Betwixt and Between

One year ago I spent a month as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where focused on essay writing. This essay about open ocean sailing was written while at the center, in response to fellow resident’s question.

Read this essay as it appeared in the October 2018 issue of Cruising World Magazine. (pdf download)

It was also performed live at Liars’ League Hong Kong, watch the video here.

Leaving without a fixed destination to arrive to an uncertain welcome. That is why I sail.

It’s the first thing I tell landlubbers who ask, “What is it like, to sail across an ocean in a small boat?”

I could describe the long, loping swell of the deep ocean. The black, moonless nights when the darkness chokes my mind. The curl of blue bioluminescence on a breaking wave. The way a new dawn paints the deck candy floss pink. I could describe the welling of joy when dolphins appear and the secrets we share. But I always begin with the thrill of leaving port.

My port clearance is a precious document, the paper clearing boat and crew of debts and warrants and unpaid bar tabs, free to leave without obligation to say where we will come to rest. A zarpe, outbound clearance, a chit that sets you free. The thrill of limbo when I travel without destination sets my imagination afloat.

I aim my boat into blue waters, seeking wind and way. A month of waves may kiss my keel, then, just miles from port, I gybe away. To another coast, a friendlier nation, somewhere downwind from here. Perhaps I’ll never return, never arrive, betwixt and between, alone at sea. I’ll sail in circles, north to the pole, south to the ice, east and then west until land stands in the way. I could if I wanted to.

When the wind blows hard from the north, we aim for Yemen rather than Oman. When our water runs low we stop in Alaska on our way to Japan. If the sailing is good I’ll pass New Zealand and aim straight for Tahiti.

It isn’t always so, this ticket to eternal noncommittal freedom. If you are port hopping in an island nation, or skipping down a nation’s coast, authorities may ask your destination. But when you raise your sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean, The Arabian Sea, crossing a great expanse to a land far away, you wave farewell and slip away into a world between nations, free of borders, free of customs, duties and right of abode.

Tell me, where else can you wander like this? Which train carries you across a border without two nations, one to exit, one to enter? No airliner takes off without a destination on your boarding pass. Roads that lead to the fronterra cross to the other side.

But not when I go to sea.

“Don’t you get bored, day after day with nothing new to do or see?” the landlubbers ask.

Bored? No. Never. I’m too engrossed in the blue soul of the Indian Ocean, light shot through it like a drift of silver filings. The fear that punches through the bottom of my belly when I look aft and see a grey wave, two, three stories high, with anger in its face. The brilliant flash of metal and blue, streaks of yellow, as a tuna hits the lure. Hand over hand, in it comes, the first fresh food of the voyage.

There’s too much work, helming hour after hour, trimming, changing sails. An inch of ease for a tenth of speed. Or making repairs, jury-rigging when you don’t have spares. Baking bread, cooking dinner, cleaning the head.

My father, an old farmer, came aboard my boat. Never sailed, never cruised, a life spent working hard. He knew nothing of the sea. I was proud, showing him my world. And I waited, wanting a hand on the shoulder saying, son, you’ve done well. Nothing. A silent, critical eye.

“So Dad, what do you think of sailing?”

“Seems like an awful lot of work to go real slow.”

I couldn’t argue. The whole point is to go real slow, to appreciate the subtle shifts of scene. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the sea. Every cloud that passes creates a new blue, new grey, new frothy white cap on the wave. Sometimes there are thrills, a squall that makes us long for home. A whale, a school of dolphins showing us the way. But even without, even if it’s calm, we’re still sailing in a kaleidoscope of shifting shape and light. The setting sun on a clean horizon, the masthead light joining Orion. Darkness so deep it’s hard to stay on your feet. Watching the stars revolve, picking a new one to point the way. Then the dawn. Oh, the dawn. First a tinge of grey, then blues and pinks and tangerine light. The white decks glow, waves and wind that frightened in the night pushed back by the light. If I show you the dawn of open sea you will love me. You’ll know what’s for real.

