February 17, 2009
What's the Porpoise of This Sign?
Lately I’ve been thinking about indicators that go unnoticed, signals within situations (like maybe the economy) that tell us we are off course and need to make a big change in order to avert disaster. How well tuned in am I to my environment, be it social or physical, economic or political or any other? We rely on the latest science, the latest poll, the best social-science or the latest technology. So modern. And where does this leave us?
There is a story that keeps replaying in my head, a story of Bernard Moitessier and his porpoises. Moitessier was a great French sailor who in the 1950s and 1960s made some famous voyages across the great oceans—usually solo. He was a sailor’s sailor, a master of simplicity and resourcefulness, skilled in every nuance of his ancient art.
On one voyage girdling the globe (see Moitessier’s The Long Way, pp. 99-105), Moitessier was passing to the south of New Zealand, avoiding by a wide margin Stewart Island with its outlying reef. It was a delightful day, with a fresh breeze propelling his boat Joshua at a brisk 7.7 knots, the windvane (an auto-pilot device) set to head him into the Pacific over unusually smooth seas. Moitessier sat cross-legged on deck with his coffee and cigarette, taking it in. Life was good. But as it started to cloud over and cool down, Moitessier went below.
Some time later, hearing the familiar whistlings of porpoises, Moitessier climbed back on deck. There were about twenty-five porpoises, swimming abreast from stern to stem. Moitessier observed, “Then the whole group veers right and rushes off at right angles, all the fins cutting the water together and in the same breath taken on the fly.” Moitessier, who had observed porpoise and dolphin behavior countless times, was struck with wonder as the porpoises repeated their choreographed routine more than ten times, and on what appeared to be a precise command. What’s more, there were numerous porpoises beyond these, nervously clicking and beating the water instead of playing as usual in the bow wake.
Moitessier watched and wondered what this game was all about. But something tugged at him to check the boat’s compass. “Joshua is running downwind at seven knots straight for Stewart Island,” hidden in the clouds some fifteen miles to the north! Unbeknownst to him, the wind had shifted, and with the flat sea this shift had gone undetected. He was headed for disaster. Quickly he changed course. Going below again to put on his foul weather gear, Moitessier mused on those porpoises and their behavior. Had they been trying to tell him something?
Returning on deck, he now observed the porpoises playfully gamboling about the boat. One large, black and white porpoise—perhaps a leader—leaped high into the air in a double-roll somersault, and repeated this three times. Moitessier translated the message: “The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right… you understood… you understood… keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!” Over the next hour or so the porpoises departed, except for two. Moitessier concluded they were posted to make sure he did not stray from his course until completely out of danger!
Pretty fantastic, isn’t it? If I hadn’t read hundreds of pages of Moitessier’s accounts of his voyages, I’d be tempted to call this a tall sea story. But I have little doubt that Moitessier is sane and a truth teller, and particularly when it comes to the sea.
Apart from this amazing display of animal intelligence, what strikes me is that within the confines of the boat, confident in his technology (sextant, compass, wind vane and the set of his sails) and his “best practices,” everything seemed fine. Finer than fine! And Moitessier certainly knew better than to rely on the special providence of porpoises to save him. In previous voyages he had wrecked two sailboats on reefs! No. Reason, experience, best practices and technology were all important. But he could never grow complacent. When everything seemed fine, it was perfectly right—and perhaps urgent—to do a reality check and ask if it truly was. Look again at the compass!
Moitessier’s experience can be read as a metaphor for life. Or of publishing. The story encourages me to be ever more aware of the direction I’m headed with a proposal or book or project, and of the cultural and spiritual winds and currents at play.
And from now on when others start to make strange porpoising movements, Moitessier reminds me to ask, “Just what are you trying to tell me?” I could be headed for a reef!