Where is Tasmania?

Guest perspective/Randy Randall

The marina business in winter is not much fun. The river’s frozen over, the snow-covered docks look like giant loaves of white bread, and the mooring balls are gripped fast in the ice. It’s all very depressing, and spring seems a long way off.

Snow piled up to the windows and nightfall at 4 p.m. put me in a funk.  “Seasonal Affective Disorder” some call it. My wife chides me for having a touch of cabin fever; but I sooner relate to Herman Melville when he wrote in “Moby Dick” about “the damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

For me it’s all a humbug, and I know the only cure is to go somewhere. My brother-in-law escapes to Florida. My sister and her husband take a Caribbean cruise. I camp out in front of the woodstove and lose myself in the great cruising stories of years gone by. I read for hours on end while the snow falls and the wind rages – and while I’m blissfully unaware of the mayhem going on outdoors, I have invited myself aboard some of the most famous yachts for some of the most famous voyages in history. This time, I sailed around the world with John Guzzwell aboard Trekka; and, when that voyage was over, I signed on with Vito Dumas to struggle along with him through the Roaring Forties aboard Lehg II. Then I took a break from singlehanding and sailed around the world in company with Susan and Eric Hiscock on Wanderer III.

After that respite I was back aboard with Joshua Slocum on Spray, fighting our way around Cape Horn. For a more recent circumnavigation, I left the old Spray at her berth in Fairhaven, Mass., and climbed aboard American Promise with Dodge Morgan. And, finally, I stowed away on the old catboat Mascot with Henry Plummer in “The Boy, Me and the Cat” – a classic cruising tale if there ever was one, guaranteed to transport me out of snow-covered Maine and down to sunny Florida.

You may wonder how I could pass so many hours absorbed in these old books, but, you see, I’m a proactive reader. I don’t just read along with these sailors. In my vivid imagination, I’m their shipmate. I pay close attention to the details. I read and reread passages to make sure I understand them.

When Guzzwell writes about setting staysails, I know all about that. I’ve done it. When they struggle to repair a leaking stuffing box or a chafed mooring line, I can relate. When Dumas or Hiscock give their latitude and longitude – worked out with their trusty sextant and the HO-229 tables – I pause in my reading and research where they really were. For that I use Google Earth and Google Maps. The lat-long for any location in the world displays automatically at the bottom of the screen.

When Guzzwell writes he made landfall at Samoa, I go ashore with him. With the mere click of a computer mouse I’m able to visit the South Seas Islands. As the 20-foot yawl Trekka transited the Panama Canal, I was there for each passage through the locks. Both Guzzwell and Slocum sailed inside the Great Barrier Reef, and I can retrace every mile of their route on my screen.

When I read like this, I’m struck by the incongruity of my methods – in one hand holding a book written years ago, about a voyage that occurred in the last century; in the other, using a laptop PC to follow these sailors around the world. The irony of all this is not lost on me, in as much as I’m somewhat of a curmudgeon when it comes to our modern digital age.

I’m suspicious of the various electronic devices with which we are forced to associate these days. I hear even our refrigerators are going to become “smart,” perhaps automatically reordering the Black Toad English Brown Ale when I remove the last bottle from the shelf.  (This is perhaps not entirely a bad thing.)

But I do enjoy searching out the far-distant islands and ports-of-call where these intrepid sailors made landfall. Slocum passed months in Tasmania while he waited for the weather to improve before continuing across the Indian Ocean. So, I asked myself, where exactly is Tasmania? And I found out using Google Earth.

Another thing I find while tracking these sailors with my PC is that the Earth is not always laid out the way we think it is. Geography can be surprising. Who knew there were tiny, ever-so-remote islands in the South Atlantic?  Slocum stopped at both St. Helena and Ascension Island on his way to Brazil and home. We’ve heard of the “Roaring Forties,” but what does that really mean? Where is 40-degrees south latitude? The grid function in Google Earth will show you.

Why is Thursday Island so important to circumnavigators?  I must admit my laptop and Google Earth have added tremendously to my enjoyment of these old stories. The exotic places, the Great Circle routes, the vast oceans and the trade winds all come alive when you see them on the glowing computer screen. Who knew such old books would be my salvation and pull me through the never-ending winter of 2014-15?

We live in an amazing age. I thoroughly enjoyed sailing along with all those old salts in January and February, and I will thrill to a new gaggle of adventurers this winter. And soon now my armchair roving will be over, and I’ll be searching for spring instead. I guess I’ll check the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” and see when we should be launching the marina docks.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.