Imagine the sound of a truck, a B-train, one of those semis with the double trailer, crashing of a bridge into the river below. That’s the sound of my birth.
The date was January 10, 1992 and the location was the middle of the northern Pacific, more than 1,600 kilometers east of the Hokkaido, Japan, more than 3,300 kilometers west of Sitka, Alaska and 1,000 kilometers south of Attu Island, the most remote island in the chain of Aleutian.
44.7° N x 178.1°E to be exact.
At the time of my birth, there was a severe winter storm in this part of the northern Pacific. Heavy, seas were the order of the day. Seas that turned a massive container ship more than a kilometer long and a football field wide — a ship so big that when it crosses through the Panama Canal, there’s only a few inches to spare on each side — into a toy boat in a bathtub. When waves are this high and the ship is being tossed around so much, crew members are denied food because they’ll never be able to keep their meals down.
Non-essential crew members are confined to bunks and the ship is in a state of emergency preparedness, the radio constantly releasing its position into the atmosphere so as to remind everyone where they are, just in case. These procedures are not in place because they were worried that they were in danger of capsizing; it was only company policy.
But like that metaphorical toy boat in a bathtub… well next time you take a bath try to sink one of those things with just the splashing of waves. Won’t happen.
A large number of crew had already lived through such storms in their careers, you cannot circumnavigate the seas of the world on a regular basis without experiencing the wrath of Poseidon, I can attest to that. But there is always a lingering sense of worry.
Sailors are a superstitious lot, be they a gang of Viking oarsmen bent on pillage and rape, a platoon of marines aboard a Man-O-War, or a crew of mostly Philippinos in a PanaMax container ship. And one thing they never take for granted is the power of the waterways in which they ply. They are, for the most part, comfortable in the floatability and resilience of their ship, but they are not stupid enough to dismiss the power of Nature. There are too many stories of capsize in the annals of history to remind them.
To give you a sense of the power of that storm on the January day, you only need to check the ship’s inclinator readings. The inclinator is tiny yet vital piece of equipment on almost every single large commercial ship in existence today. It measures the roll and pitch of a ship. On an extremely calm day, when the ship is perfectly level with the water, the inclinator reads close to 0°. There is never any moment in a ship’s lifetime when its inclinator reads 0°, save for when the device is installed. After that it’s a topsy-turvy world that never settles down to the calmness of nothing. At the opposite end of the spectrum is 90°, and then you’re talking about a ship keeled over on its side and chances are, sinking to the depths of the Trident’s world.
On the day I was born, the inclinator first read a roll of 55° to port and then a 53.67° roll to starboard. I’ll leave it to you to imagine how you would respond if your world is ever rocked and rolled in that way. Maybe you’ll be able to pick yourself up off the ground. Maybe you’ll need help. Maybe you’ll stay down, I don’t know.
But the severity of such a pitch and yaw knocked free a few containers from that ship and they plunged into the water crashing like that metaphorical semi trailer B-train.
Nobody knows how or why my container burst open — maybe we struck another container, maybe one or two of the stays, those three-inch thick steel cables that normally keep containers tied to the ship, broke free and slashed about, slicing our container open before we fell. Possibly, it was just the force of our home striking of the surface of the water after an eight storey fall. But open we did and what followed has become the defining moment of our history.
We call it The Great Gasp.
There is no other event in history, prehistory or otherwise, that equals it. Of course, there is the Big Bang, that massive, abliet still theoretical, explosion that created the universe. But that was only an explosion of matter and its respective elements. At the time of the Big Bang, at least as far as one can know, there was no consciousness participating in the event, save for those from an Italo Calvino story. Maybe there were witnesses, ancient beings gazing at the sight the way some humans chase the world for solar eclipces. But actual participants caught in the initial conflagration that became our universe, I don’t think so,
And while humanity did come into consciousness at some point in its history, that was just a gradual awakening of intellect that was barely noticed by its participants.
The Great Gasp was something else. It was the sudden intake of breath of 28,000 entities instantly coming to life. In the space of a moment, the blink of an eye, a split second, an instant and a heartbeat, we went from inanimate objects, plastic toys bound for the shelves of North American discount stores, with no feelings, no thoughts, no awareness of our existence, to total awareness.
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