Northwest Passages: The final storm

It’s almost over. My valiant journey from ocean to ocean via the infamous Northwest Passage is coming to an end. It took the autonomous crew of sailing simulator Sailaway and I a total of 2 months and 5 days, much of which was spent stranded in a pleasant little place called Terror Bay. But we’ve hoisted the mainsail for the final time. With just 39 miles to go we will have broken into out of the Bering Sea come morning, into the grand Pacific ocean. But how did these last few weeks go? Let’s consult the captain’s log to find out.

June 18

Ah! The Bering Strait. This marks the final leg of the journey. Only about 700 miles until I reach the Fox Islands off the Alaskan archipeligo, home to an important Sea Lion protection region and famous nuclear waste disposal island, Shadow Moses. Past those islands is where the Bering Sea stops and the Pacific starts. But look, three ships have sailed up toward me: the Blue Dahlia, the Pigeon and the 888. They must have heard of my travels, my courageous mission across the frozen waters, my brilliant destiny.

“What brings you three up this way?” I ask, smiling because I already know the answer.

“It’s challenge time,” says one of them.

Oh. They’re just doing one of the sim’s set challenges, where you follow a famous course as quickly or accurately as possible. This time they’re doing the Bering Sea challenge.

I ask Mr Tooltips, my trusty first mate, to optimise the sail trim and then I sullenly go back below deck. Stupid other players. They’ll know my name soon enough. Only 670 miles to go. History will be made. And all the hardest sailing is behind us.

June 21

TIPPERRRRS.

Do you see this yellow line, Mr Tooltips? That’s our course, correct. And do you see this grey line? That’s right, that’s the way we’ve come. So tell me, why is the yellow line over here, and the grey line over here.

They’re. Supposed. To. Match.

Well, it doesn’t matter now. We’re grounded off St Lawrence island. A giant rock in the middle of Bering Sea, serving no other purpose than to scupper our chances of making history! All right. You get on the sails, I’ll do the rudder. Mr Google! Show us the depths! Hmmmm, 1.7 metres, 2 metres… no no, this won’t do at all. We need to head this way, gentlemen. Heave!

Uh, okay, let’s try this way.

Mr Windy-dot-com! Come here! What can you tell us? Yes, I can see the wind is at our back. Yes, I am aware that this is helpful, thank you. Just show me the pretty swirling colours, god damn you!

Splendid. Now, get out of my sight. Ready boys? Heave!

HEAVE YOU SCURVY MONGRELS

That’s it! Three metres… four metres… five metres! We’re free of the rock boys, we’re free of the rock! All right, no lollygagging. Trim the sails, Tippers. And adjust that yellow line. We weren’t defeated by Terror Bay, we will not be defeated by this accursed island. Onward!

June 23

We’re free of the rock of St Lawrence but there’s a new problem. For the past two days the wind has been fiercely against us. You can see that above in the red line marked “TWD” – True Wind Direction. All this means we have to snake our way toward the finish line, making painfully slow progress in what should be our glory lap. I ask our Able Bodied Sailor, Windy-dot-com, what’s going on and he informs me that a quite-large cyclone is dominating the north Pacific and the facing wind is only going to get worse over the weekend. He’s also upset and insists that the last time I referred to him he was a “Boatswain” but now he’s just an “Able Bodied Sailor”. I wave him away. I don’t have time for frivolous complaints, nor for vague worries about some such “bad” “weather”. Forecasts are mystical nonsense fit for hippies and conspiracy theorists. We’ll be fine.

June 25

WHO COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT WE WOULD NOT BE FINE? TIPPERS. TRIM THAT JIB SHEET. GET THE REEFS UP NOW. GOOGLE, I NEED THAT COURSE ADJUSTMENT. DAMMIT WHERE’S DOT-COM THE CABIN BOY? HE WAS SUPPOSED TO WARN US ABOUT THIS. WHAT? WHAAAT? BUT HE’S ALWAYS BEEN A CABIN BOY. GIVE ME THE HELM YOU FOOLS WE’VE GOT MORE HEEL THAN A CATWALK MODEL. HOLY GOD AND ALL HIS SAINTS PRESERVE US THROUGH THIS TEMPEST. EXCEPT SAINT LAWRENCE, OF COURSE. HE CAN DO ONE. BUT YES MAY THE FIERCE WIND ABATE OH LORD. MAY YOUR WISDOM SEE US THROUGH THIS STORM AND MAY WINDY-DOT-COM BE FOREVER CURSED TO THE LOWEST OF HELLS FOR HIS IGNORANCE AND SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS. MAY HIS– OH NO, HOLD ON BOYS, HERE COMES ANOTHER BIG ONE.

