Archive for July, 2008

Liquidity

July 16, 2008

Last week, while the entire world was experiencing a loss of liquidity in the strange but useful energetic metaphor for love called ‘money’, I took off for as much literal liquidity as I could manage.

The one part of it you don’t want liquid is the boat itself, 35′ of ‘frozen spit’ (fibreglass) designed to keep the water out, but otherwise designed to dance between two fluids, wind and sea.

Here are a few images from the time I spent on the ocean:

The first few days, while the landlubbers were hot, we were in a grey dome of fog, a couple of hundred feet wide, like the grey dome of my brain, fried from assembling the book. Islands and rocks and the occasional fishing boat would loom up out of this greyness – reassuringly on schedule due to our radar and GPS – and then fall away again. The sameness, hour after hour, gets to you, but the water itself is in constant motion, even under the fog.

The huge seals of Matinicus Rock, sensing us somehow in the fog, set up a racket, shuffle into the water, and soon their heads are around the boat – curiously doglike in their confident wariness. Overhead, sea ducks (guillemots?) shoot out of the fog like bullets with wings, careening purposefully across our brief field of vision in straight lines.

Add the liquidity of night, slowly weaving itself into the fog in these summer evenings, long after the fog itself has gone orange and purple with the sunset.

The wind makes the air liquid, suddenly coming up on our second day, the mountain of Isle au Haut bouncing the fog into the air above us, the sails sculpted into shape by the fluid flow of the air molecules. The scud, tattered remnants of the fog, flies above us like the grey flags of a retreating army.

The boat is in constant motion, and the only time I stepped ashore in those first days – onto a dock in Frenchboro to find some eggs we missed packing – it is the solid dock whose floor seems to be undulating, not the boat. This illusion persists after the cruise – my house’s floor seems liquid too as I walk on it.

The tide brings another aspect of liquidity, that of pouring. The tiny motion occasioned by the moon (mostly) on the meniscus of the ocean means that 10 feet of water pour in and out among these islands twice a day. Sailing with the tide is a joy; sailing against it a challenge. As we round Ironbound, with its tall cliffs of granite looking in the afternoon light like a set of Easter Island faces, stone giants locked into the cliffside, waiting perhaps for their king, since there is a huge throne at the end of the island, an absolute straight ‘chairback’ (natural, not quarried) with a rounded back and arms of stone on either side …

Ooops, got pulled off into solidity – we were describing the liquidity of the tide – when we rounded between Ironbound and Jordan, we could literally see that the water was higher on the other side of the passage, and we were fighting that pouring water for every inch. But Tycha is true, and we made it uphill to the Porcupines and Bar Harbor.

The stark, shardy liquidity of the seawater when we drop into it on the next hot morning from the ten-million year liquidity of Penobscot’s soft-edged tawny pink granite rocks, the velvety liquidity of the quarry pond we dive into on Green Island to rinse off the salt.

The next day, sailing past Placentia, we see a strange shape on the shore that looks like a round orange tent or something.  We tease the boat toward shore to see more closely, and it is the body of a baby humpback whale.  About the size of a pick-up truck, this poor unfortunate is upside-down on the shore, its flippers and flukes akimbo, the hydrodynamic streaks of its underside visible on top.  The underside should be white, but the sun has tanned most of it a vivid orange. A bird perches atop the carcass, which seems to have dried rather than bloated, although liquefaction in the heat of July and August is an inevitability.
Sad death – why? – of a fellow mammal.  We tease the boat in close, but due to tide rips, the bold shore, and fluky wind, we cannot disembark to offer more than a hail and farewell across the water.  It reminds me of my earlier encounter with the whales on the Stellwagen Banks (see the first entry in “Sea Stories” under Tom Myers in Explore).

The last morning, we awaken to a tumble of the heavy humid air you find in the morning in the tropics. We know we’re in for some wind. Today the dance between the wind and water is passionate, heavy breathing, sweat, and the occasional uncoordinated bump and grind.

The waves – the swells from Bertha, the cross chop from today’s wind – look like pewter mountains coming at us, but we rise each time to their peaks, only to find a hole in the ocean on the other side. The boat drops into the hole, the spray flying over us, the shrouds whistling, and the boat, bucking like a horse, must be reined into position second by second, a totally Zen exercise that keeps us in the very moment for hour on hour, while the sun and wind burn the skin off my face.

Gone is the yielding, accommodative liquidity of a calmer day. Pushy, solid, metallic, with a jarring, slapping force, water becomes another element. Thales thought everything was made from different forms of water, and in the middle of this run I believe him, as everything around me seems water-born.

By the time we turn into our bay and the still-building wind chases us up the river (“And stay out …”), we see the result of another form of liquidity: Fire. While we were gone a freak fire took out one of the last local shipyards, the huge wooden building going up quickly in a series of explosions – propane, varnish, paint cans, acetylene. As we rounded up in front of it, there was a gap in East Boothbay like a kid with a missing tooth, a couple of tug-boat hulls still smouldering among the wreckage. No one was hurt, but a lot of folks are out of work.

By the time we are at the mooring, the wind is over 30kn, and has a solidity that makes it hard to speak into. White caps like a Barbara Cooney painting keep us from the mooring, and we have to seek the shelter of an island to get the sails down and creep ignominiously back to the mooring under engine. The wind is so wild we must leave everything aboard for tomorrow and we barely make it to the dock in the little dinghy, so insistent is the wind.

One more liquid: the absolute gratitude of a hot shower after all those days at sea.

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