Friday, May 28, 2010

Objects over Africa

Takoradi harbour is not the most pleasant place in the world to live. It's a fairly filthy place, and while not the busiest harbour in the world, it still had enough merchant ship traffic that I would be occasionally called upon to move our sailing vessel so that some monstrosity could come in and dock in the spot we were occupying. On occasion, we had to anchor overnight while the ship unloaded her goods, or got loaded up with the produce of Ghana. Mostly cocoa beans, which are some of the best in the world.

It wasn't the most tranquil place to sleep. No matter how much I had drank or how little sleep I had the previous night, I was always awoken sharply at 5:30am. While the Captain was disgusted with any sort of sleep beyond this time, I was often able to force some leeway with him, but there was no arguing with The Gravel Cruncher.

At 5:30 every morning, immediately beside our position on the docks, The Gravel Cruncher would roar to life. After a few minutes of priming its ravenous belly, it would pour about 10 tonnes of gravel into a metal receptacle. The racket this created was impossibly loud and rendered sleep absolutely impossible. Even if I managed to sleep again in the interval between the motion of its insatiable jaws, I would be jarred awake on the next pour. Eventually, I would have to face the fact that I might as well drag myself out of my bunk, and face what the day brought me, no matter how hard my head was pounding.

So it was that I was relieved when we took to sea again. Our mission, sail in a back and forth pattern according to precise co-ordinates while taking depth soundings at regular intervals to create a 3d map of the sea floor. This required some precise handling of our overworked little sailing vessel, and, while the Captain had the last word, I was more or less his equal in matters of authority with regards to navigation.

It was a sunny day when we departed, I manoeuvred our beaten up little tub out of the harbour with care and said goodbye to the Gravel Cruncher and a welcoming hello to the silent West African coast.

We made good time getting to our coordinates taking only a few hours, and set to work immediately. It was monotonous work, but the sea has a way of casting a calming spell over your consciousness making just about anything bearable. In my off moments I would find myself with an empty mind, staring at the motion of the waves, with no memory of how long I had been in that state.

Darkness falls early and with great regularity in the tropics close to the equator, and at dusk we held a meeting to have to The Captain announce we would work daylight hours only. At night we were to "stall" against the current and wind. This involved keeping a night watch, and to raise just enough sail in an attempt to maintain our position. My hopes of getting a good night sleep were dashed, as I would have to stay up half the night with Peter, the Dive Master, showing him the ropes. We were assigned first watch and we were to wake The Captain and Jeff, the Dive Instructor halfway through the night for their turn.

After supper Peter and I sat in the cockpit. I had instructed him on the use of the GPS and our finiky Autohelm 4000, and on the basic handling of the vessel. I was satisfied he knew enough to watch alone the following night. Darkness had fallen and we were stalling well against the mighty Guinea current maintaining a more or less static position.

The unpopulated coast was visible as a dark shadow a few miles away. There were no lights or settlements in this area and we were treated to pitch blackness and utter silence apart from the glimmering stars and the gentle lapping of the waves. It was 9 o'clock pm and we we talking quietly about travel and diving. That's when things took a turn for the weird.

It was sudden and shocking. A blue light descended on us from above, starting gently and growing rapidly in intensity, all the more shocking because the silence remained uninterrupted. Peter had been in the middle of a sentence and cut himself off himself shouting "What the FUUUCCC...!". time seemed to slow down, and I sprang into action.

We could not see directly above. Sailing vessels equipped for bluewater have what's called a bimini over the cockpit. A canvas tarp that shields you from the sun, unfortunately it was blocking our view of the source of the steadily growing light. I glanced in the water to see the shattered reflection of the object and determined that it was directly above.

Peter was frozen in mid curse, and I acted unthinkingly. I dove in to the air towards the gunnel, twisting my body so that I was facing upwards, determined to see whatever it was. Time seemed to slow even more, flying through the air looking upward at the dimishing bimini and expanding view of the sky. I seemed to know exactly where it was and as the last inch or two of bimini retreated I remember thinking "this it it!".

As soon as my eyes came into contact with the source of the light, at that very instant, there was a flash. It was so bright, I remember seeing blue sky and white clouds. The night had turned to day. The next thing I remember I was sitting back in the cockpit facing Peter and seeing the daylight actually retreat over the horizon, as darkness enveloped us again. Apart from Peter's exclaimation, there had been dead silence all this time. I checked my watch, it was 9pm.

Peter was frozen in shock, staring off into space. I broke his trance by saying "What was that!". Peter's eyes rolled in his head, he shook himself back to consciousness, and replied forcefully "Nothing!".

"Nothing!" I replied in utter disbelief, knowing full well he had seen what I had. "What was that light?"

I could see his mind desperately searching for somehow to explain it to himself and remain sane. "It was....probably a helicopter or something" he ventured. Knowing how tightly the mind likes to grip its own version of reality, I didn't want to push him too far, and I was fascinated in watching the process of denying one's own senses in favour of long held beliefs and assumptions about what is possible. I tried one more time. "But Peter, there was no noise..". He didn't answer and the rest of our watch was spent in silence.

I didn't mention the incident to Jeff or the Captain upon waking them up, and took along time to fall asleep myself, thinking I almost preferred The Gravel Cruncher over these presented conundrums of reality.

The rest of the mission proceeded uneventfully, and after a week we had our data, which ended up providing a incredibly boring relief map of the sea floor. It's only feature was gently rolling sand dunes. A few days after landing I brought the incident up with Peter again. He had no memory of it anymore.

He had expunged it from his mind entirely.

I thought about this for a long time.

I still do.

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