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THE HERMITS OF THE SEA
Gilbert Wheat
May 29, 1961
Recently Author Gilbert Wheat and three friends completed a year-long cruise through the islands of the Pacific. As they moved among remote anchorages and nameless beaches of the southern islands, they encountered a strange and lonely breed of men: the "singlehanders," hermits of the sea. As the name suggests, singlehanders always sail alone. They have no home port, no destination, no purpose other than to wander the oceans of the world. "Wheat met his first singlehander in a harbor on the northeast tip of Guadalupe. Call him Joe—his name does not matter, for he is like all the rest. He sailed from San Diego June 10, 1959, leaving behind a wife (or ex-wife). His boat was tiny, only 20 feet long. It had no engine, no dinghy and little aboard beyond a rifle, a pocket-knife and 30 gallons of freshwater. Joe was shy and showed little interest in "Wheat and his companions, even when they rowed close alongside. But after a considerable silence the man began to talk. His plans seemed almost unbelievable: to hunt for goats on Guadalupe, then sail on to Sorocco for fresh water and then to Clipperton for birds' eggs. From there he would head for Tahiti, and later, perhaps, Australia. Wherever he went he would spend no money and, hopefully, he would see no people.
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May 29, 1961

The Hermits Of The Sea

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Recently Author Gilbert Wheat and three friends completed a year-long cruise through the islands of the Pacific. As they moved among remote anchorages and nameless beaches of the southern islands, they encountered a strange and lonely breed of men: the "singlehanders," hermits of the sea. As the name suggests, singlehanders always sail alone. They have no home port, no destination, no purpose other than to wander the oceans of the world. "Wheat met his first singlehander in a harbor on the northeast tip of Guadalupe. Call him Joe—his name does not matter, for he is like all the rest. He sailed from San Diego June 10, 1959, leaving behind a wife (or ex-wife). His boat was tiny, only 20 feet long. It had no engine, no dinghy and little aboard beyond a rifle, a pocket-knife and 30 gallons of freshwater. Joe was shy and showed little interest in "Wheat and his companions, even when they rowed close alongside. But after a considerable silence the man began to talk. His plans seemed almost unbelievable: to hunt for goats on Guadalupe, then sail on to Sorocco for fresh water and then to Clipperton for birds' eggs. From there he would head for Tahiti, and later, perhaps, Australia. Wherever he went he would spend no money and, hopefully, he would see no people.

Wheat and his crew met another singlehander in a bay ringed by the sere brown rocks of the Gal�pagos. This one—call him John—was as shy and vague as Joe. Some time ago he had left Dinner Key in Florida. His boat was a few feet longer than Joe's, it had a small gasoline engine and it towed a dinghy. Otherwise they were the same. Like Joe, he had no money and lived off the sea and the few wild animals he could find on the islands. Although his ship's stores were almost exhausted, he refused an offer of half a dozen cans of string beans. He didn't like beans, he said. Next morning he left the anchorage, heading west—course uncharted, destination unknown. The protagonist in the story that follows is an amalgam of these two men and all the other ocean-going hermits who sail the vast Pacific. It is the story of one day, but it is equally the story of all their days, for on these solitary passages there is no end to the day or to the voyage. There is only an end to life.

NOWHERE AND BEYOND

Ten degrees north and 135� west, a sailboat creaks and groans through the swells of an endless tropic sea. The hot sky forms a hard metallic shell, its horizon edges rimmed by distant thunderheads. The huge orb of the sun burns nearly in the zenith.

Northeast trade winds blow steadily against two triangular staysails hung out on either side of the boat's mainmast. An untended tiller flops back and forth. To the eye of an observer, perhaps from an airplane diverting its course to dip low in curiosity, the scene is one of desolation and suggested tragedy. No one is on deck. The boat seems to drift aimlessly downwind—coming out of nowhere, going into nowhere. It moves slowly, its wake vanishing in a few yards. But a closer look reveals signs of life aboard and a plan of travel. A sea turtle lies upside down on the foredeck waving a flipper at the sun. Two wool shirts and a blanket flap from a lifeline, drying in the wind. A glistening filament of fish-line trails aft.

It is midday. Down below a man sleeps in the boat's only bunk. His lean body stretches moist and naked on a blanket. Matted hair and an untrimmed beard cover most of his face. It is midday, but if he sleeps during the dark hours there is a chance of being run down by another boat. Though he sails now on an empty ocean, he has come by habit to rest in the day and stand his cockpit watch by night. A hermit of the sea, content to be a thousand miles from the nearest human being, he sails away from the complexities of society, and sails alone because he cannot sail with company. He is his own confidant, his own guardian, his own enemy.

The close air in the cabin mixes with the smells of kerosene, tar, putty and musty canvas. Hard bunk boards rise and fall beneath him, and his head, in sleep, rolls from side to side. Waves slosh along the thin sides of the wooden hull, sending their muted drumbeat echoes through the cabin. A one-burner stove squeaks in its gimbals, a can of beans in the food locker rolls back and forth (click, click, clack, click, click, clack). Overhead and forward, the turtle spanks the deck with leathery thumps; and from high aloft come the wrenching, vibrating sounds of the rigging. But the man sleeps on, for these sounds are normal. Should the hull move through the water in a new motion, should the rigging change its tune only slightly, some inner signal will wake him.

The sun drops toward the west, sending a shaft of yellow light into the cabin. The beam crosses a rifle strapped to the overhead, its breech and barrel plugged with grease. As the boat rolls, the sunbeam moves up and down in the sparse cabin, touching on a rack of charts and navigational books, a tarnished lamp on the bulkhead, a pile of folded canvas and coiled line. The beam moves over the man's face. He stirs and rouses himself from sleep.

An hour before sunset his burnt face appears at the top of the companion-way. He wears nothing but a ragged pair of dungarees cut off at the thigh. The boat still sails itself, wind and sea have come up only slightly. He goes forward and urinates over the lee rail, his bare toes gripping the gunwale, his elbows locked around the mainmast shrouds. He thinks of his greatest fear—falling overboard. For the thousandth time he imagines himself in the wake, swimming desperately after his moving boat. But, as always in his imagination, the boat sails efficiently away from him until the mast top disappears from sight.

He checks the pieces of rough canvas tied around the sheets to prevent chafing. He moves one piece of gear to a point where the two lines barely touch, knowing how easily one line, with an almost imperceptible rubbing motion, can saw the other line in half. He scans every yard of his canvas sails for pinholes, which a sudden gust of wind can expand into angry, shrieking rips. Not a shroud, not a turnbuckle escapes his attention. The parting of a shroud in strong winds, followed by the sickening crash of the mast, could deprive him of his only means of propulsion. In a matter of seconds he could be as helpless as a piece of driftwood.

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