And then, a few weeks in, someone gets lucky on their watch.

“Land! I think I see land!”

A dark smudge on the horizon turns into mountains, beaches and trees and sand. An excitement takes hold. We clean, we shower, we put the ship in order, we work even harder.

Port of Aden, Dutch Harbour, Port of Jamestown, Pond Inlet, Galle, Salalah. Ports and not marinas, not moored next to superyachts and motor cruisers, but ships of war and coastal barges, the grit and grim of a working harbour. The docks are painted with tar, the water streaked with oil. This is not the country’s best face. But it’s where we arrive, alongside working men and foreign cargos, by the kitchen door. Others, less fortunate I’d say, are disgorged into shiny halls, then a taxi and a hotel in a predictable order. We hoist our yellow flag, a declaration of quarantine, inviting corrupt officials to board.

“Perhaps you have a gift for me? Ah thank you, but my brother, he likes Marlboros too.”

Our first requests are fuel and water and is there a sailmaker in this port? And once she’s secure, the papers signed and bilge inspected, we step ashore.

A cold beer, that day’s newspaper, a meal that’s fresh and green. A walk about town, perhaps a souvenir. And then I begin to wonder, what does the forecast say, when will the wind blow and get us out of here?

Seattle Screening on Feb 12

I’m very pleased that my documentary “The New Northwest Passage” will be screening at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA as part of their “Imaging the Arctic” exhibition.

Date: Thursday, February 12, 2015
Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 NW 67th Street
Tickets are $5

RSVP at documentary-newnorthwestpassage.eventbrite.com

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Montana Screening

I’m very pleased to tell you that my film, The New Northwest Passage, will be screening at the Dulcie Theater in Livingston, Montana on Saturday, September 6 (2pm).

The screening is part of the Livingston Film Festival Series and the Last Best Fest, their annual arts festival.

Unfortunately I won’t be there for the screening, but if you’re in Montana you can be there in my place!

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Hitting Helsinki

The New Northwest Passage is going to Finland! To the Helsinki International Boat Show, Vene 14 Båt, to be more exact.The film will be screening in Hall 7 in Purjehdussatama on both Feb 15th and 16th (Sat/Sun) at around noon and I’ll be there to answer questions and tell a few stories that are not in the film. If you, by chance, are in Finland around that time, please come by and say hello. Other speakers include Young America’s Cup winner Kyle Langford (7–9 February); Volvo Ocean Race 2014 Team SCA leader Richard Brisius (14 February); round-the-world sailor and writer Jimmy Cornell can be seen on the Majakka stage (15 –16 February) and Arturo Rey Da Silva, who is in charge of the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage at UNESCO.

On Monday, Feb 17 in the evening the film will screen at Marjaniemen Purjehtijat.

On Tuesday, Feb 18, 1800hrs the film will screen at Helsingfors segelklub

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Bringing a little bit of ice to Brazil

Brazil’s Globosat, a multichannel cable and satellite TV service, has brought the broadcast rights to The New Northwest Passage documentary! I’m not sure which of their 26 channels will be airing it, or when, but the deal has been confirmed.

There’s not much money in it, but it’s significant to me because it means that I actually sold my first film, completing the entire process of going on the trip, making the film, showing it at a festival (and winning it!) and then getting distribution. That follows the international publication of the book and the creating and sale of the iPad app on iTunes. I feel I’ve wrung as much out of that adventure as I could be expected to!

Mance Media are the distributor of the film. We’re still hoping for a sale in North America in the coming months, and we’re also moving ahead with digital distribution, from pay-per-view on Amazon to Blu-Ray discs, etc.

 

HK Film Screening & Lecture, June 3 & 4

The Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong is hosting a lecture by me on Monday, June 3, and a screening of my documentary The New Northwest Passage on Tuesday, June 4.

Monday, June 3: Lecture on The New Northwest Passage

Drinks Reception and Book Signing 6.30 pm  Lecture 7.30 pm

HK$100 for members and HK$150 for non-members.

