Books often sit on my shelves for a quite a while awaiting their moment, so when on May 5 (2019), the spine of Theo Dorgan’s Time on the Ocean caught my eye, I had no idea how coincidental that was. It’s a first hand account of a journey from Cape Horn to Cape Town, a trip made with ten others (strangers) on a sturdy 70 foot boat called the Pelagic Australis. They set out from Punta Arenas, Chile, heading down Canal Beagle towards the freezing ocean above Antartica – the date was May 5, 2006 . This trip would take almost five weeks and each day is written up in a short chapter, a kind of diary, with the numbered day above the calendar date. Starting on May 5, I read a single chapter daily and almost believed myself to be navigating the unpredictable waters of the southern ocean. It was not plain sailing, in fact often it was not ‘sailing ‘ at all, since winds are fickle and the engine, more than the sails, kept the boat moving in the right direction. The vastness and the emptiness of the southern ocean is mesmerizing, ‘a gigantic monstrous void’, with no markers by which to find your place or get your bearings, there is only water – water to the right, water to the left, water on all sides, water below.
“everywhere you look is water in motion, great slabs of it barreling past, tumbling and falling like blocks of ice in your squinting vision, banging the deck out from under your feet, sluicing back over your boots” p 170.
Even the bunk needed a side panel to stop the exhausted sleeper from falling out as the boat pitched and lurched. Feelings were fearful, but also exultant, primitive, vital. I read on for some time believing that water and weather were the forces to be battled, however when things came right down to it, I realized that something very human mattered more; the ability to get along, those qualities of compatibility, reliability, leadership, or lack of it, could make the difference between catastrophe and survival. Understanding human nature (your own included) can keep everything working as it should. A boat fit for purpose with a good skipper and crew stand the best chance in any weather conditions.