Tropical Convergence

7 May 2013

5/06/2013 09:29 AM (utc) – 5°45′N 128°39′W

Since leaving Los Angeles, we have sailed over 1,700 miles south and west, with a mere(?) 1,000 miles to go before we can kick up our feet on dry land and glimpse another human in the Marquesas Islands. It is, I must admit, rather hard to comprehend the scope of this trip. From where I’m sitting, I can look around and see that we have a little circle of ocean to ourselves, and it looks rather like the little circle we were occupying two weeks ago. I feel isolated, sure, but I don’t feel nearly as isolated as I actually am; it seems the closest ship should be just beyond the horizon and the nearest land is surely no more than a day’s sail away– but in all likelihood, neither is within 800 miles of our little boat. Actually appreciating the hugeness of this ocean, or how far we’ve sailed, or, for that matter, how far we have yet to go is a tricky thing.

But as we’ve traversed the Pacific, certain things have changed to indicate our progress: most prominently, the heat. When we left LA, it was chilly. Actually, forget chilly, it was cold. Spending a night out on watch required two sweatshirts and a bulky rubber rain jacket, just to keep from freezing. Now, a scant six degrees north of the equator, the night breezes are impossibly pleasant in short sleeves, the water around is is about 85 degrees, and the days, well, the days are rather hot.

We haven’t sighted any dolphins since leaving coastal waters, but their presence (if not their personality) has been replaced by a wild abundance of flying fish, who buzz like overgrown dragonflies above the waves, executing sharp u-turns and other nimble maneuvers before splashing back down. The sea is so thick with them, in fact, that they can’t seem to keep from martyring themselves on our vessel; every morning now begins with a walk around the boat, peeling up six, eight, twelve flying fish that have executed kamikaze missions onto our deck overnight.

Hungrily following these fish are a surprising assortment of seabirds patrolling the air, looking for lunch. I have watched them with some envy as they float effortlessly on the breeze, swooping down into the swell and banking around one wave before dipping into the trough of another. I was less envious on a recent rainy, moonless night as a flock seemed to rally around the running lights atop our mast, calling out and trying to stay together in the inky blackness. I, meanwhile, was comfortably bundled in my raingear below, letting our wind vane steer us through the night, and admiring their white-lit bellies in the darkness.

We, I’m afraid, have had less luck than our avian breatheren in the fishing department. In the past week, we’ve had three bites on the squid-esque lure that we’re trailing behind the boat, and twice we’ve even reeled them in close enough to get our mouths watering, but all three times the fish have spit the hook and swum away, pierced but wiser. Before you critique our skills (not to say we have any expert fishermen aboard), it is worth pointing out that there are not, in fact, many big fish out here in the middle of the sea. Most ocean life congregates along the coasts, and while three nibbles in two weeks may seem to confirm the hopelessness of the situation, we’re still optimistic about hauling in a handsome dorado, a fierce wahoo or a majestic tuna before this trip is done.

Friday evening, after a week of smooth sailing in the northern trade winds, we passed into the infamous Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (alternatively known by its forbidding acronym ICTZ, or, more colloquially, as <i>the doldrums</i>). Encircling the earth at the equator, this band of uniform low pressure has been feared by generations of sailors for its torpid, shifty winds and violent, unpredictable squalls. Saturday we spent the day idling in this languid air, moving painfully slowly, and never, it seemed, in quite the right direction. We started our engine, and watched with dismay as the boat bounced ineffectually over the oncoming swell at a meager three knots– far too slow to rely on our diesel power to carry us out of the doldrums.

After night falls on this ghastly region, as the air cools and rises, squalls develop rapidly and can hit with little warning, thrashing boats with gale-force winds and blinding rain. Each of our two nights has been spent in tense vigilance, checking our radar for signs of oncoming storms and eyeing the dark sky, lit fitfully by sheet lightning, for the even darker bulks of silhouetted thunderheads. With enough warning and fortunate positioning, we can sometimes dodge an oncoming squall– and we have, depowering our sails and changing course to let them pass across our bow. Other times, they’re too big to dodge, and all we can do is shorten our sails, turn into the swell and ride them out, as the winds howl and rain pounds our deck. And just before sunrise, as the air begins to warm, the squalls die and the sun comes up on another becalmed day.

Today, Sunday, these volatile winds have moved, fortuitously, out of the east, and we’re back under sail, moving south and west again. If these winds hold (an optimistic assumption) we will be out of the doldrums by Monday evening, and then onto the wings of the southern trades, which should carry us to the islands in ten days or less.

