"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.

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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.

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
Despite his love of the sea, Jason disliked the water.  There was something unsettling about being far from land; the work of hauling, reefing, and stowing was too distracting or the engines too loud; the weather often turned dirty after a breezy start; and the pitch and roll at anchor unpleasant. He had been born in New England, had a house on the Potomac and a summer cottage in Apalachicola, but his love stopped at water's edge.

He remembered little of his first boat ride in the old wooden dinghy his uncle used for blue fish except the banging of the oars, the sharp barnacles on the gunwales, and the fishy swill sloshing on the floor.

He liked nothing about his uncle'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.

Image result for images hemingway old man and the sea

Summer camp was 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. Jason never did figure out how to keep the oars in the oarlocks; and since he couldn’t master the J-stroke always ended up going in circles.

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

Jason's maternal 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 Jason 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.

Image result for images sailing on the chesapeake

A longtime friend suggested that they 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. Jason's roommate had a depth finder, range finder, and compass; but no GPS. They were flying blind.

On one of his trips South, Jason decided to take an air boat ride through the Okefenokee swamp, the only way to get deep into this primeval forest.  The trip was a noisy one over bulrushes, reeds, and swamp grass.  The pole boat ride through the Louisiana swamps was no better – a hot, buggy, and smelly trip not far from Bayou La Fourche.

Jason, however, never lost his fascination with the sea, 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.

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 was unimaginable.  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.  Chichester's accounts of sailing in the South Atlantic as ice began to form on his lines and on his furled sails, his course kept only by a sea anchor, were frightening and desperate.

He could only how imagine Queequeg setting out from the Pequod, armed only with a harpoon, killed a two-hundred ton, 90 ft. whale; or 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

Jason could not get enough of 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.  He had watched all versions of Mutiny on the Bounty; 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.  He followed the course of American history by tracking river traffic on the Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi. He read about the sea battles of Midway and Guadalcanal and the Normandy Invasion. He went to museum exhibitions of paintings of the Battle of Trafalgar.

At least three times a year Jason drove down from Washington to an 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.  Jason sat 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. 

He could imagine rounding the Horn in a gale, becalmed in the Doldrums, heeled over in a stiff breeze in San Francisco Bay, paddling a birch bark canoe, and travelling with Lewis and Clark up the Missouri.  His love of lakes and rivers were things of Eakins and Bingham, Turner, and Joshua Slocum.  He knew every fo'csle, yardarm, galley, and gunwale of tall ships, galleons, and whaling boats.  He could imagine Roman triremes engaged at the Battle of Actium, the ships of the Three Corner Trade, the steamboats of the Mississippi, the warships of the Spanish Armada, the Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, and the Mayflower.  He loved regattas, the Harvard skulls on the Charles,and the cigarette boat races in Puget Sound.

Image result for images caleb bingham three men on raft

It was just being on the water that put him off.  Laziness, a bit of self-indulgence, over-intellectualizing.  He always 'went down to the seas'... 'to the lonely sea and sky...to the call of the running tide...and to  flung spray and blown spume', but only imagined and recreated.  That always seemed enough.

What could be more exciting than imagined voyages or imagined forests, mountains, and river valleys? The jungles in The Heart of Darkness are real enough, the ports in Lord Jim romantic enough, and the rivers of northern Quebec recounted by the French voyageurs isolated and dangerous enough.

Eventually all travel will be as virtual, disengaged from real oarlocks, gales, mosquitoes, and storms. It will be limitless, recombined, and personal.  Virtuality will not simply replace reality, it will become reality.  Jason Thorne's world of Turner, Conrad, and Bingham will be everyone's world while the seas revert to travel lanes, shipping, and destination.

Jason Thorne was not the only boy with a book imagining life on the Mississippi or the South Pacific, but he was one of the few who transposed these imagined, fantasy voyages and made them his.

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