Winter 2014 – smacks on mudbanks, tsunamis, trawlers, triremes, fish talk and merpersons
Francis Cooke tries to eat Christmas dinner at sea:
We called her a yacht, but I am now rather inclined to think that the title was something of a courtesy, for she was in fact an old smack built in the early days of the last century. However, she had been bought with hard-earned money, and if it was our pleasure to call her a yacht it concerned nobody but ourselves. The Five Sisters, of Faversham, had laboured for upwards of eighty years over the oyster beds at Whitstable, and her owner accepted our offer of £35 with a haste that might almost be described as unseemly. But she would float and had her full complement of gear, and thirty shillings a ton can hardly be considered an extravagant price to pay for a yacht.
Captain Makoto Kusanagi finds himself and his ship in an unenviable position:
On 11 March 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9 on the Richter scale struck Japan, followed by a 10m tsunami. The impact moved Japan’s main island of Honshu 2.4m to the west. Sendai was the closest port to the earthquake and the city most devastated by the following tsunami.
‘On the day of the earthquake I was serving as Master on the 280,000 dwt vlcc Nichihiko. We had berthed at the Sendai crude jetty on 10 March, and were still discharging crude oil into the refinery on the day of the earthquake. Conditions were fine and clear, with a crisp wind blowing across the scenic Matsushima Bay.’
The young Henry Hughes risks it all for fish:
My father’s truck was full of scrap metal, so we loaded our twelve-foot johnboat in the back of the family station wagon. It was May and I was keen to jig for mackerel, which entered Long Island Sound in vast numbers, biting anything danced before their pointed mouths. We drove the winding road around Mount Sinai Harbor and pulled into the parking lot facing the sound at Cedar Beach. A nor’wester was pushing swells and whitecaps. ‘We’re not getting out there today,’ my father said.
‘It’s not that bad,’ I said.
‘You wanna drown for a mackerel? Don’t be silly.’
Lesley Walker ships on a whaler:
There is no better whaling port than New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here I found myself stranded between ships, pockets empty. A tall fellow stopped me in the street. Before I knew it, I had signed a paper. Next thing, I was frogmarched to my lodgings to collect my traps, my debts paid and rowed out to a ship. When I saw the slab sides and the boxy shape of the bow I realised I had shipped on a whaler, and it was too late to try swimming ashore. That was years ago.
Now it is no business of mine whether you be down on your luck, or maybe some woman is looking for you, or there is someone somewhere with a knife in him. Adventure, is it? The day you see Block Island again you’ll be the happiest man alive.
Roger Taylor has an odd dinner:
I once dined with Crusoe. It was forty years ago, and as convivial evenings go it could have been better. I was sailing north up the Great Barrier Reef in my little engineless sloop Roc. It was challenging navigation in restricted, island-strewn waters, where tides can sluice through at ferocious speeds. After several days of non-stop sailing I brought Roc to anchor in the lee of Middle Percy Island, in an idyllic bay that would warm any sailor’s heart: waters of limpid blue, blinding white sand, and a fringe of scattered palm trees. Behind the trees, wood-covered hills rose to an azure sky. It was the perfect spot to rest up and plan the next leg of my voyage. The island looked uninhabited, but as I scanned the beach with my binoculars I noticed a rough three-sided shelter, low-built and open to the sea.
Robb Robinson sails on a pre-WW1 steam trawler:
Viola and her sisters usually shot their fishing gear around midday and then towed for around five or six hours, at a general speed of 2.5 knots. About five in the evening the signal to haul would come from the admiral’s vessel, the engines were eased to ‘dead slow’, crew hurried up from below and, amidst a cacophony of clanging from the wheezing steam winch, the warps were gradually hauled from the depths until the net reappeared, and the men on deck grappled with the heavy sodden gear in the gathering gloom, dragging and tugging it aboard. Finally, the bulk of the cod end was reached and swung over the ship’s side, its knot unleashed and a silvery mass of fish slipped and splashed into the pounds on the open deck.
