On this day 515 years ago, the cry echoed quickly through the Santa Maria. After 70 days of nothing but ocean, with fear and boredom grumbling through the crew, there was something to shout. Land! Almost exactly where the captain expected to find Japan! A new trade route to Cathay was theirs, something that previously seemed beyond imagination. It was an amazing discovery.
Of course we now know that this was the Bahamas. While the discovery was still incredible, it would take a few centuries of work – excepting the quick hit of gold that could be pulled from Peru by making slaves of the natives. And, of course, many people had seen the continent before.
But these are all details to an explorer like Columbus. It was the thrill of discovery that consumed him.
While it is always sexy to drool over a great discovery, few people care what the original goal was. What matters is being the one who is out there pushing back the edge, an event celebrated as a “eureka moment” that is both brilliant and glamorous. Yet it is a long and tedious passage that usually makes it possible. As in the Fred Astaire song, “We Saw the Sea” from “Follow the Fleet” (1936):
We joined the Navy to see the world,
And what did we see? We saw the sea.
Instead of a girl or two in a taxi
We were compelled to look at the Black Sea
And the Black Sea isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Something like that might have been going through Christopher Columbus’ head during the long, boring days staring out at the ocean. Was Cathay ahead? Were his calculations right? Is this deck big enough to tap dance? Really, when you’re at sea for too long, just about everything crosses your mind.
That’s the thing about voyages. They are always longer than planned, and they never go quite as planned. I’ve spent many hours in a lab not even remotely sure if my hunch was correct, only to find that being gloriously wrong is often just as good. It’s all how you spin it – and how you get through the tedium.
This is a good time of year for us to think about voyages because it’s starting to get cold outside, and the promise of winter means that a difficult adventure is close at hand. I’m on a journey of my own, having made the decision that I’d rather have at least some regular work that I can fall back on because consulting is far too haphazard. Will I find a good regular gig or part-time job? Where will it be? Will it take me to the next journey?
Time will tell for all of these things. Even when the voyage is over and land is sighted, you can never be sure just what you have. The story Christopher Columbus is a kind of fable, a twisted and strange tale of obsession and realizing just what you really have after you’ve gone through all the tedium. Thinking it through while in the middle of your own voyage helps to pass the time, at least when the tap dancing gets old.