Taken Aback in the No-Go Zone

‘Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.’

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1798

Becalmed. It’s an expression that has been taken from the world of sailing and applied to many walks of life. For the past year or so it feels as if the world has been becalmed as Covid-19’s tentacles reached across seas from continent to continent, putting the world in lockdown. And the ‘calm’ part of the expression only applies to the vessel, in this case Mother Earth and the normal activities of the human population: ‘calm’ is certainly not the state of mind of the population who are currently in irons, to continue our sailing metaphors. We are all still waiting for a friendly breeze to dispel the malady, swell the sails of our human existence and put us back on track.

The phrase ‘in irons’ is probably not as well known or often used as ‘becalmed’. It’s provenance is from the iron manacles that were fastened around sailors legs when they were confined to the bowels of the vessels after some infraction. Being in irons they were certainly going nowhere, and this phrase was adopted for sailing vessels that got stuck in the ‘no-go zone’ in their point of sail, or direction relevant to the prevailing wind. As discussed in last week’s blog, sailing really came of age when intrepid explorers discovered that by careful alignment of sails they could actually move against the wind’s direction.

By tacking, or changing course, from port to starboard, the skippers could navigate their vessels in a zig-zag course towards the wind. Unless, of course, they got stuck with the bow pointing almost directly into the wind: the point of sale no-go zone referred to above. In the no-go zone sails flap disconsolately and the ship comes to a halt; in fact it can even be ‘taken aback’ as the wind nudges the bow of the vessel and pushes it backwards, which can be extremely embarrassing. (Ask any yacht skipper whose vessel has scudded backwards while those all around heeled over with full sails.) ‘Taken aback’ is yet another nautical phrase that has found its way into common speech; many are the politicians who have been visibly taken aback by astute questioning. Not that it made any difference, mind you.

Being becalmed is different to being in irons, of course. Lack of movement is the result of lack of wind, and this was an extremely frustrating state of affairs for captains in the days when sail was the only driving force available to ships. Most notorious of all was the doldrums, a vast equatorial area of monotonous windless weather where the northeast and southeast trade winds converged. Of course, the doldrums still exist, but these days are probably welcomed by sailors and passengers alike for the balmy weather. Who needs wind on a cruise ship? The word ‘doldrum’ itself has an interesting derivation: it was an Old English combination of ‘dol’, meaning ‘dull,’ and ‘tantrum’. A dull tantrum? Try sitting on a wooden deck under an equatorial sun for two weeks without a breeze to ruffle the sails and you can probably get an idea of a dull tantrum. Screaming silently at a cloudless sky like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

These days the doldrums have a far less evocative name. The scientists prodded, poked, examined and studied the thermal equator and decided on calling it the ICTZ. Nothing like an acronym to inspire poets and song writers, we reckon. What ICTZ actually means is Intertropical Convergence Zone, and in those four words lies the exact description of the phenomenon (if you are of a scientific, geographical or meteorological bent, that is), but if you don’t like them you can also get away with Near Equatorial Trough or, in Asia or Australia, Monsoon Trough.

It’s not all calm in the ICTZ though. Like any dull tantrum, with outside opposition it can have a catastrophic spin-off effect, and we mean that literally. The low wind speeds run up against high pressure surges from higher latitudes, causing horizontal wind sheer: combine this with the Coriolis Force of the Earth’s rotation and you have the birth of a tropical cyclone. You wanted wind, sailor; you got it – a lot more than you bargained for. Sometimes it’s better to just lie back and accept that you aren’t going anywhere for the moment.

And that’s right were we started. Being becalmed is not something that necessarily lends itself to philosophical acceptance. The frustration we all feel as humanity struggles against the constraints of lockdown, travel embargos and loss of income is understandable, but a tantrum is not going to help. Without those safety protocols we are looking at a potential cyclone of disease and loss of life that would be far, far worse than a becalming. For now we need to husband our resources, keep positive and work towards the day when the wind returns. It will; it always does.

Join us at Waterfront Charters for a restorative cruise: we have a wide variety to lift mind, body and soul. Our sail boats have more than enough wind here in Table Bay; our power boats are luxurious, safe and superb for cruises, parties, sundowners…whatever your heart desires. No doldrums at Waterfront Charters, ever!