The Expedition Book 2 – The Tao of Porridge


August 5. Wind: SE 15-20 knots. Heading: 170M. Position: 13°09’44”S

“What’ve you eaten in the last twenty-four hours, Ms A?”

Eyes sunken and glazed, besieged by dark rings, April nurses a handful of raw oats. She sorts with thumb and forefinger, picking out a few loose grains and placing them in her mouth. The bones in her face protrude as she chews.

“A Cliff Bar,” she replies softly. “A GU energy sachet, and a tangerine.”

I shake my head. “Abso-lutely-useless. That’s not enough to sustain a fly.”

“It sustained me during my last shift,” she says defiantly, snatching at a steering toggle to correct Moksha’s heading.

“Maybe, but you’re losing too much weight, April. Soon we’ll be measuring your pedal rotations in RPC, not RPM.”

My partner stares at me nonplussed.

“Revolutions per century?”

It’s an underhand comment, especially in light of her unremitting seasickness, but it’s one of the few ways I can get her to eat. Becoming a burden to the voyage is still her biggest fear.

I spoon a dollop of cooked porridge onto a tin plate and hand it to her.

“I can’t eat anymore,” she groans. “I tried.”

As well as stubbornness—ironically, one of the reasons I chose her as a crewmate in the first place—things aren’t helped by April’s deep-seated hostility towards porridge. The Breakfast of Champions for the Scots translates to the Breakfast of Privation for Americans, the generally reviled oatmeal, synonymous with the hardships and austerities endured by their gruel-eating forebears in feudal Europe. Unfortunately, this can’t be helped. Following the Great Weevil Infestation of the last voyage when all the pancake mix was heaved overboard, porridge is the only breakfast option we have.

I push the bowl at her. “C’mon, Ms A. Gotta keep those legs turning. Surely it doesn’t taste that bad?”

She contemplates the glob with barely concealed revulsion. “Hmmm, looks delightful. And so much of it.”

“What do you mean? There’s hardly anything there.”

“How about half now, half later?”

“I don’t think so. We had an arrangement, remember?”

The evening before, we’d received word from John Castanha, April’s fellow teacher and personal trainer in Colorado. Monitoring the daily blogs, he, too, is concerned for her health:

April, the email read, if it hasn’t already, your body will start consuming its own muscles for fuel – unless you eat.

Best of luck – Coach John

PS. How many times a day do you vomit? Your fifth graders are looking forward to watching it on video.

Confronted with an opinion she trusts in matters of sports nutrition, April agreed to a deal. For every three square meals she chokes down, I will desalinate an extra litre of freshwater to put towards washing her hair.

“The porridge is getting cold, April. Do you want to wash your hair or not?”

“Yes, of course.”

I hand her a spoon. “Well then. Eat woman. If nothing else, eat for your country!”

She prods the now congealed mass as if it might spring to life. Reluctantly, she takes a tiny bite.

“You eat like a sparrow,” I scoff.

She puts the spoon down—glad of the excuse. “Well, I’ve never seen anyone consume food as fast as you do. You just woof it, woof it!”

Another email, this one from my father, has re-floated the idea of trying to reach Thursday Island instead of Cairns. As he points out, we have to make significant progress south, and soon, or face being wrecked somewhere along the 500-mile stretch of Barrier Reef north of Cooktown. Thursday Island is currently downwind of our position. We could be there in a week, complete customs and immigration formalities, and then continue down the west coast of Cape York to the mining town of Weipa. After making official landfall and the all-important media splash, April could be back in Colorado before school starts, leaving me to get stuck into fundraising for the next leg.

Oh that it were so simple! There is the small matter of navigating without charts through the complex reef systems of the Torres Straits. Captain William Bligh managed it in a twenty-three-foot open dory after being set adrift by the Bounty mutineers in 1789, but he had the benefit of canvas to prevail against the powerful winds and currents.

One possible solution is for Our Man Brown to drop the requisite charts from a light aircraft, like he did the cheese, beer and oranges north of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. Another is for my father to plot a passage through the reefs, and email us the latitude and longitude coordinates to plug into our GPS. Either way, bouncing like a pinball through the Torres Straits doesn’t fill me with the greatest confidence. Just a few hundred yards off course—not inconceivable given our limited horsepower—and we’d be finished.

“Let’s give it another twenty-four hours,” I say to April after we’ve discussed both options. “Decide between Cairns and Thursday Island after our next position fix.”

That evening, I fire up the laptop to type the lesson plan April has prepared in her head. She dictates as she pedals, too sick to look at the screen herself. At least three hours of every day is dedicated to educational outreach: updating the blog, creating a lesson extension for schools, editing photos, a video clip, then uploading it all through the tortuously slow satellite modem. Today’s mathematics lesson is devoted to how many times April pukes in a 24-hour period.

Being kids, they’ll love it.

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All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis

>> More excerpts from The Seed Buried Deep, part two in The Expedition trilogy, will be posted in the coming weeks prior to US & Canadian publication.