Before we left, an experienced sailor told me that on a long passage like this one, there is no present, only the past and the future, rather glibly suggesting the monotony of weeks at sea. Perhaps when it’s all over, the long days and nights of this sail will blend together and fade. But now that we’re out here, I find it quite the opposite of the sailor’s projection: the present is all there is. California feels like a lifetime ago, and our arrival in the South Pacific islands an unimaginably distant future. This trip is a test of endurance, and with two-thirds of it behind us, we’re doing well. Between our daily tasks and routines, our days and nights are made rich by the small and large wonders of the sea and the sky, the wind and the waves. We watch the ocean change its many colors, from brilliant indigo in the sunshine, to lavender at sunset, to an ominous slate as a dark storm approaches. After night falls, bringing a cloudy, moonless night, threatening to storm, we look down and see the water luminescent with life, the waves glowing brilliantly, and our wake lit up like diamonds and dust splashed across the black velvet surface of the sea.

Aquatic Mammals

27 April 2013

4/25/2013 1:06 AM (utc) – 23°01.48′N 123°21.53′W

A week ago, Nepenthe sailed out of Ventura Marina on a cool, clear day, a steady breeze filing her sails.  As the sun set on that first day, we were beyond sight of land and, well, that should be about it until we hit Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Today we’re about a quarter of the way there– 700 miles of 2,833 total. From our current position, you could head 731 miles due east and hit the southern tip of Baja California, or about 1,800 miles west and run into Hawaii. Or, if the fancy struck you, you could head due south and the first land you would hit, 5,700 miles later, would be Antarctica. Yesterday, we were surprised to cross paths with a Singaporean container ship by the name of Orchard Bulker on her way to Guangzhou (6,400 miles), but in all likelihood, we won’t see another ship until we’re within shouting distance of the Pacific islands.

Our little boat is comfortable enough for our crew of four: two tiny cabins in the stern, and a third in the bow. I’m relegated to the berth amidships (which is to say, in the middle of the boat), short on privacy as it’s in the living room/galley/salon below decks. I sleep on a sort of shelf up against the wall, and I must go fully horizontal before I am able to enter it. When we’re underway, I can hear the water gurgling and rushing by on the outside of the hull, and the overall sensation is something like sleeping in a three-sided coffin that’s being flushed down a giant toilet. But with the seas rocking my cradle every night, I’ve actually been sleeping pretty well.

Though I will say the rocking took some getting used to. Our second day on the water was, for me, a blur of violent illness and long naps. Every salty old sea dog I talked to before the trip assured me that I would almost certainly be seasick for a few days, and then I would almost certainly get over it. Not one to take such chances, I’m traveling with a veritable salad bar of seasickness medications, including one that isn’t, strictly speaking, FDA-approved, though it’s apparently what NASA gives to queasy astronauts, and another that is alternatively employed as a truth serum and a facilitator of kidnappings.

Courtesy of this floating pharmacy, I awoke on the third day feeling greatly reinvigorated, and I was welcomed back into the world by a pod of dolphins bounding over the horizon. The ocean has a way of keeping you going, even as she torments you (so say, anyhow, the aforementioned salty old sea dogs), and these dozen dolphins stayed with us all day, playing in our wake and seeming to encourage us on, surfacing for air together and darting under and around the boat in pairs and threes.

Our primary daily task, of course, is to sail this boat. On our first few breezy days, this was, well, a breeze.  We’d set our sails in the morning, and hardly touch them as we sliced through the ocean all day before setting a more modest arrangement for the night. Much of this week, however, we’ve been becalmed, bobbing like a cork in a bathtub. Our only wind has come in gusts from the north– half an hour of calm, fifteen minutes of breeze, then another still period– like the steady exhale of slumbering arctic giant. In these winds, we’ve been sailing with our spinnaker, a technicolor parachute that balloons out before our boat as we cruise downwind. It’s been an interesting challenge to harness and finesse it– Henry described the process as like “flying a kite the size of a tennis court,” which is not far off the mark.

Being at sea narrows the world considerably, and also, I have found, narrows the range of things one might think about: wind, food, fellow crew, clouds, waves, vengeful whales, etcetera. And so beyond our sailorly activities, we go about our days methodically, circumscribed by this forty-three foot tub, constantly in motion, always listing fifteen degrees to starboard. Simple tasks, as you might imagine, become rather difficult. In the old sailor adage: “one hand for yourself and one for the ship,” and when that fails, you go ahead and strap yourself in.  Meals are cooked with the help of a gimbaled stove that swings with the swell, and dishes are washed by quite literally binding yourself to the sink (an innovation that might find another application in dealing with chore-shirking teenagers). Even taking a whiz comes with risk of high comedy every time you unzip– one hand for the ship and one on yourself, to be sure, lest you befoul the head and get clobbered against the rocking hull.

