift from this big sea that I am so very, a-little-bit scared of. I feel like offering a lift to the labouring tiny paper-cut out of a swallow that flies with us for a little but our course is slightly different so soon it is gone. The bluebottle jellyfish purses that skim past us are hideously clever masterpieces of natural, almost extra-terrestrial design.

Closer to land we have to look out for man-made obstacles and the tell tale boat-breaking, breaking waves on reefs. On the North coast of Cuba, nets and pots are marked by the fishermen by tiny little plastic drinking bottles and could easily get caught in a prop as we tend to motor-sail in and out of the reef passes. As we were leaving Bahia Honda, the oddest and loveliest bird of prey came to scope us out. He alighted on one of the starboard main shrouds for a little. He was tawny brown with indescribable detail, and a London boxer's flat face, flat beaked and big eyed, almost like an owl, but definitely a day time hunter. Yes, passage making is a special and unique experience, I already choose to forget the harder bits.