7. Two Fathoms

The boys were ensconced in the ship’s library, a cozy room with a fireplace, and two large armchairs, many books, a giant spinning globe, and atlases and maps. The boys had spread out some nautical charts before them and were gazing intently at the mass of symbols and squiggly lines with shapes in tan, blue and white patterns. Fergus explained.

“You see the white bits here,” Fergus said, gesturing to blobs on the chart, “this is the area most desirable for sailing. The blue bits are the areas of sea best avoided.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense since water is blue.”

“True. And see these tiny numbers? They indicate how deep the water is in that very spot. Sometimes in feet, but it could also be meters, or fathoms, which is another unit for measuring depth. And see these dotted lines around something? That shows a rock or other problem–something you had be sure you don’t run into. Hmmm. I don’t understand this bit, the purple colored lines–what’s a ‘Cable Area’ I wonder?”

The boys looked closer.

“So…where did you get lost, do you think?”

“I’m not sure…funny thing about this chart is, it’s quite different from the one I used. But you can see here is Scotland, and here’s my town, from where I departed, and here is Skye, where I was going.”

Dashiell produced an atlas-style map of North America. “And here is where we live, look. Camas, Washington. Do you see it?”

“Aye, on a river, the Columbia River, is it? Now that sounds exotic. I come from a small village on a loch, and our house is situated on its shores. From my bedroom I have a clear view out onto the loch. I often sit and watch the boats come and go, the fisherman bringing in their nets. Sometimes I would wait what seemed like days on end to see my father come home from a voyage. He’s an admiral you see, and often out to sea.”

At this moment the Captain arrived, and looked over their shoulders. “Reading some charts are you now?” he asked.

Fergus immediately rose to stand at attention then saluted the Captain. Dashiell looked on, a bit confused. The Captain saluted back and replied, “At ease, young man.”

Dashiell stood himself, then piped up. “We were just talking about how boats find their way using charts. My mom thinks they’re called maps. I had to remind her they are called charts.”

The Captain chuckled. “Ah yes. When you’re life is on the water, you depend on knowing where you’re going, and a chart is vital for that. At sea, there are no street signs like driving a car, or nice straight lanes to follow. But if you look carefully at the chart you’ll see there is a lot of information there. In the olden days we sailors kept our own charts in our breast pockets of our jackets, you see?” The Captain gestured to his inside pocket, empty save for a chewing gum wrapper. “Of course now it’s all on the computer. We keep the paper charts around–just in case–but I must tell you it’s rare that I look at one these days. Things of beauty, really,” said the Captain, holding up the chart of the waters around Scotland in admiration.

Fergus was looking unsure of himself, and his face became fixed in a glazed over stare he wore when he felt more lost than he was on his tiny vessel. His boat, now gone…his mother. What would become of her? Could this computer thing get him home?

“Can we see this….what did you call it? The thing you use instead of the charts?”

And so it was that the Captain escorted the boys to the Bridge (this you will recall, dear reader, would be Dashiell’s second trip to the Bridge of the Friendship). On the way, Dashiell began to try to explain what a ‘computer’ was, mentioning the bright screen, the mouse, playing games, and checking e-mail.

“Yes, but what is it ‘computing’?” asked Fergus, quite unable to picture such a device. Now, you may recall that Fergus came from a time of great innovation, and the world as he knew it, in the year 1905, was very exciting, with what seemed like new inventions–like the steam engine–emerging every few years of his life so far. So he was  naturally open-minded, and he had a vigorous curiosity about ideas that he had been exposed to about mechanizing work that were not previously possible. He’d also learned about Charles Babbage, who, some years earlier, had designed and built his difference engine, which could perform calculations mechanically.

“You’ll see,” was all Dashiell could think to reply, not having much a firm understanding himself of what the computer was actually doing besides entertaining him. He knew his parents wrote something called code and made programs or applications but what these did or how they helped anyone he simply couldn’t fathom.

To Dashiell’s delight, the Captain chose him to sit in front of a computer on the Bridge. “Now, Dashiell, drag your mouse around that chart you see on the screen. Fergus, do you see how the map moves? It’s showing us what is around us, like looking around the paper chart with our eyes.”

Fergus leaned in. “What are those flashing things? Could they be…oh my–are those other ships?” He stood up and went to look out of the large windows. Indeed there were a handful of other ships nearby, easy visible on the horizon. “Well, that’s….that’s extraordinary!”

“Look, there’s more,” called Dashiell. “See, we can zoom in, and then zoom out again.” He demonstrated for Fergus, who had now pulled up a chair and was reaching for the mouse.

The Captain said, “You can plot a course here, and you can also send messages to other ships. You can see a weather overlay–just click this here,” he showed Dashiell where to toggle the weather on and off, which changed the display to showing barometric lows and highs in bright colors that animated across the screen. “You can also do predictive modeling, to calculate when you might reach a certain port, and use this to figure out the cost incurred from a delay. It can also calculate how much fuel we could save, or spend, if we altered our route, speed, cargo, and many other variables.”

The boys watched the ship–their ship–move on the screen, slowly, but perceptibly, and watched the screen redraw, centering the Friendship and adjusting the map in real time.  The Captain was called away to attend to a matter, but the boys were content to keep watch, their eyes somehow not able to leave the screen, with its glowing colors and blinking lights, following its course–their course–into new waters. Of course the Captain and the crew and doubtless several passengers had made this voyage before but for Dashiell and Fergus this would be known, forever and ever, as their First True Adventure.


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3 Responses to 7. Two Fathoms

  1. Lori

    Your description is so clear that I can imagine myself on the boat.

  2. Beverly Pape

    Lori, I agree. Maida is able to paint such a clear picture. You see the young boys with their curly hair, the landscape, the horizon, the waves. You feel the mist on your face and the cool wind. I can even hear their accents. I got a late start on reading these but each chapter is so good, I’m doing a marathon! I can’t imagine having to wait a whole week for the next one!

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