Ulysses at Doubtful Sound

As we sail out of Acheron channel, the weather is spectacular. A brisk land breeze has dispersed the fog. Above us patches of frothy white cloud relieve the blueness of the sky. On each side mountains hulk up out of the sea like colossi. We sail through Breaksea Channel, pass Breaksea Island and out into the open Pacific. All that water, as never-ending as the sky, is unnerving until I catch sight of two albatrosses bobbing on the surface like lobsterpot buoys. A light breeze plays around them, hardly enough to lift them in the manner to which they are accustomed. They are sitting this dance out. Nearby flocks of gannets are also resting on the water treating it, so essential and yet so alien to us, as if it were dry land.

We sail into Doubtful Sound, past any number of fingers of water that stretch up and away into the mountains. There are two kinds of basins here, the fjords, huge 1200-foot or more gouges, or the river valleys, worn away by glaciation and the incursion of the ocean. From the sides of these narrow bodies of water the shanks of the mountains extend upward as if the earth were stretching. And, indeed, it is. Here in South Island the raising of the earth’s crust is pushing everything up. There is at least one tremor of some sort or an earthquake every week.
As the boat moves slowly up Doubtful Sound, past Secretary Island and Balfour Island and moors off Seymour Island, I stand at the back of the ship trying my best to absorb what I am seeing. I have become a visual luddite. I haven't used a camera in years and on this trip I have hardly touched my binoculars. This is no accident. Since I live most of my life inside my head, I want these panoramas to find their place there, not so much as a vision of what they are but a record of how they make me feel.

This evening the Captain, Mike Murphy, hosts a farewell reception offering a few farewell remarks. He takes as his text Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. The poet describes Ulysses' journey and his return to Ithaca. The way I see it, once home safe and sound with Penelope by his side he should have thrown his sextant over the nearest cliff. That’s not how Tennyson saw it. The poem ends with Ulysses off on yet another trip proving, perhaps, to some that there is no fool like an old fool. Not so with Tennyson:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I have always read this poem as being about the last trip one will take, not the one into the sunset, but the one out of the sun. Captain Murphy identifies with Ulysses. No sooner will his ship dock but he will put out to sea again:

There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me -
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads - you and I are old;
Old age had yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

I suppose one has to think positively to be a sea captain.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio