A day’s SAIL

ALTHOUGH there is a lively pleasure in discovering even the dullest and
smallest towns and villages, the finest experience offered by the Baltic
is the savor of the Baltic itself in a long day’s sail. I mean a day of
fourteen hours at least, from six in the morning till eight at night,
through varied seascapes and landscapes and varied weather. As soon as
the yacht leaves harbor in the bracing chill of sunrise she becomes a
distinct entity, independent, self-reliant. The half-dozen men on her,
cut off from the world, are closely knitted into a new companionship,
the sense of which is expressed not in words, but by the subtleties
of tone and mien; and if only one amoung them falls short of absolute
loyalty and good-will toward the rest, the republic is a failure, and
the air of ocean poisoned. The dictum of an older and far more practised
yachtsman than myself used always to be, “I ’ll have no man aboard my
ship who can’t smile all the time.” It is a good saying. And it could
be applied to my yacht in the Baltic. We had days at sea in the Baltic
which were ideal and thrilling from one end to the other.

[Illustration: 0161]

To make a final study of the chart in the cabin while waiting for
breakfast is a thrilling act. You choose a name on the chart, and
decide: “We will go to that name.” It is a name. It is not yet a town
or a village. It is just what you imagine it to be until you first sight
it, when it instantly falsifies every fancy. The course is settled. The
ship is on that course. The landmarks will suffice for an hour or two,
but the sea-marks must be deciphered on the chart, which is an English
chart, and hence inferior in fullness and clearness to either French
or Dutch charts. Strange, this, for a nation preëminently maritime! To
compensate, the English “Sailing Directions”–for example, the “Pilot’s
Guide to the Baltic”–are so admirably written that it is a pleasure
to read them. Lucid, succinct, elegant, they might serve as models to a
novelist. And they are anonymous.

To pick up the first buoy is thrilling. We are all equally ignorant of
these waters; the skipper himself has not previously sailed them, and
we are all, save the cook, engulfed below amid swaying saucepans, on the
lookout for that buoy. It ought to be visible at a certain hour, but it
is not. The skipper points with his hand and says the buoy must be about
there, but it is not. He looks through my glasses, and I look through
his; no result. Then the deck-hand, without glasses, cries grinning
that he has located her. After a quarter of an hour I can see the thing
myself. That a buoy? It is naught but a pole with a slightly swollen
head. Absurd to call it a buoy! Nevertheless, we are relieved, and in
a superior manner we reconcile ourselves to the Baltic idiosyncrasy
of employing broom-handles for buoys. The reason for this dangerous
idiosyncrasy neither the skipper nor anybody else could divine.
Presently we have the broom close abeam, a bobbing stick all alone in
the immense wilderness of water. There it is on the chart, and there it
is in the water, a romantic miracle. We assuage its solitude for a few
minutes, and then abandon it to loneliness.

We resume the study of the chart; for although we are quite sure of our
course, the skipper can never be sure enough. My attention is drawn to
a foot-note that explains the ice-signals of the Baltic. And the skipper
sets to telling tales of terror about the ice, in the Zuyder Zee and
other seas. He tells how the ice forms under the ship surreptitiously,
coming up from the bottom like treacle. You say, “It’s freezing
to-night,” and the next morning the ship can’t move; and you may die of
starvation, for though the ice will hold the ship, it won’t hold you.
The skipper knew men who could remember ice in the Zuyder Zee in June.
He himself had once oscillated for a whole week between two ports on the
Zuyder Zee, visible to each other, pushed hither and thither by the ice,
and unable to get anywhere at all. But ice was less terrible than
it used to he, owing to the increased strength and efficiency of
ice-breakers. And climate was less rigorous. Thus the skipper would
reassure us for a moment, only to intimidate us afresh. For it seems
that the ice has a way of climbing; it will climb up over everything,
and inclose a ship. Indeed, he was most impressive on the subject of
ice. He said that the twin horrors of the sea were ice and fog. But
of fog he told no tales, being occupied with the forward valve of the
engine. We perceived that yachtsmen who go out when it happens to suit
them, between May and September only, can never achieve intimacy with
the entire individuality of the sea.

The weather has now cleared for a while. The sun is hot, the saloon
skylight warm to the touch. You throw off a jersey. The tumbling water
is a scale of deep blues, splendid against the brass of the bollard and
the reddishness of the spars. The engine is running without a “knock”;
the sails are nicely filled; the patent log is twirling aft. A small
rainbow shines steadily in the foam thrown up from the bows, and a great
rainbow stretches across all heaven, with its own ghost parallel to it.
Among the large, soft clouds rags of dark cloud are uneasily floating.
On the flat shores of near islands the same cereals ripen as ripen at
home. And this is thrilling. Distant islands are miraged. Even a distant
battleship seems to be lifted clean out of the water by the so-called
mirage.

And then a trading-schooner, small, but much larger than us,
relentlessly overhauls us. She laughs at the efforts of our engine to
aid our sails, and forges ahead, all slanting, with her dinghy slung up
tight aft, over her rudder. And then it is the still small voice of the
stomach that speaks. Hunger and repletion follow each other very swiftly
on such days. The after-breakfast cigar is scarcely finished before
a genuine curiosity as to the menu of lunch comes to birth within. We
glance into the saloon. Yes, the white cloth is laid, but we cannot eat
cloth. The cook and the chronometer are conspiring together against us.

In the afternoon the weather is thick and squally. And we are creeping
between sad and forlorn veiled islands that seem to exude all the
melancholy of the seas. There is plenty of water, but only in a
deceiving horizontal sense. The channel is almost as narrow and
as tortuous as a Devonshire lane. English charts are criminally
preposterous, and so are Danish brooms. Hardly can one distinguish
between a starboard and a port broom. Is the life of a yacht to depend
on such negligent devices? The skipper is worried. And the spectacle
of a ship aground in mid-sea does not tranquilize. Sometimes the hail
wipes out for a few seconds the whole prospect. The eyes of everybody
are strained with looking for distant brooms.

[Illustration: 0168]

Then we are free of the archipelago, and also the sky clears. The sun,
turning orange, is behind us, and the wind in our teeth. Ahead is a
schooner, beating. And she is the schooner of the morning. Our engine
now has the better of her. As we overtake her, she runs away on one
tack, and comes back on the next. She bears down on our stern, huge,
black, glittering. A man and a boy are all her crew. This man and this
boy are entitled to be called mariners, as distinguished from yachtsmen.
We can see their faces plainly as they gaze down at us from their high
deck. And you may see just the same faces on the liners that carry
emigrants from Denmark to the West, and the same limbs sprawling on
the decks of the Esbjerg steamers, as the same hands scrawl Danish
characters on picture postal cards to the inhabitants of these very
islands.

The sea is now purple, and the schooner a little black blot on the red
panorama of the sunset; and ahead, amid faint yellow and green fields,
is a white speck, together with sundry red specks and blue specks. The
name on the chart! And then the haven is descried, and a ring of masts
with fluttering rags. And then the lighthouse and the roofs detach
themselves, and the actual mouth of the haven appears. Twilight falls;
the engine is moderated; the deck-hand stands by with a pole.
Very slowly we slide in, and the multitudinous bright tints of the
fishing-smacks are startlingly gay even in the dusk. The skipper glances
rapidly about him, and yells out in Dutch to a fisherman, who replies
in Danish. The skipper shakes his head, at a loss, and gives an order
to the deck-hand. The deck-hand claws with a pole at a yellow smack.
We have ceased to be independent. The name on the chart is a name no
longer. It is a living burg, a poor little place, good enough to sleep
in, and no more. But another stage on the journey to that magic capital
Copenhagen.