“No Boat, No Brio”
“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” -Werner Herzog
“My father peers out at the lapping dark blue chops of sea pattering his tiny boat. He’s quietly smoking a cigarette during his ritual staring contest with the horizon line. Maybe he’s thinking about all the places he’s been or all the places he still wants to go. Maybe neither. This memory is half mine, half induced by an old Polaroid photo I keep of him. In salt-battered handwriting on the back it says: “going home.” Sometimes while I’m laying in bed about to fall asleep I wonder if he wrote this referring to his coming a shore from the sea, or heading out into it.”
It is quite the intriguing biological tid-bit that we all have, coursing through our veins, precisely the same percentage of salt that the ocean has. Though this percentage, we might just be tied to these enormous bodies of liquid in our blood, sweat, and tears. This very scent of wind-whipped, salt-washed air has captivated shipmen and common folk alike for centuries and has often been the antidote for anxious minds and heavy hearts, helping men feel free in the most fundamental and animal sort of way.
“Why should I long at all to be a sailor or longshoreman? I may just as easily find my longings for violent storms in politics. There would be all the truly gory battles with piracy broadsides and bloody decks. The difference is that this humid winter air, brushed thick with heavy fog, makes me feel more whole and at home than any political appointment or house or woman ever could.”
Foucault believed the anxiety of our era was much more related to space than time. The special connection that freedom has to healthy imagination is one of the utmost import, saying “The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, was not only the great instrument of economic development (Galileo), but the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the ‘heterotopia’ par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure and police takes the place of pirates.” Of course, some men would be quick to disagree with Foucault’s appraisal of boats. Men like Frank ‘Lucky’ Tower, said to have survived three of the most famous shipwrecks in modern history: Titanic, the Lusitania, and The Empress of Ireland.
“Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi vivito sicut ibi“ - When in Rome do as the Romans do; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there. This motto, albeit very overused, may be the best fit for those who call the ocean home. Those among us with shakey wooden plank floors and a sparkling infinity ceiling. Does the sea have any borders? Any visible limits? On a star lit night out alone in the middle of the ocean I think it surely does not.
Denmark is a country built by, and largely for, commercial fleets. It is, if nothing else, essentially a small country of islands knit together. It is no surprise then that every family has, at very least, a sailor or two. A Danish ship named the København was built for the East Asiatic Company in 1921 and was (at the time) the world’s largest sailing ship. The ship had a sordid fate as you may have guessed. It was last heard from on December 21, 1928 while traveling from Buenos Aires to Australia with about seventy men aboard. There was a long sad search for the vessel but to no avail. Like so many ships small and large throughout man’s history…it was lost to the sea, never to be heard from again.
“The trunk is quite large. I’d venture to say it’s enormous in fact. The taught wood sings of salty sea air and perhaps an era or two gone by. A tiny snapshot within reveals my wiry father on a bridge in Panama. It’s dated 1927. He’s smiling a bit, a rarity to those that know him well, and holding a classic, handsome looking tobacco pipe. I gather from his expression and the people in the background that it must’ve been a scorching hot day, maybe early morning when it’s not the hottest it will get…but enough that you’d know what’s coming. The poor shmuck beside my old man is wearing a traditional seafarer’s waterproof. ‘To defend themselves from the five elements,’ an oddly vague caption on the photo reads.”
Ever since the first time man ventured out into the ominously unknown pools surrounding us he has come up with stories beyond believing. Strange, gigantic and monstrous creatures roaming unchecked and reeking havoc upon unlucky sailors. Going back to the year 1734, a Norwegian missionary named Hans Egede took a voyage to Greenland. Here's his gloomy report... "On the 6th of July 1734, there appeared a very terrible sea-animal which raised itself above the water. Its head seemed to reach the maintop. It had a long sharp snout, it blew like a whale, had broad large flappers and the body was, as it were, covered with a hard skin, very wrinkled. Moreover, the lower part was snakelike. When it submerged it raised its tail above the water, a whole ship length from its body." That is fucking scary. Granted, sailors’ minds are sometimes a bit confused… especially when you consider some of the conditions they are frequently put though with malnutrition, dehydration, seasickness etc. There is, however, no physiological explanation for why sailors refused to say the word pig for so long though. Pig was a traditionally taboo word stemming from it’s connotations of the devil (partially a result no doubt of it’s cloven hooves) by people in the West Indies. It was seen as a sort of totem beast of Mother Earth, capably of controlling all the winds and producing storms at the mere mention of its name.
