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Reflective moments sailing Arctic seas

The persistent calms had smoothed the sea to a translucent blue and I stared down into it. Here were whole legions of little things getting on with their lives. Thousands of delicate jellyfish were drifting by just a few inches below the surface. They were tiny, these jellyfish, and perfectly formed. They were an understated and transparent bluey-grey, an exquisitely subtle colour that in a cruder form might adorn the front doors of middle-class aspirants of the wealthier London suburbs. This was a shade somehow created by nature itself, infinitely less attainable than anything man-made, and was set off by the pale white spokes that emanated in perfect symmetry from the centre of each jellyfish’s back. There was something dreamlike about their coloration and their progress. They moved with the silent elegance of hot air balloons: aloft, defying gravity, but without the least apparent effort. Sometimes they drew themselves up into an inverted tulip shape, other times they relaxed to a flat mushroom. It was hard not to assign a level of intelligence to these organisms: a wise man might strive for decades to achieve their unhurried ease.

080516mingmingOther, much stranger, creatures occupied the next stratum down, about a foot beneath the surface. These fellows were like translucent ghosts. A globular head lead to a body like an inverted flame, both in shape and colour, to the extent of being orange at the tip. They had flame-shaped arms too, long, pointed and completely transparent. They hung vertically in the water, these chaps, maintaining their orientation with rapid movements of their arms and tail.

I had never seen anything like it before, and so fished one out with my kiddies’ fishing net and introduced him to life in a bucket of seawater. He was not happy. For a while he curled up into a tight ball and sulked. Then he went exploring, round and round the side of the bucket, no doubt searching for the open ocean and a star to steer by. Up close he was the most extraordinary creature, scarcely more than an inch and a half tall. His flesh was transparent, and so all his inner workings were completely visible. The inner part of his head was an array of bright orange spheres, six in all. A short gullet lead down to an oval collection of dark brown guts.

That was all. The transparent flesh must have had some sort of musculature, or at least some capacity for transmitting and executing motor commands, but nothing was visible.

Although the flesh looked relatively solid when the fellow was swimming, it collapsed into a shapeless glob in the bottom of the net. I photographed him and filmed him and sketched him. He seemed un-mollified by all this attention, so I gently returned him to the sea. (He was kindly identified later by Dr Chris Gallienne, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, as Clione limacina, or sea angel.)

Lower down there were more squidgy, see-through things: salps this time, tubular pumps drifting along extracting unlikely nutrients from the seawater. I had never seen them so far north before. Perhaps these were the hardier survivors, swept up into the Barents Sea by the Gulf Stream, and still going strong.

Even here, then, every cubic foot of water held its measure of living things. An extrapolation of this sample across the squillions of cubic feet of all the planet’s oceans reinforced once more the notion that the sea is still the cradle of life; that, by comparison, life on the land is no more than a superficial layering. Terrestrial life clothes a minor portion of the earth’s surface, giving it a limited width, but it has no depth either. It is relatively one-dimensional, existing in a single horizontal plane. If this plane sank beneath the sea, life would still flourish; conversely, a planet without the oceans would be a shrivelled, desiccated desert.

I thought about a world covered in nothing but ocean. What a strange and wonderful symmetry the planet would have. A globe of pure blue ocean, untainted by the least rocky protuberance. Perhaps, somewhere, such a world exists; probability would argue for it. And what a reinvention of life would go with it: sea-birds, amphibians, all the myriad organisms that inhabit the margins between sea and land, all re-engineered over aeons to adapt to a new world: flying fish become sea eagles; seals become flying fish.

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My reverie was interrupted by a hint of a breeze from the south-west. It was the faintest of breaths, so insubstantial that neither a cat’s paw nor the least ripple marred the mirrored surface of the sea. I could feel it on my cheek, though, and for some reason it felt like a sailing wind. I hauled up all seven panels of the sail and settled us down, close-hauled on starboard tack. Mingming II’s sail had already shown its worth, but now it excelled. Mingming II heeled slightly to leeward and bounded forward, cutting through the glass of the sea with a steady hiss. Her quarter wave sent out an expanding V of ripples astern. It was a kind of magic: we were advancing through a calm sea and almost motionless air at three knots or so. It was hard to figure out the mechanics of this movement. Somehow a ton of boat was being pulled to windward on the stillest of days. I suspected that for some reason the wind sheer was exaggerated; that at twenty or twenty five feet above the surface, high enough to leave the sea unruffled but low enough to catch the upper panels of the sail, the breeze was blowing much more strongly than is usual in calm conditions. Whatever the cause, the result was spectacular: perpetual motion without any discernible prime mover. My heart swelled at the joy of it; my little boat, cobbled together in a dusty boatyard, an agglomeration of off-beat whims, slicing purposefully through the Arctic seas in scarcely a breath of wind. I knew that such perfection could not last for long; it never does. Nonetheless, the unlikelihood of our progress and the sensuousness of our creaming motion combined to give a moment of total fulfilment. Of the many ways in which a man can stumble towards oblivion, this seemed one of the more agreeable.

Extracted from Roger D Taylor’s very excellent new book Mingming II & the Islands of the Ice, an inspiring tale of designing, building and sailing an engine-less yacht far into the Arctic.

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