Journeys into the Great Northern Ocean
Upper Access, $16.95, 187pp
True North is the latest in the slight but remarkable oeuvre of Myron Arms. Teacher, sailor, explorer, writer, his previous work includes Riddle of the Ice (1998), Cathedral of the World (2000), and Servants of the Fish (2004). I am embarrassed to admit that I have read none of these books. Considering the length and breadth of my reading on marine subjects, how they escaped me is a mystery. However, if you are in my regrettable state, True North is a perfect introduction to Arms' work.
The sixteen personal essays in this book describe just a few of Arms' sailing experiences in the northern ocean on his 50' ocean cutter, Brendan's Isle. In the first essay he recalls his first cruise in the almost completed boat. It is 1983. With his wife, Kay, he sails to New England and back to their home port on the Chesapeake..a modest journey. He then explains, "Brendan's sailing plans for the next two years began with a high-latitude crossing of the North Atlantic,...past the banks of Newfoundland, across 'ice berg alley'...past the southern capes of Greenland and Iceland and on toward the coasts of northwestern Europe...Her first landfall, some twenty-three days and three thousand nautical miles after leaving the Chesapeake Bay was in the Faroe Isles, a mountainous archipelago several hundred miles east of Iceland and almost the same distance north of Scotland."
The ambitious itinerary gives you an indication of the breadth of Arms' preferred cruising grounds as well as his curiosity. But he wasn't just cruising and he wasn't just curious. A high school teacher in the 1970s, he traded in the classroom for his first blue water boat and founded (and led) a program of "sea learning" experiences. As a licensed Coast Guard ocean master, he sailed with hundreds of teenagers for the next five years. While aboard, they conducted a variety of scientific experiments. "The teacher was the sea...It was the beginning, really, of my own emerging awareness of the stresses being suffered by virtually all of the world's marine environments," explains the author on his website.
As the essays follow the journeys of Brendan's Isle over the years, scientific information and analysis becomes more of a narrative focus than the more simple pleasures of the beauty of the physical world and the exhilaration of sailing. With this focus, the text becomes more engrossing, the journey more unique and urgent and ages of the crews grow up--from high-school-ers to young adult "sail-trainees." What they discover over the course of more than twenty years is that in an environment that at first seems huge, fierce and implacable is as vulnerable as an alpine flower.
"Milk Sea" is a good example. About midway through the book, Brendan's Isle encounters a strange phenomenon about four hundred miles south of Reykjavik, Iceland. Arms quotes from the ship's log, "...the familiar gray-green color of the ocean surface has been transformed. Now everywhere we look the water has taken on a bright turquoise color, as if we were sailing over a shallow bank of sand," adding detail in the book. "The brilliant turquoise color seemed to glow with an interior light. The breaking white crests spilled down the faces of following seas like whipped cream."
The phenomenon remained a mystery until ten years later when Arms was reading about data being gathered by early Earth-observing satellites. He tracks down one of the researchers and describes the "bloom." The rest of the essay explains the mystery and examines potential consequences. But you'll have to read the essay to find the answer and, and in the bargain, treat yourself to the pleasure of the author's elegance of thought and phrase. The good news is that are three more Arms books to be enlightened by and enjoy in the process.