"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Luxury Liners, Moby Dick, And The Gipsy Moth–‘I Must Go Down To The Seas Again’

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over (Sea Fever, John Masefield)

Dinner in First Class on the Ile de France from Le Havre to New York on November 23d, 1952 included a Cote de Boeuf du Charolais Rotie Saint-Florentin, Coquille Saint-Jacques a la Nantaise, Cotelette de Pauillac Grillée au Cresson, and Nouillettes a l’Italienne.

The complete menu included Hors d’oeuvres, Potages, Oeufs, Poissons, Spécialité Régionale , Pâtes, Rôti, Grillade, and a Buffet Froid with varied selections of salads, cheeses, entremets, and desserts.  Wines were pre-war, unique, and available only through the best purveyors in Paris.

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Every lunch and dinner on the Ile de France was elegant, sumptuous, and prepared with care.  The grand dining hall, salons, ballrooms, and sitting rooms were decorated in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. The Night Floor Restaurant at Eaton’s Department Store in Montreal was a replica of the First Class dining room of the Ile de France.

A 5-day First Class Transatlantic passage on the Ile de France was incomparable, for it included accommodations found only in the best Five-Star hotels of Paris, a cuisine prepared by the best chefs of Lyons, spacious decks and promenades, bars, cafes, and athletic facilities; and the best, most respectful, and attentive service to be found anywhere on the Continent.

The era of the grand ocean liners is gone and with it any desire to leave shore.  The Oasis of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship on the waters. 

According to Royal Caribbean, it has seven distinct ‘neighborhoods’ to accommodate the over 6000 passengers.  Its activities and facilities include:

  • Two rock-climbing walls, each 43 feet high
  • Zip line, nine decks in the air and 82 feet across
  • Full-sized basketball court
  • Ice-skating rink
  • Mini-golf course
  • Hand-carved carousel
  • Bars, lounges, and nightclubs that never have a cover, including live jazz club, karaoke bar, and comedy club
  • Designer boutiques 
  • An Art Gallery for limited-edition artworks, giftware and collectibles

It sounds just awful.

My first boat ride was in an old wooden dinghy that my uncle used for blue fish.  I remember little except for the banging of the oars, the sharp barnacles on the gunwales, and the fishy swill sloshing on the floor.

First impressions don’t always determine one’s course; but I liked nothing about Uncle Joe’s boat, fishing, or rowing on the Sound. The water was always choppy, the smell of fish rank and disgusting, and the weather always cold, grey, and windy. I have not changed my opinion about boats.

It didn’t get any better at Camp Wanaweta, one of those military-style camps with rain-or-shine activities, drill instructor counselors, and no exit.  ‘Boating’ was always just before lunch, canoes or rowboats only, performance measured by speed, agility, and distance. I never did figure out how to keep the oars in the oarlocks; and since I couldn’t master the J-stroke always ended up going in circles. 

On a trip to Lake Champlain when I was fourteen, I decided – despite the lack of a J-stroke – to paddle from Vermont to New York.  It didn’t look far when I started off, but a wind kicked up when I got half way across, and no matter how hard I paddled towards either State, the wind took me neither to Plattsburgh nor to our Indian Head Lodge on the Vermont side but south to Burlington. After an hour of sailing in a 20-knot wind, I was finally picked up by the State Police Maritime Unit. That was the last time I ever rowed or paddled a boat.

Ironically I am fascinated by sailing, especially the voyages of solo sailors – men like Sir Francis Chichester or Joshua Slocum who navigated the Southern Ocean, sailed around Cape Horn, and spent months alone on the high seas. 

The Gipsy Moth IV was the 54 ft. yawl that Chichester commissioned for his round-the-world sail.  That sounds big enough, except that the waves in the Southern Ocean can be over 60 ft. high.

I have always been amazed at the courage, discipline, strength, and ability it took for Chichester to make his solo journey, especially when GPS and satellite communications were only distant possibilities.  Logs on the tall ships hauling cargo from New York to San Francisco reported making no easting or westing for weeks around Cape Horn as ceaseless gale force winds forced them back.  I can only imagine what Chichester must have thought as ice began to form on his lines and on his furled sails, his course kept only by a sea anchor.

Nor can I imagine Queequeg setting out from the Pequod, armed only with a harpoon, to kill a two-hundred ton, 90 ft. whale.

I cannot imagine how Ernest Shackleton, captain of the Endurance, sailed in an 18 ft. dinghy 800 miles in Antarctic waters in the approaching winter (April-May) to Georgia Island to get help for the crew he had to leave behind on Elephant Island. 

The voyage of the Endurance is used as a case study at Harvard Business School, for in addition to a story of courage and will, is also one of brilliant management.  Shackleton knew exactly how to keep up esprit de corps and morale.  He knew which men to take with him on the trip to Georgia and which to leave behind.  As a result of Shackleton’s canny understanding of the character and abilities of his men, no crew were lost despite the savage conditions of two years in the Antarctic.

 Frontal view of ship with sails all set, moving through thick sea ice

My wife’s uncle sailed the Chesapeake almost every weekend in the Fall when the winds were favorable.  He set out from Annapolis and put in at St. Michaels, Easton, and Oxford on the Eastern Shore.  He convinced me to come with him; but as luck would have it, the weather over the Bay was the worst it had been in months.  Gales kicked up without notice.  The boat rocked and pitched, and it took all hands to batten down the hatches, galley, storage, and sails. Bolts of lightening hit the water near the boats off Kent Island, and both Eastern and Western shores of the Bay were obscured by the torrential rain and wind.

My college roommate and longtime friend suggested that we boat from Martha’s Vineyard to the closest of the Elizabeth Islands for Fourth of July fireworks.  The trip over was fine, but as the last of the fireworks fizzled in the waters of Vineyard Sound, a thick fog bank rolled in and covered the Islands and our small boat.  My friend had a depth finder, range finder, and compass; but no GPS.  We were flying blind.  I hated it.

I love the water.  At least three times a year I go down to the Tides Inn on the Rappahannock River, a few miles from where it empties into the Chesapeake.  The Inn is an old-fashioned, quiet, traditional Southern resort with gracious service, a manicured croquet lawn, live oak trees, and a view of the river from a high promontory. I sit out on the lawn in the early morning and in the evening and watch the river traffic – pleasure boats, a few watermen’s oyster flatboats, and the Miss Ann, a 1910 mahogany and brass, as shipshape and polished as she was 100 years ago.  I am happy to look at the water and never go out on it.

I have been ‘obliged’ to take an air boat ride through the Okefenokee swamp – a noisy ride over bulrushes, reeds, and swamp grass.

I was asked politely to go on a pole boat ride through the Louisiana swamps – a hot, buggy, and smelly trip not far from Bayou La Fourche.

I have recently declined an offer to go rafting on the Yellowstone River, speed-boating on the Tombigbee, canoeing in Glacier National Park, bass fishing in the Hill Country of Texas, and fly fishing off the Alabama barrier islands.

I continue to read stories of the sea.  I can easily picture the steamy ports of Malaysia and the South China Sea described by Somerset Maugham; the outposts on inland rivers in the books of Naipaul and Conrad; the journeys of Jack London in the South Seas.  I have seen all versions of Mutiny on the Bounty. I have read many versions of the exploits of Francis Drake, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Civil War battles on the Mississippi and off of Fort Sumter.  I have followed the course of American history by tracking river traffic on the Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi. I have read about the sea battles of Midway and Guadalcanal and the Normandy Invasion. I go to museum exhibitions of paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar.

I love the water.  I just don’t like the water.

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