On a square-rigger voyage across the Atlantic with heirs of the protagonists from the legendary HMS Beagle—Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy and naturalist Charles Darwin—the real and the surreal are barely distinguishable. From our September 2012 issue.
In “recreating” such a historical voyage, there was much talk about navigation, old and new. In pre-GPS days, I sailed many ocean miles, including three crossings of the Atlantic, using only a sextant. I don’t know why anyone would still do so today, and I presume the art (and it can be an art) of celestial navigation has a dwindling number of practitioners. Not so aboard the Amsterdam. While the ship naturally carries every modern device, the captain put masking tape across his GPS monitors and for much of the voyage used only his sextant. His young officers were encouraged to bring sextants on deck, and the old practice was enthusiastically explored and honed—and, of course, recorded.
|The crew practices celestial navigation.|
Each evening in the long room, Captain Slootweg—a 40-ish “Dutch Boy” from central casting with long, white corn-colored bangs—screened a multimedia show of the ship’s daily events and personalities for the assembled company; sometimes the show included a rough cut of the weekly TV episode before its satellite launch to Holland. Our position and weather forecasts were mixed with the lovelier and sillier photographs and video gathered during the day. This digitally enabled evening show, presented aboard a palpably heeling square-rigged ship, compounded the constant, thought-provoking contrast of the original Beagle voyage with our own.
To further confuse matters, everyone aboard spent an hour or two a day sending and receiving emails from their laptops in the long room. Michael and I were both able to Skype our kids at home. Yet coming up on deck from this elegant Internet café, one heard only the sound of waves creaming alongside the hull; we rarely used the diesel. The stars and the moon reeled overhead, obscured and revealed by the football field-sized quilt of trapezoidal canvas. And in the mostly light breeze, we moved at the speed of a normal, modern yacht. Many hours, day and night, I sat on deck or atop the wheelhouse, thinking about Darwin and FitzRoy and the unspoiled Earth and the primitive science that was the Beagle’s to explore and enlarge; the distance we’ve come since then, greater than any voyage through outer space; and the awareness we have today of what was more unimaginable in Darwin’s time than even the ungodly theory of natural selection: the fragility of our planet.
A week out of Cape Verde, we stopped, as did Beagle, at the offshore Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. Michael and I had been griping in our cabin like two boys at boarding school about the ship’s food: Dutch cold cuts and cheeses, institutional-tasting stews and pastas, and an indigenous Dutch condiment called hagelslag. These were tiny chocolate sprinkles (beloved by the Dutch; something to do with childhood, I think) indiscriminately showered over any food at any meal. We were eager to get ashore and eat some fresh fish and salads.
At 3 degrees 51 minutes south, Fernando is tropical, with white-sand beaches, black basaltic boulders, and lush vegetation. Michael, a fit former British Army officer, and I, a compulsive runner, agreed we were both up for a savage walk ashore. Sir James, catching a whiff of our intent, again declined to join us. Michael appeared to be a natural leader, so I happily followed him. We set off along the coast, past a few beaches, and then Michael headed inland for the other side of the island, where, we’d heard, one could snorkel in a bay full of protected sea turtles. In commando fashion, he wantonly eschewed any kind of path or natural, walkable contour and headed, as if guided by some interior compass azimuth, straight up cliffs, over boulders, through all but impenetrable thickets of jungle, and across Fernando as direct as a booby flies. Hours later, following the sounds of aircraft, we stumbled out of the bush near the airport, mission fully accomplished but desperately thirsty. We drank bottles of icy Coke and Fanta at the small airport terminal.
We found the turtle beach and rented masks and snorkels and swam with our mutually curious amphibian friends. They showed a Galápagos-like absence of a fear of man, and later we saw a local family obligingly sharing scraps of recently caught fish with a flock of frigate birds.