Ledger of the Deep: The Mythology of Renaming a Boat

Poseidon Awoken photo courtesy of Canales via Flickr

From his coral palaces on the ocean floor, Poseidon keeps track of every vessel on his waters. His Ledger of the Deep is said to contain records of every vessel’s construction, owners, routes, cargo—and, of course, its name.

Mess with Poseidon’s Ledger by renaming your boat, and you ensure all manner of disasters and bad luck.

Apart from sheer superstition, there is a logical reason why, historically, changing a boat’s name has been frowned upon. An old boat with a new name was certain to attract unwanted attention. A change in name was an indication that a major transaction had taken place, and would draw the attention of tax officials and port authorities. It could also get the owners accused of piracy and boat theft if they didn’t have meticulous documentation.

When it comes to renaming, I’m not particularly worried about accusations of boat piracy. Assurances that I’ll be sailing in a cursed vessel, though, do trouble me.

There are ways to change a boat’s name while appeasing the God of the Sea. One ceremony that I heard of was having a virgin pee off the bow. Another involved wrapping a Bud Light in a towel, smashing it against the bow, and announcing “I now christen thee ‘Beer Thirty.’ Or whatever.”

This ceremony, I think, seems the most legitimate and the most likely to keep Poseidon happy. Plus, it involves a lot of champagne, which is never a bad thing.

Still…still, I’ll probably keep the name Der Kiel, confusing and ill-suited as it is. I’ve already got enough (minor) problems. No need to invite more.

“Now, Stephanie,” you might ask. “Stephanie. Isn’t your boat, in fact, on a lake, 600 miles from the nearest ocean or sea?”

To which I would reply, “Yes. Yes, it is.”

And you might then ask: “And isn’t Poseidon the God of the Sea?”

To which I would reply, “Yes. Yes, he is.”

And you might follow up with: “And is there any reason at all to assume that his rule extends to lakes? If so, does he only trouble himself with lakes of a certain size, or does he run dominion over any and all body of water? Does his ledger of the deep contain the pedal boats and duckies on the local pond? If I were to make a little paper boat and float it in a puddle, would I incur Poseidon’s wrath for renaming it?”

To which I would reply, “Stop being facetious, you ass.”

And you might also ask, “Even setting aside the questionable logic behind Poseidon extending his rule onto a lake, isn’t Poseidon, in fact, a mythical being whom you believe to be approximately as real as unicorns, leprechauns, and cute, nice, single, non-Mormon men in Utah?”

To which I would reply, “Of course.”

And, at this point, you might express complete bafflement as to why I’m terrified at the mere thought of renaming my boat. To which I would reply: “Well…join the club.”

Hokule’a – Around the World on a Traditional Polynesian Canoe

Hokulea photo from HongKongHuey

I’m used to watching sails hoisted up the mast, so seeing the triangular sail of the canoe lowered down into place is a strange sight.

For 6 months, the Polynesian Rowing club at the Great Salt Lake Marina been putting this canoe together, lashing on the outriggers and getting the sail ready. Today is her maiden voyage on the lake.

As I speak to one of the women there, she points out her brother, Mark, a thick-bodied Hawaiian who’s moving around the canoe adjusting lines, explaining things to the others there. “He’s here to help us out with this, and then he’s flying to Samoa to sail a traditional Polynesian canoe that’s going around the world.”

“Around the world? On something like this?” I nod toward the narrow six-man canoe, twin outriggers on each side supporting trampoline-like platforms. The wooden mast rises from the center, with the sail spread out beneath it.

“Oh, no. It’s much bigger than this.”

The Hokule’a, which means “Our bright star” in Hawaiian, has sailed over 100,000 miles since its maiden voyage in 1976. On May 18th, 2014, she set off on a new journey of 47,000 miles, on a course that will circle the world and return to her Hawaiian home.

Over 61′ from bow to stern, the Hokule’a is made up of two canoes that support a platform between them. There are no bolts or screws—everything is lashed together, with over 8 miles of steel cable.

Her construction and design closely follows the Polynesian ships that brought colonists across vast expanses of ocean thousands of years ago. And her operation follows millennia-old traditions as well.

“We have watches,” Mark tells us, “But they’re locked away. We have a GPS, and a sat phone, but they’re locked away.”

Instead, they rely on traditional navigation—which was nearly lost until the people behind Hokule’a revived it.

