Trip Reports

The Dolphins' Rings (06-Dec-2002-21-30):
:30 PM local time, Friday, December 6 (2130 Dec. 6 UTC) 18 01 N 033 55 W. Temp. 80, Humidity 67%, Cloud Cover 20%. Ninth day at sea.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

As planned, we turned right to 264 true at about 1100 on the 4th at 18 30N and 30 30W. We plotted a great circle route, or the GPS did, from there to Carriacou, our intended landfall in Granada. But we've got gnomonic charts so I did it on paper too. Then I got curious about how much difference there is between a rhumb line and great circle route going east-to-west at this low of a latitude, but although the GPS gives the distance for the great circle route, I have no idea how to compute the distance of the rhumb-line course. My brother would, cuz he's a math wiz with a PhD in, believe it or not, the theory of knots, like bowlines, which is a part of topology. For a pursuit that combines uselessness with extreme difficulty, this area is in a class by itself. Alas, he's not aboard. But a fellow cruiser had a little navigation computer that gave us the rhumb line distance, and after all the hoopla about plotting the great circle route on a gnomonic chart, it turned out to be about 12 miles longer than the great circle route. On a higher latitude going east-to-west it would be important but to us it's next to useless. You'd be a lot better off giving the time to looking for wind.

Even though the wind's been pretty light because of a low-pressure trough that is shutting down the trades, it's been peachy out here. There are days at sea when you just hold on, like the first few of this passage, but this isn't one of them. Right now we're reaching at about six knots in ten knots on the beam. Twilight tonight was pure Maxfield Parrish, with a silvery crescent moon in Sagittarius illuminating fleecy tradewind clouds in a field of stars. In the last couple of days we've had to get out the poles and remember where all strings went, and today we had Luigi flying and were doing seven knots on a mellow sea. Yesterday we saw our first dolphins in the Atlantic, but they wouldn't come and play. We were becalmed and just sitting there and they had about as much interest in us as Britney does. We've seen dolphins ever since a week or two out of San Francisco, as those who have been with us a while will remember. We saw them in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and even in the Suez Canal. Their arrival still is the occasion for calling the off-watch up if he is not asleep, and cannot help but lift one's spirits.

About ten years ago Scientific American ran an article on dolphin behavior. What had been observed was that dolphins (sorry, I don't remember the species) would at times blow a string of bubbles and then, by swimming past them and flipping their tails, create a circle by capturing the bubbles in the vortex left behind. Over a period of time it became clear to the scientists that while novices would produce irregular and unstable rings, much like someone who blows his first smoke rings, as they became more experienced they could reliably create almost perfect circles. The researchers were occupied with the question of how this behavior related to other known dolphin activities like mating, the establishment of territory, and hunting. Having exhausted the possibilities after much observation, they were forced to conclude the dolphins were just goofing off. Big deal, I do it all the time, like right now. But there was another issue that seemed much more peculiar to me, which is: How does a dolphin know what a circle is?

Of course, nobody knows, but the more interesting thing is that we don't even know how humans know what a circle is. The question is the same one raised by Plato in his superficially unassuming dialogue, Meno. In the Meno Plato gives a demonstration of the question's mystery, in a scene unlike any other in the history of philosophy. We meet Meno's slave boy, who has, like the dolphins, no previous education in mathematics or geometry. To illustrate a point, Socrates presents him with a geometric puzzle, one with a solution that probably would not occur immediately to any of you reading this, even those who stayed awake in geometry class in high school. With a little prodding and questioning the slave boy arrives at the correct solution. This seems to indicate that even though he had never heard of the solution before, he had the knowledge somewhere in his mind, and just needed to remember it. Much ink has been purchased to write criticisms of this demonstration, attempting to prove that Socrates leads the boy to the answer rather than eliciting it. Any math teacher, of course, prods his students to do the same sort of thing every day. But this quibble is in any case irrelevant to the larger metaphysical point of the story, which is that at some time in history, some person had to be the first person to figure it out from scratch, so obviously, he wasn't taught by anyone. How, or where, did he come by the solution? This, along with the related question of whether the circle represents something real in the universe or is just a projection of our minds, is a fundamental issue of western philosophy. But it's the same as the puzzle of the dolphins' rings, or at least close enough for this publication.

