What’s it Like to Float Alone in the Doldrums

This week, I had a great chat with Atlas Obscura co-founder Dylan Thuras about what it’s like to be stuck in the Doldrums. When I say the Doldrums, I don’t mean depression, a funk or a case of the mid-winter blues. I’m talking about the capital D Doldrums, the windless stretch of the Atlantic Ocean on either side of the equator that’s known for trapping sailors for weeks at a time.

The Doldrums: that place made famous by the “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” (yes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge spelled it that way when it was first published in 1798.) Remember that line, “As idle as a painted ship, Upon a painted ocean.”? Yep. Same Doldrums. (Google Maps photo)

How I ended up in a Rowboat in the Doldrums

In 2003, I sailed out of Cape Town, South Africa, on my old sailboat Boat Sea Bird. From there, I headed northeast toward St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, 6,500 miles away. She was a simple but rugged vessel. When I bought her, she had water pipes for masts, a tractor seat on the bowsprit and a hand-cranked, one-cylinder motor that sounded like the engine on the African Queen. She was about as fast slow.

The African Queen, from the movie of the same name. (Photo from The African Queen / 1951)
Sea Bird as she looked after the first long passage of my journey around the world. She was naval architect Tom Colvin’s Saugeen Witch design. She was 34 1/2 feet long and took great care of me for the five years I owned her. A few years after this photo was taken, I re-rigged her as a cutter and painted her black. (Red Hook, US Virgin Islands)

Thirty-two days after I left Cape Town, I arrived in the Doldrums. The wind died, and, like thousands of sailors before me, I hunkered down and waited.

Floating in the Doldrums

I won’t give away what happened next (I’ll be sure to let you know when the Doldrums interview posts on Atlas Obscura), but I do want to share this bit of footage I shot to pass the time until the wind started blowing. I shot it from my 7-foot rowboat Wanderbird, looking back at Sea Bird as she floated, becalmed. Click on the player below to experience a mid-ocean float.

Sea Bird floating in the Doldrums. Note how she sports a cutter rig instead of a ketch rig (one mast instead of two) and her hull is black instead of white when I started my journey.
Where the video above was filmed

Listen to my Dinosaur and Mule Stories on Atlas Obscura

I’m a big fan of Atlas Obscura, and have had the pleasure of being a guest on the show twice.

Atlas Obscura is the #1 Apple podcast with 17 million listeners

The first time I was on Atlas Obscura, I shared a story about a giant cement dinosaur I discovered while traveling from Canada to Mexico with my mule, Polly. The second time, I discussed my upcoming memoir, Two Mules to Triumph, about riding my mules Brick and Cracker from North Carolina to Idaho.

You can find the links to those stories here.

For hundreds more great travel stories visit Atlas Obscura

Get a Heads-up and a Free e-Book.

I’d love to give you a heads-up when my new book, Two Mules to Triumph, is published. Just sign up for my newsletter, and I’ll let you know when it’s released. As a thank you, I’ll give you a link where you can download my free eBook, 19 Million Mule Steps.

19 million mule steps winnie award winner
19 Million Mule Steps is the award-winning new photo book about riding my mules Brick and Cracker 2,300 miles from North Carolina to Idaho.

19 Million Mule Steps contains over one hundred pages of photos, essays and sketches that didn’t fit into Two Mules to Triumph.


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