Atlantic Map Road

I moved on to a chart with New York at the other end of it. I had sailed 3,516 miles, but had no idea of how I was placed in the race. How well I knew from previous races that heart-sinking feeling on arriving to find my rivals already in! But even if I were last, I should have had the romantic thrill which only a voyage like this can give.

I was approaching the Nantucket Shoals, about which the Admiralty pilots say, ‘These shoals extend 40 miles south-east of Sankaty Head Lighthouse, and render this one of the most dangerous parts of the Unites States coast. At first I hoped to sail round them to the south, without having to tack, but the wind veered, and headed me straight for the middle of the shoals. I was racing, and did not want to tack. I studied all the charts I had to see if I could thread a safe passage through them, bearing in mind that I had seen no landmark or seamark of any description since the Eddystone Rock 3,700 miles behind me. These shoals have affected American history; the Mayflower, with the Pilgrim Fathers on board, put about when she came upon them and headed north, to found their settlement at Plymouth, New England, instead of proceeding to New Jersey as they had intended. Later, Captain Hudson was diverted by the shoals, put out to sea and sailed on to New York, where the Hudson River is named after him.

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A night of exciting navigation followed. I went to sleep an hour before midnight, headed for the middle of the shoals, and slept for two and a quarter hours, when I got up for a radio-beacon fix, then slept soundly again for an hour and a quarter. I woke with a start. The night was pitch black, and there were no lights to aid me. I could not get soundings, and radio-beacon bearings are unreliable at night. Yet I decided to get radio-beacon bearings at intervals; I thought I could see a way to make a safe passage, even if some of the bearings were inaccurate. None of the radio fixes I got agreed with one another, and the dead reckoning differed from them all. However, if one could rely on accurate information, navigation would be a simple science, whereas the art and great fascination of it lies in deducing correctly from uncertain clues.

I passed over one shoal, but I knew that there was enough depth and sailed on into a squall, which turned out to be a thunderstorm with a deluge of rain. My track should have taken me, by my reckoning, within 2 miles of a Texas radar tower built on legs on the shoals, but I never saw it, for as soon as I was near the middle of the shoals a thick fog rolled up. I did hear the tower foghorn from the direction where it ought to have been; giving two deep moos like a sick bull, but I could not tell how far off it was. Then it fell dead calm. I was not happy; I could not get a radio-beacon fix because the three usable beacons were all in a line with Gipsy Moth. However, I kept on taking bearings from them and formed an impression of where I was. I set the ghosting genoa and tended it with great care all morning, trying to edge westwards, but there was seldom enough wind to move smoke. We were just moving, however, sailing slowly westwards at the edge of a tide-rip like a field of earthed-up potato rows. The forward half of Gipsy Moth was in smooth water, humping up as if about to break; the aft half was in the tide-rip, which advanced at exactly the same pace as the ship for what seemed a long time. The danger of these shoals is that a sea may break and dump the ship on the bottom, to be overwhelmed by the next comber. Since we were moving, I hoisted the mainsail, and our speed went up to 2 knots, but at the same time we were being carried northwards towards the shoals at 2 knots. Three-quarters of an hour later we were still moving, but still had 20 miles of the shoals to cross. I could not think of anything else I could do, so I went below and turned in for a siesta. When I woke it was 9.10 and I found the ship going well at 5 knots. I felt that I had been lucky.

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