Monday, March 22, 2010

Part 1-8 Pearl and Hermes Atoll

We set out from Lisianski Island towards Midway Island and the next day, the 18th at noon to be exact, we calculated the ships position and found we had been washed twenty nautical miles north of our planned route. The northwards flowing current in this area was much stronger than we had expected, the boat having been washed so far off course.
On the way to Midway Island there is Pearl and Hermes Atoll, a collection of several sunken reefs. A crash into these reefs would be disastrous, so we had to sail southwards. Despite having been carried so far to the north, we set our course to take us ten nautical miles beyond Pearl and Hermes's southernmost reef.
Since the Ryuusui-Maru set sail from Honolulu Bay, it had been riding along comfortably on the North-East trade wind.

Pearl and Hermes Atoll is one continuous sunken reef and several low coral islands scattered over nine and a half nautical miles north-south and sixteen nautical miles east-west. Many stories of boats wrecked on this reefs have been passed down from the olden days. One of them goes like this:
The night of April 26th, 1822, two American whaling ships called the Pearl and the Hermes rode onto a small island ten nautical miles apart from each other, both boats were destroyed. Following that, the crews of the two ships gathered together and began survival on the deserted island. During that time they gathered the lumber, planks and nails of the wrecked ships, and working together they built a ship of about thirty tons. Upon that ship they managed to make their way to Hawaii. Taking the names of those two vessels, the reef has been known as Pearl and Hermes Atoll ever since.
Because these two whaling ships had been made of wood, they were able to recover the lumber and build another ship. If they had been steel like modern boats, they probably wouldn't have made it to Hawaii. On top of that, sailors of in the olden days were more industrious, and most were capable carpenters.

Setting out on a route that would take the Ryuusui-Maru safely around Pearl and Hermes Atoll, sails swelling in the wind, we continued on to Midway Island.
Before long the sun went down and it was ten PM of the 18th. The north-east wind that had been blowing until then suddenly fell silent. We no longer had wind.
If a boat is sailing on wind that stops, there is nothing the crew can do. At a time like this, the safest move is to throw in the anchor and stop the ship.
So, thinking that we should lay down anchor, we calculated the depth of the sea. Our sounding line can measure up to 120 fathoms (219 meters), but it didn't reach the sea floor. In other words, the ocean was incredibly deep. We had no choice but to let the boat be washed along.
We were carried quickly along at the whim of the current.
Before long the sea began to swell and the ship began to heave violently. The pitch black ocean, as if bullying a ship that could no longer move, swelled gradually higher and rocked the ship.
We were rocking so violently that the crew could not sleep during their breaks after finishing their shifts. I stayed out all day on the deck, staring at the sky, waiting for the wind to come back.
Like this, a terrible night fell and then the morning of the 19th broke. When the wind stopped the day before the weather had also changed. Clouds now covered the sky and hid the sun.
If we could just see the sun a little bit, we could use it to calculate our position. So with the sextant ready, I sat with the helmsman watching the sky. I had never worried so much for not knowing the position of my own ship.
So I tightened the watch, sending two men up the mast to keep a look out. I set them in two hour shifts, from morning to night, keeping watch in all directions.
Maybe they could spot an island on the horizon. Maybe there was an area where there was a change in the color of the ocean. Maybe there was some area where the seabirds were flocking. If they saw something they were to immediately report it, from the mast or from the deck, everyone kept a sharp watch, scanning the horizon all around the ship. But no one saw anything.
When the weather is good in these tropical waters, looking out from the mast you can see a sunken reef or shallow area by changes in the color of the water. It is best when the sun is high above the horizon. Even if there are some waves, when you have the light shining from behind you, you can easily tell apart sunken reefs or shallow waters.
Generally speaking when the ocean is very shallow, at about one meter, it's color is light bronze. From about ten to fifteen fathoms (eighteen to twenty-seven meters) it is a bluish-green. As the depth increases the blue disappears, and deeper than twenty fathoms (thirty-six meters) it becomes green. Deeper than that, it becomes dark green, and at more than thirty fathoms (fifty-five meters) it is indigo. Past that it becomes a blackish color which gets darker as the depth increases.
The sunken reefs just below the surface of the water can also be spotted by the waves, which foam white as they hit them.
Flocking birds do not always mean that an island is below. More commonly, birds are over schooling fish, which can be identified by their flight patterns. When the seabirds are flying around in circles, there is surely a school of fish below.
In any case, we prepared the anchor to be thrown in in case we spotted a shallow area in the ocean. Though we knew it was deep, we occasionally measured the depth. The sounding line still did not reach the sea floor. The flow of the tide was fast, and we all worried about what would happen.
It was an ominous and unpleasant nineteenth of April.

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