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Five Hours Before the Mast

The Pacific is a big ocean. (I know, Duh.) When I cross it, I fly for hours at 500 MPH and see nothing. And I mean: nothing. If you think I mean nothing except for ships, you would be wrong. I am constantly looking for ships and such and on the rare occasion that I do spot one, invariably, my response is something like: Look there’s a ship! What’s it doing out here? The interesting thing is that as recently as 240 years ago, much of the Pacific was unknown. It took explorers like James Cook to figure out where the hard spots of land were (some painfully located) and which of those offered safe anchorage, provisions and water. And they did all this using a sextant to determine their latitude and a lot of windage to guess their longitude (accurate chronometers, needed to determine the time difference between noon in London and noon wherever else one might happen to be, were not available until the mid-nineteenth century). 

I cannot imagine the hardship he and his fellow seamen were willing to accept to advance knowledge and, of course, hegemony. Whatever the reward might have been, the risk was constant and incalculably high. Think of the ever-present dangers of sailing onto a hidden reef, failing equipment, illness, mutiny, hostile natives and weather.  All this while you lived in close quarters aboard a wooden ship that relied entirely upon wind and tide. Now think about doing all of that in the dark. Without the Internet. I don’t know if it was glory, riches or desperation that motivated these men, but to set out on a mission of discovery took uncommon courage. 

And just in case, dear reader, you imagine such difficulties are restricted to the days before steam, Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing expedition to Antarctica took place only 100 years ago. (As a point of reference, I have at home, a Steger and Sons Patent Grand piano. It was built in 1911; I am only its second owner.) The horizon from the vantage of a crow’s-nest atop the mast of a sailing ship is about 20 miles. From where I am sitting now, it’s about 200 miles. At a glance, I can see thousands of square miles of ocean, a mass of water whose threats and difficulties are as remote to my passengers and me as the powdery surface of the moon. I’m pretty comfortable eating my first class meal seven miles above the scattered clouds that cover the Pacific. The cabin temperature is just about perfect. And in 5 hours, I will cover a route that by sailing ship 240 years ago would have taken 2 months or more to accomplish. Assuming, of course, its crew had any firm notion about where they were and where they were headed.

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