Kage Baker once commented that “becalmed” was a freakin’ stupid word for the condition it actually described. She knew what it really meant, of course.
To be “becalmed” is to be stranded at sea with no wind. A ship becalmed is a paralyzed ship, stuck without propulsive power – traditionally, in the Horse Latitudes, but it can happen nearly anywhere on the seas. Maybe not in the Roaring Forties, where the winds circle the globe with no land to ever slow them down; but even there in the domain of monster waves, there must be the occasional cessation of the power of the air … and it would be just as rotten a circumstance there as anywhere else, I bet.
If you’re becalmed, you’re in trouble. You are at the mercy of currents and passing rogue waves – you can still find the points of the compass, but you can’t made headway in any direction because you have no wind. A ship is as much use then as a cocoanut tree blown into the surf with a cargo of monkeys and parrots: nobody can steer, nothing can guide the course, and no one volunteered for this journey. With good luck, you’ll hit an island by accident and can try your hand at evolving into a new species.
However, to the non-maritime-minded, “becalmed” is a nice word. It evokes peace and quiet. It conjures safety after tumultuous danger; smooth water after shooting the rapids in a barrel. There you float among the lily pads and pearly foam, perhaps being towed to the shore by a water nymph or friendly forest animal …
Kage had tons of utter scorn for any scenario that called for friendly forest animals.
This is, of course, completely to the contrary of what being becalmed actually promises. The food runs out. The water does, too, and usually even sooner. (Don’t even ask about the rum …) The bilges begin to stink, being unrefreshed by the passage of the ship through new waters. You try to make way to livelier seas, by towing the ship with teams of sailors in rowboats; wonderfully thirsty work, with the water rations low. Slow, too. And usually in the sun.
So, really, you see – being becalmed is in no way good. It might be quiet, but it’s not cool.
Nor is there any remedy, except the wind rising. Sailors’ tales say you might raise a wind by whistling (or by not under any circumstances whistling); by scratching the mast; by tossing the local Jonah overboard. But of course all these only work if you have a sail to fill. In these modern days, you may have an engine – and no matter how big and loud it is, if it flakes out you can drift for months before you’re found. Dead or alive …
What I am currently, Dear Readers, is becalmed. Metaphorically speaking. The heat, the humidity, the static in my heart: they’re all conspiring to deprive me of any motive power. Though I am scratching the mast for all I’m worth, all I’m getting are splinters under my fingernails. There’s no one else on my little cockleshell vessel to brand as bad luck; I’d have to throw myself overboard. And I don’t whistle well.
I think my metaphor might be taking on water, too.
So I’ll bail a while, and then just lie here, hoarding the last of the rum and water, and hope the currents take me somewhere. Some place with a white crescent of beach, and water so clear you can read through it; with breadfruit trees and cocoanut palms and friendly parrots. Or maybe it’ll carry me past the sleeping Queen Mary in her wading pool down by San Pedro, into the backwater where the Catalina Ferries moor.
I could catch a bus back to reality from there.