Friday, April 25, 2008

Musing: Crossing The 180-Meridian

CrossingthemeridianDuring the morning of our second day crossing the Pacific, I had a random thought that we might be approaching the meridian so I went up to the bridge to take a look a the navigation computer. Sure enough, I was there just in time to watch the GPS longitude number reach 179.99 East then tick over to 179.99 West and start working its way down. Strictly speaking, this "crossing the line" simply meant that the longitude numbers for my Google map which had gotten more or less consistently higher would now start getting more or less consistently lower. No big deal. From a sort of metaphysical perspective, though, crossing the 180-meridian felt somewhat more significant.

First of all -- looking back -- I realize that I didn't pay any attention at all to the times I crossed the zero degree meridian. I think that was mostly because it always happened in the ordinary course of daily events and (almost) always on land. Specifically, I crossed the zero-meridian on the overnight train from Cadiz to Barcelona, driving from Toulouse to Bordeaux, driving from Bayeux to Blois, on the train from Paris to London and on the ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam. Call me crazy, but there's a big difference in my mind between those circumstances and being on a freighter in the middle of the Pacific Ocean crossing the 180-meridian. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean is a significant divider of the earth's geography, and it is a significant divider of the world in my brain.

A second aspect of crossing the 180-meridian is that it got me thinking about how far I have traveled in a different way. I've never -- yet -- tried to calculate how many miles I have traveled on The Voyage, mostly because it seems to be an impossible task. Even if I could figure out how to calculate the distance between pins on my Google map, that would only be "as the crow flies" and would not take into account any of the many, many twists and turns, let alone all of the side-trips, etc., for which there are no pins. (Note: For those of you who really know me, yes, I am now thinking about how I might calculate the distance... But I digress!)

One way I have "sort of" tracked how far I have travelled has been by the progress of my passage through time zones. At the moment I am 20 hours ahead of where I started, but although the "time zone thing" has been a constant reminder that I have traveled far from where began in time it has given me little sense of how far I have travelled in space. Upon crossing the 180-meridian I suddenly became aware that I am now more than 300 degrees of longitude from where I started, and that means I am now 85% of the way through my circumnavigation. I can't really explain it, but being "20 hours ahead" doesn't have nearly the significance for me that being "85% of the way" does. Again, you are always welcome to call me crazy.

Perhaps an even more interesting aspect of crossing the 180-meridian, though, is that it coincides with crossing the international date line. Although I have flown across the date line many times in the past, I never really paid much attention to it, mainly -- I think -- because it was always just an extension of the time-zone thing. Sure, you "lose" a day going west, but you "gain" it back when you fly home. No matter how many times you do it, you always wind up back where you started. Your "home" clock and calendar never changed, you just "went away" for a while.

This feels different to me, and in objective reality it is: In this crossing, I will "gain" a day that I never "lost." In fact, by the time I complete The Voyage I will be one full day out of sync with the earth's rotations in my lifetime, and physically one day older than my calendar age. This result has occurred to me from time to time since I first considered The Voyage, as evidenced by this Wikipedia quote I've had in my file for a very long time:
"The first date-line problem occurred in association with Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. The surviving crew returned to a Spanish stopover sure of the day of the week, as attested by various carefully maintinaed sailing logs. Nevertheless, those on land insisted the day was different. Although now readily understandable, this phenomenon caused great excitement at the time, to the extent that a special delegation was sent to the Pope to explain this oddity to him."
Well, I can tell you there's a big difference between have it explained to you and actually experiencing it.

I happily mused about this during the morning, and at lunch asked the First Officer when we would be putting the calendar back a day. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said in priceless Romanian-English, "We are already on yesterday. You may come back whenever you wish." His point, of course, was that it really doesn't matter what day it is onboard ship because they are pretty much all the same. I figure I might as well keep up to date, so I have decided to make tomorrow today again.

In my entire life, I never thought I would write a sentence ike that last one. Just another mind expanding experience on The Voyage of Macgellan.

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