The two traditional schools of thought are empiricism, that we know circles and the like through our senses, and rationalism, that somehow either God or the universe or evolution has put the patterns in our heads and we know them a priori, that is, before we ever look at anything, and this latter one is what Socrates is trying to show. To save you the trouble of reading all those boring books, the Captain will spill the beans and tell you that after 2500 years, it would not be going too far to say that both theories have come to dead ends. We don't know how we know mathematics, and we don't know if mathematics represents the world. If the reader can offer any better ideas, please submit them to On second thought, don't. It would not surprise me if some of our readers suspected your correspondent has gone all hocus-pocus on dolphins as intelligent, spiritual beings. But even the Captain has some small remnants of shame. It's not so much the dolphin's intelligence that is magic, but our own. Our understanding of mathematics is kind of like clairvoyance, or foreknowledge sometimes of events but more often of principles or mathematical objects, things that we represent by little squiggles we thought up, that seem to govern the universe. This knowledge is so familiar to us that we don't think it borders on the supernatural, but the Pythagoreans who first discovered it understood that it was. You could train a dog or a parrot or a dolphin to recognize certain shapes. But it's something different when a dolphin, like Meno's slave, comes up with a mathematically perfect structure on his own, like some humans did a very long time ago.

So when I see them dive under the bow, I know we share a little secret. We each know something that seems completely clear and obvious, and yet we don't know how we know it.


Readers will not be surprised to find that this reporter bungled the story about the man overboard in the ARC. The boat was a UK-flagged 51-footer with a difficult name, and they ran into the same high winds and seas that Maverick did. Before or during the mishap the boat became disabled and the captain went overboard, tethered to the boat. His brother, the only crew, could not get him out of the water before he drowned. Even when a boat arrived to assist after many hours, the body was still in the water, apparently because the brother was either physically or emotionally unable to get it back aboard. That part must be true, however, since we were hailed today on VHF by the nearby yacht "Mekeia," whose crew of four battled upwind in 30-40 knots and twenty-foot seas to help, and we got the story from them.

The Hunter 45, also an ARC boat, that lost its rudder, was aided by the "Tenacious," a square-rigger that I think is a sort of mothership for the ARC. Tenacious has a machine shop on board that either repaired the old rudder or fashioned a jury-rigged one. We had previously heard that the owner had decided to scuttle the boat! Our friend on Otter, singlehander Brec, opined that you could just sit on the boat for about forty days and it would eventually get to the Caribbean. You've got electricity from the motor. In fact, with Maverick's twin headsail rig we can just center the rudder and leave it alone, if we're not too particular about our course. We'll go downwind plenty fast. There are plenty of radio nets to contact to give your situation to, and by the time you got there, it would not be much of a problem to arrange a tow into a harbor. Easy for me to say, and anyway, it didn't come to that.

It's hard to capture the size of waves in a photo, but I spent an hour or two with the camera and came up with three that give a sense of how big the ones were that we saw in last week's weather. When we get to an internet cafe I'll try to get Mr. Eschliman to post them. [Tones!: Here they be ...along with a few other general at-sea shots. Enjoy!- TE]

PS to Jill: Although there is no solid evidence on who the early settlers to the Canaries were, there is no shortage of speculation. The Vikings themselves are an unlikely source of the first population, since they would clearly have had iron and bronze tools and weapons, and would have had more advanced dwellings than those found in the Canaries by the European explorers of the 14th century. The islands were settled by at least 200 BC and the Viking period begins at approximately 800 AD, a thousand years later. The Celts were early enough, say 700 BC, but also had metal implements. The builders of Stonehenge go far back enough, but even less is known about them than the Canary islanders, known as the Guanches.

PS to Lance and Susie: The pictures are taken with a digital camera, saved onto the laptop, edited in Photoshop, saved as small jpg files, put on a floppy and attached to an email letter at an internet café. You need some kind of photo manipulation program because you don't want to attach the huge files from the camera and a small jpg will be good enough for a computer screen. The image should be reduced to screen size. I'm almost always able to compress the file size to under 100k.

Callsign is kg6eud. You might possibly find me on Trudy's net at 1300z on 21400, but I don't know how often I'll monitor it. They're looking for maritime mobiles but it's no problem to check in and tell them you're looking for us. Let me know when you'll checking and I'll try to listen in.

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