Our weather is forecast to improve in the morning, and then we’ll be off and away again, south and west in the trade winds. Before then, I’ll be enjoying the graveyard shift at the helm– 2am to 5am, looking out for commercial traffic, oncoming squalls, rogue waves and shifty winds. The moon will be full, and if this night is anything like the past few, the ocean will stretch out from our hull, endless in all directions, glinting glassy and metallic in the glow, and above me our sails will be silhouetted black against a bright, starry sky.

Away We Go

19 April 2013

After a brief delay so as to hit our optimal weather window, this morning Nepenthe is setting sail from Ventura, CA. We’ve got our forecast for the first eight days, and it looks like we’ll have winds of 10-20 knots out of the North-Northwest for at least our first week– right where we want to be. We are lucky to have, as they say in the Navy, “fair winds and following seas.”

As we make our way, I’ll be updating our coordinates via SSB radio daily. You can track our progress on this map here:

I’m off to go hoist the mainsail, so I’ll leave you, for now, instead with words from our old friend Homer:

Grey-eyed Athena stirred them a following wind,
soughing from the north-west on the winedark sea,
and as he felt the wind, Telemakhos
called to all hands to break out mast and sail.
They pushed the fir mast high and stepped it firm
amidships in the box, made fast the forestays,
then hoisted up the white sail on its halyards
until the wind caught, booming in the sail;
and a flushing wave sang backward from the bow
on either side, as the ship got way upon her,
holding her steady course.
Now they made all secure in the fast black ship,
and, setting out the winebowls all a-brim,
they made libation to the gods,
the undying, the ever-new,
most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus.
And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn.


Setting Sail

12 April 2013

On Wednesday, I’ll be setting sail from Ventura, California, and if everything goes according to plan, I’ll sail past Santa Cruz Island and I won’t glimpse land again until arriving at Hiva Oa in French Polynesia some four weeks later. I’ll be making this journey on Nepenthe, a 43 foot ketch, along with Henry (my pal), John (Henry’s friend’s dad), and Ralph (John’s roommate circa 1975). A ragtag crew of adventurers, to be sure.

nepentheWe’ve spent the past few weeks fixing up the boat, loading it down with a seemingly impossible volume of food, and, in my particular case, learning to sail. I will concede that it is perhaps insane to make one’s first substantial sailing voyage a “Trans-Pac” (in the incomprehensible dialect of seafarers), but then, it wouldn’t be half the adventure if I knew what I was getting myself into, would it?

I’ve received a great deal of advice (both sound and otherwise) from veteran sailors and ocean-folk. With the days before departure dwindling I’m mulling one bit of wisdom shared by my good friend Lieutenant Livy M. Coe IV– who himself crewed an ill-fated sail from the Azores into the Mediterranean before joining up with the U.S. Navy. As Livy urged me to consider before committing to the voyage: Remember, Sam, you cannot get off the boat. Obvious, perhaps, but also hard to really understand until you’re out there. I’m a bit apprehensive, particularly about the first four days, which is when we’ll be in our gustiest wind, and which is about how long every old sea dog says it takes to adjust– physically and psychologically– to life at sea. I have no doubt there will be moments when I will really want to get off the boat, but, well, you know.

After that four-week crossing comes the fun stuff: six more weeks to cruise the Marquesas Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago before washing up on the beaches of Tahiti. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but, well, if it’s good enough for Paul Gauguin, it’s good enough for me.

Not surprisingly, everyone I talk to about this trip has a host of questions: Will you see other boats? Do you have a motor? What will you eat? What is Nepenthe? Do you get seasick? (In brief: Probably not; you bet we do; lots of pasta, lots of beans; an ancient Greek drug of forgetfulness; as a matter of fact I do, but Non-Drowsy Dramamine works great and most people get over it after a few days). And everyone seems particularly interested in the level of danger involved. We’re setting sail at the one time of year we’re guaranteed not to hit any major storms, and though we’ll surely hit a squall or two, it won’t be anything Nepenthe can’t handle. Once we get off the coast, we should be able to set our sails and cruise for days. And if the shit, for whatever reason, were to really hit the fan, we’ve got a cool little device that, when immersed in water, sends out an SOS signal via satellite and the U.S. Coast Guard will send someone to come pluck us out of our life raft. But that shan’t be necessary.