OHHHHH SHHHHHHHHH–

June 26

The weather is clear. We are alive. Not that there is any chance of dying in this game, it has no death mechanic at all – a clear mercy for the crew of the Bluster and Guesswork. Unfortunately, the wind is still against us. The good news is that we are 50 miles from the final destination, the forgiving Pacific. Somewhere out there is also Shadow Moses, fictional island of great renown, just off Unimak island to the south east. I lower all sails and lay anchor. I could keep her sailing, but I want to be here when we cross the line. The crew look at me suspiciously, or I feel like they would if they had eyes and they existed. Why is he taking down the sails, I can hear them think in the recesses of my addled imagination. Why are we stopping? He’s gone mad. No, he’s always been mad.

Disloyal dogs. I don’t have to explain myself to them.

June 27

The wind is blowing hard against us. It doesn’t want us to breach the Pacific. I have to reset course twice to avoid grounding myself on Unimak island. It adds another 50 miles to the last bit of the journey, but this course will catch more wind and put us in a better position to cut through heading south east. I lay anchor for the night, surrounded by a mild fog.

June 28

Whoops. I forgot to raise the sails today. We have now missed the window of good weather that would have allowed us through the passage. Um, we’ll try again tomorrow.

June 29

Still anchored. The wind is in constant conflict with the Bluster and the pass too narrow to risk letting Mr Tooltips at the helm. Especially in this mist. He has a habit of trying to sail into land. Swabbie Windy-dot-com says tomorrow the weather will be on our side. Tomorrow is the day. 65 miles to go, thanks to the course adjustment. But we can do it. Tomorrow is the day.

July 5

Tomorrow was not the day, nor was the following tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that… The wind has been holding a grudge against us. On the rare days when it doesn’t blow unhelpfully at the fore, I keep forgetting to wake up and raise the sails so I can complete the journey in person. Today a fierce and sharp swell comes for us and the sky spits misty rain in our faces, while a salty spray and huge waves assault the vessel. We’re 39 miles from the end and we haven’t moved from this spot in days. I feel nauseous just looking at these waves. I show the view from our boat to the rest of the RPS family, safe in their warm homes. Our news editor, Alice, makes the footage into a looping gif.

This has not helped.

July 10

This is silly. We’ve been sitting here anchored for two weeks. It’s time to do it. I wanted to be there when we crossed over. But there’ll never be a good time when I have the hours to spend in front of the steering wheel, with a good wind.

And then there’s the crew. I can imagine their pleading faces, haggard and salt-sore, interrogating me with tired looks. Why does he refuse to sail all the time? Where does he disappear to? Is this all just a horrible dream? Mutiny cannot be far off their minds.

Mr Tooltips wants to know what the hell we’re waiting for. He doesn’t have to ask me this, of course. I can see it his sorrowful, entirely fictional eyes. Mr Google’s beard has grown too long. Toilet-cleaner Windy-dot-com doesn’t even show his face anymore. Probably too ashamed of his low status.

All right, boys. All right. You win. Raise the sails Tippers, tonight we will cross the line. I’ll be asleep when the Bluster and Guesswork breaks through and finishes the journey. This would be more of a disappointment, had I not been asleep for most of the rest of the voyage.

The mood on board is instantly improved. Tippers gets to work, his invisible limbs hauling away at lines and twisting cranks with all the gusto and verve I’ve always admired in him. He raises the mainsail, then the foresail. He pulls the outhaul, the main vang, the cunningham, he pulls the backstay, he eases the gennaker, he tugs the traveller leeward. 6.5 knots, captain. The wind is with us. Still 39 miles to go. But we’re on our way, for the final time.

July 11

The Pacific. We’ve done it boys! The game flashes up a message in the corner: “You have completed your voyage”.

A sense of relief washes over the crew. The hauling, the navigating, the wind-reading – it’s all over. Relief, happiness, congratulations. The Northwest Passage has been conquered.

Still…

Still? say the non-existent faces of the men.

Still, there is a lot of world out there.

No, I hear them mutter.

And it would be a shame, having gone this far, to stop now.

NO.

Think about it! Why conquer only one small slip of the vast, wet world, when we can conquer the entire globe! Yes. Let me just plot a course. I’ll have to stay below deck the entire time, of course. You boys can take care of everything automatically. That’s how you work, you’re machines. You don’t need to rest or eat or indulge in relaxing pastimes to soothe your maddening thoughts. You’ve got all the skills and qualifications for this most epic of journeys. Why, I won’t even need to check in on you to write about it. There we go, course set.

