There are times when armchair travel is almost as rewarding as in-the-flesh excursions.
Even firsthand accounts of adventurous trips may not quite compare with the real thing, but sometimes words and pictures convey the spirit of a place in a way that is stunning and satisfying. Researching nautical lore became a stay-at-home voyage of discovery, an exciting experience that needed no packed bag and no advance planning.
A Virtual Voyage
In December, I took a month-long journey from Los Angeles, following the Pacific coastline of the Americas to the “bottom of the world” and back north once again on the Atlantic side of South America to Rio. It was a virtual voyage via modern cruise ship.
By frequently checking the vessel’s bridge cam, I was able to experience smooth seas and rolling waves, raindrops and marshmallow clouds, bright sun and midnights, the distant horizon and the nearby shore. I also got a feel for some of the ports and watched, mesmerized, as the fog cleared over the craggy mountainous backdrop of Ushuaia, the southernmost outpost in the world.
It was not the same as actually being there. But it was good; reading filled in some of the blanks. I’m planning for the future, and because of my virtual voyage and my research, I know better what to expect. Yesterday, on the solstice, I thought about Ushuaia again. It’s winter now at the bottom of the world, and I’m sure the air is frigid.
I’ll be reading more books and poring over more pictures of all the cities along the route prior to booking the trip. I’ll read more geography and history, more about past civilizations and current governments. I’ll learn more about local food and drink and culture. You can bet I’ll read more about the HMS Beagle before cruising through Beagle Channel at the bottom of South America.
I’ll also study up a bit more on nautical lore. That’s one of the reasons this particular voyage was so appealing: The itinerary included crossing the equator as well as rounding Cape Horn.
There was a time when sailing superstitions were honored, when nautical traditions held sway in everyday life, when seagoing ritual was honored on land as well as on the seven seas, in every corner of the globe.
Now, not so much.
But some customs are still practiced by modern navies; cruise ships indulge in time-honored ceremonies when crossing the equator or the international date line. Even “airships” mark those occasions with a nod to tradition — an announcement from the captain or, sometimes, a certificate. Today, it’s all strictly for fun. Or is it?
Old salts might tell you otherwise. More superstitious sailors wouldn’t think of eating a banana on board, never whistle while they work, dread sharks but welcome dolphins, and are careful to speak first to any redhead within earshot. There are also plenty of pleasure boaters who are wary of changing a vessel’s name and, curiously, never wish fellow travelers “good luck” before a planned journey.
We still live close to our mythology in other ways — throwing salt over a left shoulder, for instance; acknowledging a sneeze with “gesundheit,” not having a 13th floor in buildings, nor a Deck 13 on most modern cruise ships.
Nowhere is the mythology closer than at sea.
Just as I am still searching for a tattered nautical chart with the notation “BHBD,” I also have a sort of “bucket list” that has more to do with half-forgotten habits than with destinations:
- I want to wear a gold hoop earring in my left ear as testament to my voyage around Cape Horn. There are many versions of this tradition, and while I have no illusions about being able to qualify for the Amicale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers (AICH), I do intend to stand in Ushuaia, sometimes termed “the end of the world,” and look towards Antarctica.
- I want to sail across the International Dateline, gaining (or losing) an entire day in an instant. I want a certificate to hang on my wall in commemoration of the feat.
- For old salts, a sparrow tattoo marked a milestone of 5,000 nautical miles traveled. I have already earned the right to at least a couple of sparrows, and I still have more miles to travel. However, I’m a coward when it comes to ink on my skin. Maybe, when I qualify for a host
of sparrows . . .
In 2017, I will be traveling in other directions, but I still have my eye on a spectacular gold hoop earring, and I’m already deep into research for 2018!
Photo of Harbor at Ushuaia, Terra del Fuego, Argentina, 2014, by David Stanley/Flickr