Old folded-up clothing (and its accompanying scent) strikes me like a match and I’m instantly reminded of so many stories of my dad I wasn’t even aware I’d forgotten. Like how he once went overboard of the coast of Alentejo, Portugal. The water was so cold I couldn’t believe it hadn’t frozen over although the ship’s deck was quickly getting that way. The angry spray sought to turn our entire vessel into a giant anchor and claim us as its victims. His grippy rubber boots were not match for the thunderous wave that came, much larger than another other before or after it during that day. Like the hand of some giant being it flung my father off our boat and into it’s angry waters. I looked around only to realize I’d been the only witness to this horrid encounter with what I might only be able to call god.
Mermaids. That legend has surely been around as long as we’ve been sailing the seas…perhaps even longer. They can be traced back as early as Babylonian mythology somewhere around 5,000 B.C. This legend tells of a god referred to as Oannes, depicted as having the torso of a man and the lower body of a fish. Maybe the earliest scientific account of a mermaid was by the great historian Pliny the Elder in 586 A.D. He sought with all his scientific efforts to prove their existence and went so far as to draw diagrams of their anatomy and posit possible origins of their existence.
Have you ever heard the story of mermaids living on beautiful Jeju Island, off the coast of Korea? Traditionally, Koreans have aspired to have baby boys, but Jeju is different. Here, the birth of a baby girl was so valued that the saying goes: “Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass.” The mermaids living on Jeju Island are actually haenyeo, or Korean female divers. What do they do? Unlike fishermen who go out in boats or use a rod or line, these women dive in the ocean without any special tools to gather clams, abalone, or seaweed. The “mermaids” of Jeju have an intimate, symbiotic relationship with the sea that can be traced back through generations.
In the days of sail, dead mariners were believed to be reincarnated in the bodies of petrels and seagulls. If one of these birds appeared over a ship in mid-ocean, it was a sign of storms to come.
Referring to the "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Coleridge a huge albatross of the southern seas held the most awe. To see one meant that a storm was a certainty. To kill one brought an eternity of bad luck.
Did the famous explorer Magellan have any idea how immense these oceans were? That, for example, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 41 million square miles? He devised a plan to circumnavigate the globe with the blessing of King Charles V of Spain. He set out with his fleet of five ships on September 20, 1519. Although all the ships were beautifully named and adorned with the latest fashions of men and ships, they were hardly adequate for such a journey. Their problems were numerous and often large. Magellan was eventually killed during a battle in the Philippines but what was left of his crew forged on the complete the journey. Led by Juan Sebastian del Cano, they had completed the first trip around the globe. They were the first sets of eyes and minds to see that the land we live on is just a small fraction of this planet. And surely the safest part.
He craftily dodged the propeller blades, a dance only he and I could fully appreciate as we were the only too aware of the dire situation unfolding. I became exasperated at the mere thought of what he might have been thinking as he watched his beloved boat violently drift away…with me on it, mouth agape no less. His valiant swimming lasted what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than five minutes. The other men on the ship spotted him and, with a delicate touch that can only come about through years at the helm, turned around and gathered his shaking mass back on the boat. He tried to undress, surely more numb than he’d ever been in his life. After he’d shed his icy cloths just like a useless skin that almost killed him, he went below deck with a large blanket and a cup of coffee as his doctor and solace. He didn’t even catch a cold.