Our Travel Editor cruises south from the Panama Canal along the South American coastline.
After a day when the ship was lifted up by three locks, sailed across a lake, through a narrow cut and down three more locks, we slide from the still fresh water of the Panama Canal and out into the benign waters off Panama City.
This is the lip of the Pacific, the world’s biggest ocean.
This is not the Pacific proper but the big, soupy bowl south of the isthmus that separates North America and South America.
It is only gradually, as the ship sails south, that we push out of this sheltered eddy and into the Pacific proper — out towards the squid-ink blue.
Fulmars join the ship, brown backed, white chested, flying with their long, pointed beaks and sharp vision. They fly in formation over and alongside the bow, weaving slightly in the oncoming wind, until there’s a throaty call and they drop together.
They are hunting flying fish, scared by the ship, which take to the air and glide low over the Pacific’s surface.
And then they rise and glide again, high in the warm, humid wind under a cloud-thick sky.
The water’s surface is silver and barely broken.
As we head south off Peru, a pod of whales appears ahead, swimming south too, back to Antarctica to feed. They lounge around, raising and waving their big, white fins, then one takes off through the surface, to slap his tail, white water showing it off.
Just a little later, dolphins and boobies fish together in a big gang off the port side.
This is a benign day, though the Pacific can be a real piece of work. It covers nearly half of the world’s water surface — a third of the whole planet’s total area. Its 156 million sqkm, touches the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Southern Ocean in the south.
At this moment, there is just a 9km/h breeze on the nose, adding to 20 km/h of forward speed that its Rolls-Royce engines are creating.
I like apparent wind. Ah, the issues of perception and reality. Do 9km/h downwind with a 9km/h breeze behind, and your world is completely still.
Head into it, and you have an 18km/h wind in your face.
The water is silver grey now, except on the horizon where it’s a dark, steel grey. Follow that line left and right, and you can see the curve of the Earth.
As long, low swell picks up a little, the ship pitches gently, its bow cutting through and sending the dull, muted thud of water being squelched out sideways, en masse. White spray pushes out in a V shape, separating into sparkles that fall and swirl into creamy wake.
The soundtrack starts to change, from background noise to the full symphony of spray that comes with big ocean.
For we will continue south, off the coast of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
While big balsa rafts with sails were already being sailed off this coast, the Pacific Ocean was first seen by Europeans early in the 16th century.
Spanish sailor Vasco Nunez de Balboa arrived on Panama’s northern, Atlantic coast in 1513, crossed the 80km of the isthmus of land of Central America and named this ocean he saw on the other side the South Sea.
In was eight years later that Ferdinand Magellan, Portuguese but on a Spanish world-circumnavigation expedition, fully visited it and found it a peaceful sea — “Mar pacific” — the Pacific Ocean, the name officially given when the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius mapped it.
But this is also an ocean of tropical storms, seabed earthquakes and mighty swell.
I feel adrift in the silver; on the shimmering surface. I feel aware of the depth; water below.
I stand at the stern and watch the white wake stretch back behind the ship, and feel released from earthly ties.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and poet, wrote: “Physical solitude is morally necessary. Solitude is important to our inner life.”
Perhaps, when we consider a cruise holiday, we don’t consider this. But even on big, modern cruise ships, there are moments when we are alone in a lounge, or a nook, or along a piece of the ship’s rail.
And the ship seems always alone, the portrait at the centre of a circular frame of sea and horizon.
“There should be somewhere where you can untether yourself from the world and set yourself free,” Merton wrote. “Somewhere to be still and breathe easily.”
I pull back the slide door to sleep with the fresh Pacific air eddying in, and the steady, rhythmical roar of the ocean as the ship pushes into a low swell.
You may also like
Cruising Guide 2021/22
Travel Editor STEPHEN SCOURFIELD tests the waters in our safe and sensible guide to ocean cruising for 2021/22 and beyond.
More Australians taking out travel insurance
Survey reveals travel insurance an increasing priority for Australian travellers
In praise of escapism
A long-time contributor to Travel’s pages, writer JOHN BORTHWICK recently won the 2020 Pacific Area Travel Association’s (PATA) Gold Award for Best Destination Story.
Here, he takes a light-hearted look at travel and writing, exploring Thailand and the greatly under-rated virtues of escapism.