We’ll be hopelessly beyond the reach of most modern communications, but I have been learning the dark art of high-frequency radio, which will give me access to (agonizingly slow) email over a range of about 7,000 miles. It’s really, really cool, and it will (hopefully) allow me to publish the occasional blog post here over the coming months. Don’t touch that dial.

A Closed-Door Meeting on the Future of the Internet

6 December 2012

This was originally posted on the Freedom House Blog

This week and next, 193 governments are gathering in Dubai to consider putting the internet under a new regulatory structure that could fundamentally change the way the web works, with dire consequences for global internet freedom.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN body, has convened the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to review and update the International Telecommunications Regulations, which emerged from a similar conference in 1988. The old rules, known as ITRs, were written to codify principles of international cooperation on telephony, with the hope of expanding the global telephone network and helping it to operate smoothly. Now, 24 years later, the member states of the ITU are deciding, among other questions, whether and how the internet should fall under the same regulatory framework.

Back when the ITRs were first written, the World Wide Web did not yet exist, and internet users numbered only in the thousands. As it grew more popular, the internet was set aside by the ITU and treated as a “special arrangement,” not subject to the Union’s regulations. Under these conditions, the internet flourished organically, with administrative matters addressed through self-regulation, targeted government policies, and an array of technical and multistakeholder bodies. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), for example, is a nonprofit organization that oversees the management of internet protocol (IP) addresses and the domain name system, while the Internet Engineering Task Force is an open, volunteer-based group responsible for developing technical standards for the internet. The Internet Governance Forum, which was held last month in Azerbaijan, offers governments, corporations, and civil society a space to discuss internet policy issues. This ad hoc, informal administration has permitted internet governance to evolve as rapidly and agilely as the technology itself.

To place the internet under regulations written for a wholly different technology, subject to change only by intergovernmental treaty, would pave the way for stifling control far into the future, and jeopardize the internet’s role as a platform for expanding human rights. Yet in advance of the WCIT, certain governments—including a number, not surprisingly, that score poorly in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net survey—and other entities have proposed putting the ITU in charge of internet regulation. They have also submitted specific draft rules that perfectly illustrate the hazards that could arise from ITU governance of the internet.

A proposal by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association would impose a “sender pays” fee model, which would force internet content providers to pay for the content they disseminate. While ostensibly intended to give telecommunications companies additional resources to invest in expanding the global network, in fact this proposal would have the opposite effect, benefitting only incumbent telecom firms while raising the cost of internet access for individuals. A second proposal from the same group would establish a two-tiered internet by allowing content providers to pay for higher quality of service. This would violate the principle of net neutrality, which mandates that the network must treat all content equally.

In an attempt to combat crimes committed on or via the internet, multilateral coalitions of Arab and African states have put forward a variety of proposals. One would require that states cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of cybercrime, while another would require states to harmonize laws on data retention. No mention is made, however, of the significant impact these measures could have on the privacy of internet users, and there is a risk that repressive states could use these additions to the ITRs as an excuse for restricting political speech online.

To be sure, cybercrime and the digital divide are legitimate global policy problems, and they will require a coordinated global response. However, these are highly complex issues with multifarious implications. They cannot be properly addressed without granting all stakeholders an equal voice in the debate, and this points to another problem with the WCIT and with the ITU taking authority over the internet: only governments get a vote. While companies and international organizations are welcome to join the ITU as observers—provided they are able to pay the hefty membership fee—the technology, corporate, academic, user, and human rights communities cannot vote and are largely locked out of the proceedings.

The most dire and repressive proposals are unlikely to be adopted as changes to the ITRs at this meeting in Dubai. But the more fundamental question is whether the internet ought to be regulated under this framework at all. Over the past two decades, the internet has grown from almost nothing to a global network of over two billion users, with extraordinary effects on commerce, politics, human rights, and every other aspect of our lives. The current, lightweight regulatory framework has allowed the internet to prosper; imposing UN authority will put this invaluable resource at risk and particularly jeopardize those at odds with their government, many of whom have come to depend on the internet to advance causes like human rights and political freedom.

Fortunately, the U.S. government has made public its opposition to any proposals that would increase the ITU’s control over the internet, and the European Parliament has approved a resolution in support of more open, multistakeholder bodies addressing global internet issues. Without the ability to engage in the WCIT directly, we in civil society must count on like-minded governments to prevent a future in which the internet is less innovative, less inclusive, and diminished as a public space for unrestricted speech on politics and human rights.