Shipwrecks and the Edmund Fitzgerald

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Bones of a dead ship

When I asked my boyfriend what he was up to yesterday, he said, “Researching shipwrecks.” He’d been on a album launch/cocktail cruise the previous night during which the DJ played the entirety of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Which is weird, because I’ve been researching shipwrecks as well. The New Yorker article I linked to on Wednesday led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” (full title: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor Who Drifted on a Life Raft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich by Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time). Which made me think about wrecks in literature, like Robinson Crusoe*, and Jonathan Franzen’s meditations on this classic while spending time on the uninhabited island of Masafuera (which means Farther Away in Spanish). There’s something terrifying about shipwrecks, but also romantic in their primordial man-against-nature struggle. Thus, we have The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, Twelfth Night, Life of Pi, even Tom Hanks befriending a volleyball in Castaway. And thus we have Gordon Lightfoot eulogizing the dead men of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

*Full title: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Jeez, they used to have long titles back in the day.

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Sea shanties

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Shanties developed over the past few centuries on sailing ships where men supplied the majority of the vessels’ power. Sailors used the rhythmic songs to keep time while hoisting sails and anchors, but also for socializing and to alleviate boredom. Most shanties have a call-and-response nature to them, but there are several distinct styles that adhere to their original purpose.

One of the most famous shanties, What Will We Do With the Drunken Sailor, is known as a stamp-and-go. This was for large crews that would march along the deck of the ship while all pulling at the same line.

Following is a short-haul shanty, Way Haul Away, Joe, made for smaller crews to pull a line in short bursts with great force:

On the other side of the spectrum is a capstan shanty, made for pulling in an anchor. This requires a smoother action than hoisting a sail or pulling a line. With footage from Moby Dick, this is Santianna:

And last is Harry Belafonte singing Jamaica Farewell. Not a shanty, but it reminds me of my sailing adventure in the Caribbean. And I love it.

Lost at sea

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Lucio Rendón, Jesús Vidaña, and Salvador Ordóñez: lost at sea for 285 days

Being out on the open water in a boat can be liberating, beautiful, fun. It can also be deadly. I came across parallel articles on kottke.org about people lost at sea for inconceivable lengths of time.

The first article is from the New Yorker, and details the account of Mexican fishermen who hold the record for surviving the longest amount of time at sea–over nine months:

There were no boats on the horizon. Nearly all the food had been eaten—Jesús regretted the crumbled saltines he’d cavalierly flicked into the ocean on the first day—and they’d soon run out of drinking water. At the beginning of the trip, they’d tossed their baitfish onto their supply of ice, which had since melted and turned to swill. So they drank seawater.”

The protagonists of the second article, a GQ piece titled Here Be Monsters, also try drinking seawater. These Pacific Islander boys were lost for a much shorter time than the Mexican fishermen–51 days–but their survival was much more improbable, their ordeal more harrowing. Drinking seawater was the least of their worries:

Soon they were down to their last coconut. Samu was in charge of cracking it. He used the machete, careful not to spill any of the precious milk. Samu sipped first. He passed it to Filo, who passed it to Etueni, who passed it back to Samu, who finished it. They scraped out every morsel of meat. And that was it. They threw the shell overboard.

They had nothing left.”

One of the Tokelauan boys after being rescued

How to be a sailor

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What you’ll need: a boat, a bottle of rum

Songlist: Come Sail Away by Styx, Ocean Breathes Salty by Modest Mouse

Further reading: The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway

I spent much of the Fourth of July at Lake Harriet, a beautiful lake right in the heart of Minneapolis. We’d brought books and a frisbee, but spent all our time lying in the shade and watching either the dogs on the path behind us (an activity I call dogling) or the sailboats on the lake in front of us. I was particularly impressed by an elderly man who jumped into the lake near us, swam through the weeds to his boat, hauled himself on board and hoisted the sails all in about twenty minutes.

I always loved sailing as a kid, and even went to a sailing camp at Lake Harriet when I was about thirteen (unfortunately, the weather was all over the place that week, and we ended up spending more time on tying knots than on the water). Knowing of my boat-love, my grandmother set up a sailing lesson one summer when I visited her in the Caribbean.

The lesson was with my grandparents’ neighbor’s son, Tim, a boy of nineteen, who’d recently fallen madly in love with my cousin (she had spent the previous month visiting our grandparents). Tim was then in training for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece, so he seemed uniquely qualified to teach a lesson. However, this Olympian status coupled with his love for my cousin made me, sixteen at the time, even shyer around him than I would have been otherwise.

Tim picked me up in a red jeep and brought me to the St. Croix Yacht Club, where we got his Laser sailboat, which he’d picked up from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He explained the basics of sailing physics and boat-parts in the beach sand, gave me a life jacket, and we were off.

Buck Island, off the coast of St. Croix, USVI

Once we were out on the water, I immediately felt at ease. Tim let me man the jib and he took the rudder. Usually, he explained, he would do both–the laser is a small enough boat that it’s really meant for just one person. In fact, Tim had never let anyone on this boat with him before, a fact of which I was quite proud.

The wind picked up when we got further out from mainland St. Croix toward the tiny Buck Island. For a while we were really flying, and I laid back out into the waves with my feet stuck under the hiking strap. Every once in a while, Tim would yell out a direction. Mostly we just enjoyed the beautiful day.

And then he forgot to yell out a direction. He had to come round quickly, which meant the boom shifted position. This type of change was second nature to him, but I of course was not expecting the boom to come directly at my face, which it did. It caught me right in the mouth and knocked me back. Since my feet were strapped in, I didn’t just fall in the water–I brought the whole boat down with me. All I remember is seeing spots of bright blood on the white hull, and feeling utterly confused as to how I’d ended up in the water.

Hiking out on a laser

Tim was horrified, and couldn’t stop apologizing. He got the boat back upright while I hazily watched a manta ray swim along the ocean floor. We weren’t too far from Buck Island at that point, and we sailed over to a boat where a bunch of people were having a party. The girls at the party took pity on me and got ice for my lip, and a mirror to see the damage. I’d cut my lip and chipped a front tooth, but nothing that would require special dental attention. As soon as the blood stopped and Tim stopped feeling guilty, we got in his boat again and sailed back to mainland St. Croix. He remembered to give me directions the entire way back, but I wasn’t overly worried about the trip–I was having too much fun.