Derek and Francine have an unpleasant holiday cruise:
There was a black trawler lying a little astern. It was a big, scaly thing, and she carried no number Derek could see. He could smell that Francine had started breakfast, bacon sarnies that they would eat under way according to their custom. Derek turned the key, felt the vibration of the Yanmar through his deck-shoe soles, padded forward to the pulpit and looked back at the trawler. Its wheelhouse windows were made of some kind of black glass, impenetrable to the eye. Derek frowned at them. Then he looked down at the anchor chain.
It should have curved elegantly into the black water. Instead, it stood straight up and down. He put a foot on it. It was tight as an iron bar. His heart was thumping angrily. That trawler had anchored slap bang on top of him. ‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘Hey!’
His voice echoed round the anchorage and faded into the thick silence.
A R Gleadow flies for the Royal Navy
Once airborne, the Buccaneer Mk1 flew beautifully. The aircraft was supposedly limited to Mach 0.95, but would happily exceed Mach 1 in a dive. I used to do it regularly during test flights until the late Bobbie Burns, then Blackburn’s chief test pilot, told me it was inadvisable because the tail might come off.
John R Hale investigates an ancient lethal weapon:
In the autumn of 480 bc, an outnumbered fleet of Greek ships fought against the immense Persian armada of King Xerxes in the Salamis strait near Athens. The day-long collision of fleets in those narrow waters stands as one of the most crucial of all naval battles. Lord Byron, caught up in the Greek struggle for freedom from the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century, celebrated the unexpected victory of the Greeks:
A king sat on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; – all were his!
He counted them at break of day –
And when the sun set, where were they?
Oscar Branson recounts the long, long history of the world ocean:
The first water to condense out of early Earth’s atmosphere would have been fresh. As soon as it came into contact with the surface of the young Earth, it would have started to react with it, dissolve it and absorb its chemicals, including salt. The saltiness of the modern ocean stays relatively stable because as well as these additions of salt, there are ways to remove it – deposition of salt crystals in sediments on the seafloor, for instance, and seafloor volcanic activity. The balance of salt inputs and outputs sets the salinity of the sea.
Sophia Kingshill discusses the evolution of mermaids:
It is rare for any creature, real or fabulous, to be defined primarily as female. A few mythic beasts or beings are uni-gendered – there’s no such thing as a male harpy, for instance – but sea-dwellers are a special case. Although mermen have appeared just as long as their she-counterparts in legend and art, they are decidedly the second sex of the species. When we talk about sea-people, we’re far more likely to call them ‘mermaids’ than ‘merfolk’, and feminine allure is central to most merstories.
There is of course a paradox in the attribution of any kind of sexuality to a fishtailed creature. Without human genitalia, the mermaid is an unsatisfactory femme fatale. Psychoanalysis might suggest that’s the point, the ultimate passion being one that can’t be consummated. Folklore and fairy tale propose the solution that a mermaid has a tail only when she’s in water; on land she has legs, and everything in between. The evolution of the mermaid is, in short, a complex matter.
Jonathon Green the slang king thinks fish:
Slang casts its net in all directions. Anthropomorphism serves it particularly well: the dog, for instance, offers nearly two hundred uses, the cat around a hundred and fifty. But slang’s borrowings from the natural world are not restricted to the domestic pet. The sea yields its own plenitude. Fish, crustacea and the occasional monster all feed slang’s appetite.
Naturally, we must commence with the fish itself. There are a variety of links to sexuality, but we live in brutish times, so while lexicographical truth demands their mention, we shall sidestep those connections. Fish can serve as a synonym for money and monetary tokens – gambling chips, dollars, and sterling. It also makes itself useful in the wider world. There is the fish, a sailor (who is scaly, which implies rough but honest) and a non-specific individual who is usually garlanded by a characterising adjective and can be big, little, cool, poor, odd, queer or even loose, which refers to a woman (note German’s haifisch, a youthful trollop, and whaling jargon loose fish, a whale that is fair game for anybody who can catch it).
And of course there is North Sea News, Flotsam and Jetsam, book reviews, seamanship, eccentricity and extracts from the classics – all edited by Sam Llewellyn and decorated with the fine drawings of Claudia Myatt. Welcome aboard once more.