A trip around the world. It’ll probably only take you the better part of a year. Well, boys. Good luck. I’ve had an excellent time. Keep the ship in good nick, and try not to run aground. Ha ha. Because I won’t be back to jimmy the ship free. And then where will you be? Stuck there on some isolated rock for all of digital eternity! Ha ha ha! That would be dreadful! Ha ha! Goodbye now, friends. Don’t forget your old skipper. Don’t forget the best captain you ever had. A solid captain, a sensible captain…

…of the fair Bluster and Guesswork.

14 Comments

  1. Moth Bones says:

    I’d advise not looking at that heaving ocean .gif for too long. Otherwise a highly entertaining series.

  2. iucounu says:

    IN vain the cords and axes were prepared,
    For every wave now smites the quivering yard;
    High o’er the ship they throw a dreadful shade,
    Then on her burst in terrible cascade;
    Across the foundered deck o’erwhelming roar,
    And foaming, swelling, bound upon the shore.
    Swift up the mountain billow now she flies,
    Her shattered top half buried in the skies;
    Borne o’er a latent reef the hull impends,
    Then thundering on the marble crag descends:
    Her ponderous bulk the dire concussion feels,
    And o’er upheaving surges wounded reels—
    Again she plunges! hark! a second shock
    Bilges the splitting vessel on the rock—
    Down on the vale of death, with dismal cries,
    The fated victims shuddering cast their eyes
    In wild despair; while yet another stroke
    With strong convulsion rends the solid oak:
    Ah Heaven!—behold her crashing ribs divide
    She loosens, parts, and spreads in ruin o’er the tide.
    Oh, were it mine with sacred Maro’s art
    To wake to sympathy the feeling heart,
    Like him, the smooth and mournful verse to dress
    In all the pomp of exquisite distress;
    Then, too severely taught by cruel fate,
    To share in all the perils I relate,
    Then might I with unrivalled strains deplore
    The impervious horrors of a leeward shore.

    (From William Falconer, ‘The Shipwreck’, plagiarised by Wm. Mowett Surprise)

    • klumhru says:

      Awesome, I’m just re-reading Patrick O’Brian for the 3rd time now, and Mowett uttered those last two lines during yesterday’s reading session in Master and Commander.

  3. Premium User Badge

    steves says:

    “MORE HEEL THAN A CATWALK MODEL”

    Ha. Eat your heart out Jack Aubrey, this is how you do it!

    Great little series though, might have to give this game a go, that final screenshot does make it look lovely.

  4. Ben King says:

    I loved this series. Feel free to update us all with 1st mate Tooltips global circumnavigation anytime!

  5. Thirdrail says:

    It seems like somewhere in this series (which has been fairly entertaining btw so thanks) there should have been ice and icebergs. Is it really all just plain ocean with minimal weather effects? The “storm” just looks like some overly windy fog. What about mountainous oceanic swells? It looks like you’re sailing around a mildly dangerous lake with a predatory island in the middle of it.

  6. roboczar says:

    I do not know how you have gone through this entire series without having the curiosity to read about tacking into the wind. It beggars belief.

    • Bent Wooden Spoon says:

      It beggars belief you left a ‘clever’, sarcastic comment without noticing there’s pictorial evidence, with accompanying text, of Brendan tacking in the fucking article. He just didn’t use the word ‘tacking’ because I’m guessing most non-sailors don’t know what it means.

      • roboczar says:

        He sat idle for days because he wasn’t running downwind. When you’re taken aback and stopped in the water, sometimes you have to generate momentum by reversing course and get the ship “out of irons”, so you can start tacking upwind. I see zero evidence of an attempt to do this, which is aggravating. I’m not expecting expert sailing here, but these are the basics.

    • Premium User Badge

      Skabooga says:

      I tack in the wind all the time. Why, just yesterday, I put up promo posters for my favorite band over the course of a particularly blustery afternoon.

  7. Fairweather says:

    Whale, that got out of hand fast. I don’t think I could deal with all that pier pressure from the crew. I was considering playing the game, but this has quite taken the wind out of my sails.

  8. icarussc says:

    I quite agree, Fairweather. I feel a wave of nausea just thinking about it!

  9. Gomer_Pyle says:

    What a fitting end to the voyage of the Bluster and Guesswork! Good series, Brendan! I hope to see more like it in the future.

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