Location: Auditorium. 1/F Duke of Windsor Social Services Building, 15 Hennessy Road, Wanchai (please note that this building is 5 minutes from Admiralty MTR or Pacific Place, next to the HK Police HQ)

Tuesday, June 4 (7:30pm): Screening of the film The New Northwest Passage
Q&A with the director following the screening. Edwin Lee, film editor, will also be present.
Location: SCOPE Admiralty Learning Center, City University of HK, 8/F, United Centre, 95 Queensway, Admiralty
Contact the RGS for further details on both events.Tel:  (852) 2583 9700

In 2009 the 40-foot yacht Silent Sound set off to sail the infamous Northwest Passage. These waters are normally locked in ice, but due to climate change it is now possible to sail here for a few weeks each summer. However, it remains an epic yachting challenge, and fewer people have sailed this passage than have climbed Mt Everest.

The crew dropped anchor in Inuit villages where they joined hunters in stalking their game and experienced the last vestiges of an ancient nomadic culture. Each person they met destroyed another stereotype about the Inuit and their way of life.

This film shows how the crew came face-to-face with the realities of climate change and it’s impact on a remote and fragile culture. They helped scientists tag a southern fox caught on an Arctic island and learn about the Inuit way of life from an old woman skinning seals on the beach. They met elders who told them about the struggle to maintain Inuit culture. They experienced first hand how climate change is opening the Canadian Arctic to create The New Northwest Passage.

About The Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong

The Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong is a chapter of the highly esteemed UK society. It provides a forum where members can regularly meet and listen to leading local and international speakers from the world of geography and related sciences, exploration, travel, research, the environment and conservation.

Previous speakers include the Polar explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Robert Swan, mountaineers Sir Chris Bonington and Doug Scott, primate expert Dame Jane Goodall, the botanist Professor David Bellamy, leading environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell, former space shuttle pilot Dr James van Hoften, moon walker Commander Dave Scott, Hong Kong explorer Wong How Man, round-the-world yachtsmen Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Sir Chay Blythe and yachtswoman Tracy Edwards and the authors Simon Winchester, William Dalrymple, Paul French, Jan Morris and Mark Tully.

 

Got an iPad? Buy my Arctic app!

The New Northwest Passage iPad is finally here! Relish Design of Winnipeg have been working on this for several months, and today it is finally available for sale on iTunes. Click here to buy it! The best news is that 10% of each sale goes to the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Program.

Written and created for sailing enthusiasts and environmentalists alike, you’ll be able to explore isolated Inuit communities, experience modern Arctic life and learn about climate change that’s affecting the North with rich video, photography and interactive maps. Experience life in the arctic on iPad and iPad mini.

Check it out here!

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Radio Beijing interviews

For your listening pleasure…a rambling and eclectic three-part interview conducted by Bruce Connolly of Radio Beijing. He was a wonderfully interesting person to chat with, and it’s a shame he edited out his own stories. I suspect he has a much more riveting, and certainly eccentric, story to tell than I do. He’s one of those guys that when you name a place on the globe, any place, he goes (in that lovely Scottish accent of his), “Ah yes, back when I was there in ’72 it was still under dictatorship and this guy I met…” and then you’re off and running on another yarn.

Click on the links below to listen to the MP3 files.

Interview 1

Interview 2

Interview 3

You can listen to more of his work for RBC right here.

 

48º North magazine reviews The New Northwest Passage

48º North, a Seattle and NW US sailing magazine, did a story about my book The New Northwest Passage. You can read the story by clicking here. It will open an online pdf viewer at the contents page of the magazine. The article starts on page 44, and the link is the second from bottom on the contents page.

Film screening times

As I’ve mentioned earlier, my film is premiering at the Winnipeg Real to Reel Film Festival. Visit their website for a full programme and ticket information.

The New Northwest Passage will be screening at North Kildonan MB Church, 1315 Gateway Rd.

Show times are:
Sat, Feb 16, 4pm, Theatre 1
Sun, Feb 17 2pm, Theatre 2

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