No. 17.—Becalmed in the Doldrums, Part 2.

(Continued from Part 1.)

IT WAS NO use trying to keep the secret from the men for more than a few days. The other ship seemed to be adrift on a current converging with our own; we moved closer inch by inch, until even the dimmest eye among us (Dim-Eye Jim, who had been with me since my first command) could see that there was a ship on the horizon.

At first Higgs, my boatswain, was of the opinion that we were merely seeing our own ship reflected in the polished hollow of the empyrean sphere; and he broadcast that opinion to the men, adducing passages from Dante and other favorite sailors’ rhymes in confirmation. I decided, however, that the time had come to be perfectly forthright with my crew. I told them that the ship on the horizon was a Spanish brig. I reminded them that we were at war with Spain, and I warned them that we ought to be prepared for battle in a week or so when the ship came within range of our guns. In the mean time, I said, it behooved us to redouble our efforts, wherefore I expected every man to put his best effort into the next few games of charades.

I do not mean to boast, but my men have always told me that my little speeches to the crew are very inspiring. At any rate, it was easy to see that the men had taken my words to heart. Over the next three days, their skill at charades steadily improved, until I was confident they could have faced the most eminent professional charadists and acquitted themselves with distinction. Both in acting out the clue and in guessing the meaning, the men improved to such a degree that it took the Beta Team a mere seventeen seconds to guess that Higgs was acting out the transcendental unity of apperception.

Naturally the crew grew more restive as the Spanish ship came within range of our cannon, which necessarily implied that we were within range of the Spanish cannon. I was determined, however, to avoid a confrontation if at all possible, since it would be foolish to provoke a battle under conditions in which the winner might well be doomed to a slow and miserable death on the aimless currents.

As the ships drew closer together, a philosophical argument broke out among the crew as to whether the Spanish brig was approaching us, or we were approaching the Spanish brig. The crew was largely divided along the lines of the teams I had established for our charades exercises, with the Alpha Team taking the position that the Spanish were approaching us, and the Beta Team almost to a man insisting that we were approaching the Spanish. More than a few of my sailors actually came to blows over the question, and I realized that, in my zeal to keep the men occupied and disciplined, I had unwittingly sown the seeds of factionalism among my crew.

In order to ameliorate the ill effects of this division, I hurriedly scribbled a few equations on the ship’s blackboard (in those days, every ship in Her Majesty’s fleet was equipped with a blackboard and a generous supply of colored chalk), demonstrating mathematically that it was possible for both points of view to be correct. Many years later, I saw that a young fellow named Einstein had published my equations, to which he gave the name of his “special theory of relativity”; I, however, had never seen anything particularly “special” about what I regarded as a few blindingly obvious propositions, so I did not begrudge him the honor of taking credit for his theory, which I honestly believe he arrived at independently.

In a few more days, our ships were near enough that we could easily make out the Spanish sailors on the deck of their ship. I tried to hail them, but it was useless: no one could hear me. In the afternoon, however, a movement on the deck of the Spanish ship attracted my attention; and, training my keen eye (which is the left one) on the source of the movement, I discovered the Spanish captain making elaborate gestures in our direction.

It was clear that he was trying to communicate with us; and, as his gestures were extraordinarily clear and precise, I was able at once to determine that he meant to preserve a truce between us, and believed that we should work together to find a way out of our shared predicament. I stood on the rail and made similarly broad gestures, agreeing to the truce, and complimenting him on the clarity of his communication. He replied by signs indicating that, in order to pass the time while they were becalmed in the doldrums, he and his crew had been playing charades for two weeks straight, and had gained some considerable skill.

Over the next few days, as our ships drifted closer together, we exchanged recipes and discussed ideas for extricating ourselves from the difficulties in which we found ourselves. Our shared skill in charades had given us such facility in expressing ideas by gesture, in fact, that we continued to communicate by that means until Higgs, the boatswain, pointed out that, as our ships were now nearly touching stern to stern, it would be quite a simple matter to speak to the Spanish captain in a normal voice. “I’ve been talking to their boatswain all morning,” Higgs added, “although really he’s been doing most of the talking. To hear him talk, you’d think he won every battle he’s ever been in single-handed, but if you ask me he’s just an old blowhard.”

Suddenly I was struck by an idea. The words “blow hard” resonated in my ears. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”: this well-known principle of politics is also sometimes applicable to physics, and it was the reason my men had so miserably failed in their efforts to blow their own ship out of the doldrums. But a second ship opened up an intriguing possibility.

I hurriedly summoned my men to the stern of our vessel, and directed the Spanish captain to do the same. Once I had explained the plan to them, I arrayed the sailors in two lines facing the Spanish; the short sailors in front, and the tall ones in back. On my signal, each sailor drew in the deepest breath he was capable of; and then, again on my signal, they all exhaled with a mighty roar, directing their exhalations into the Spanish sails. At exactly the same time, the Spanish sailors did the same, blowing with all their might into our sails.

With a sudden and surprising violence, the ships lurched forward away from each other, and the momentum carried us rapidly in opposite directions. Soon the Spanish ship was a tiny speck on the horizon; then it dipped out of sight, just as we reached the straight white line that marked the equator. With a brief ceremony, I claimed it for Her Majesty, giving her a very narrow but extremely long possession in the tropics which our country has held to this day.

I like to think that I have done some good in the world, so I am delighted to be able to report that, although it was painfully difficult at the time, our stranding in the doldrums had two permanent effects. First, every ship in Her Majesty’s navy was thenceforth equipped with a giant bellows, and ships were sent through the tropic zones only in pairs. Second, a considerable portion of every young naval officer’s training is now given over to learning the intricate subtleties of the game of charades.


  1. jimblandy says:

    Despite a painful awareness that I am failing to indulge the spirit of the Admiral’s thrilling narrative, I am compelled to ask:

    Would not firing the ship’s cannons on the side of the ship that faced away from the equator have had the same effect?

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