The knowledge of navigating by the stars and ocean currents had died out entirely among Hawaiians. On the Micronesian Island of Satawal, a single family retained that knowledge, passing it down from generation to generation, keeping it closely guarded from outsiders. They were reluctant to share their knowledge, until one master navigator saw how close this knowledge was to disappearing entirely, and decided to reach beyond his culture.“The Hawaiians are the ones who taught this to us,” he said. “And someday, they will teach it to us again.”

The compasses on board don’t point North. Instead, they show the locations of stars, and where they rise and set relative to the cardinal directions. By locating only a single star, Hoklue’a’s navigators can get the ship’s bearings.

There are no modern navigational instruments to tell them where they are or how far they’ve come, either. Instead, they use dead reckoning. To measure the speed, the crew counts the seconds it takes for a bubble to pass from a mark near the ship’s bow to one near it’s stern. “If there aren’t any bubbles, we’ll throw a cracker or a banana peel over,” Mark explains.

The ship has no outboard motor or power system. She is powered by the wind, steered by a paddle anchored to the back as a rudder. In heavy weather, it may take 4 or 5 crew—using every ounce of strength they have—to muscle the rudder onto the right course.

“The polynesians, our ancestors–they were the fist astronauts.” And there is something about the way this group of people shares a cramped space in the extreme isolation of the ocean, that is a little bit like a voyage into the vastness of space. They fight together to turn the giant rudder, they cheer and hug and cry together at the first spotting of land after sixteen days at sea. They eat provisions that have been carefully measured and tucked into tupperware containers–food that won’t spoil at sea, food that is compact and high calories.

And the bathroom? “We go right off the side of the ship. You harness yourself in, hang over the edge. And if you’re lucky, a big wave hits and you don’t even need to use toilet paper. Like a bidet.” Showers are with buckets and seawater—or rain, if the crew is lucky.

Hokulea photo from beautiful cataya

The idea behind it isn’t simply to cross the ocean. It’s to prove that it can be done using only traditional navigation and technology. There has been doubt that the Polynesians of thousands of years ago could have deliberately sailed to and from the islands they colonized. Some have said that they simple landed on many of those islands by accident after drifting haphazardly on ocean currents.

Hokule’a is proving them wrong.

It’s also to teach, to revive a dying piece of culture, and to inspire a new generation.

At Hokule’a’s first voyage, when they made their first stop at Tahiti, nearly half the population of the island came to meet them. Thousands crowded around, and so many crawled on board that they swamped the boat.

In harbor, even swamped by a cheering crowd of thousands, she looks massive. “This large vessel, it looks tiny when you’re on the ocean,” Mark says. “But this tiny vessel is the catalyst we need. To make a difference.”

As the sun sets over the Great Salt Lake, the 6-man crew of the canoe sails her in smoothly through the channel. Even here in the marina, where boats look their largest, she appears tiny against the rocks. I imagine how tiny she’d look next to Hokule’a—A seed, I think, watching her crew secure her to the dock. A seed blown far from her Hawaiian roots.

The Ancient Ones—Tracing the Mysteries of the Anasazi through the Southwest

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park

From the overlook, Cliff Palace looks like an elaborate sand castle, painstakingly sculpted under the protection of the cliffs. It’s only the line of people walking through on a ranger-guided tour that give scale to the 4-storied, 150-room complex.

This was my first glimpse of the Anasazi cliff dwellings, and it was more happenstance than plan. Continue reading

Eureka, Utah: A Living Ghost Town

Eureka, UT

Eureka’s main street

Among the mineral rich hills of Utah’s Tintic Mining District, the fortunes of Eureka have been tied to the fate of the Tintic area’s mines.  Once a bustling frontier town and a major center of mining operations, Eureka is struggling to hold on to its heritage.

Eureka’s history is preserved—tenuously–in the town’s Tintic Mining Museum.

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Starting a Fire with Bow Drilling

Bow Drill Set

A typical bow drill set, consisting of a spindle, a baseboard, and a top-rock. [Image courtesy of Daniel Blanko via Flickr]

I hate bow drilling, I decided. Hunched over the small juniper board, I was trying unsuccessfully to pull the bow back and forth in a long, steady stroke. I was supposed to be the mature one here, an example for the boys in this wilderness therapy program, but I was a heartbeat away from flinging this damn spindle back into the desert. I hadn’t expected to actually “bust a coal” on my first try, but I hadn’t expected to be this terrible at bow drilling, either.
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