A history of madness at sea

Nic Compton’s latest book Off the Deep End looks at madness at sea. Some folks think the only sane thing is to stay ashore and it has to be said they do have a point… Some degree of madness has so often been a feature of the the great voyages, particularly those of the solo sailors. I can’t help being reminded of Joshua Slocum’s nights of being piloted by the pilot of Columbus’s La Pinta, for example.

Nic’s doing a book signing today on at the Southampton Boat Show on stand J052 from 12noon to 4pm.

Here’s what the publisher’s rather vivid blurb says:

‘Confined in a small space for months on end, subject to ship’s discipline and living on limited food supplies, many sailors of old lost their minds – and no wonder. Many still do.

‘The result in some instances was bloodthirsty mutinies, such as the whaleboat Sharon whose captain was butchered and fed to the ship’s pigs in a crazed attack in the Pacific. Or mob violence, such as the 147 survivors on the raft of the Medusa, who slaughtered each other in a two-week orgy of violence. So serious was the problem that the Royal Navy’s own physician claimed sailors were seven times more likely to go mad than the rest of the population.

‘Historic figures such as Christopher Columbus, George Vancouver, Fletcher Christian (leader of the munity of the Bounty) and Robert FitzRoy (founder of the Met Office) have all had their sanity questioned.

‘More recently, sailors in today’s round-the-world races often experience disturbing hallucinations, including seeing elephants floating in the sea and strangers taking the helm, or suffer complete psychological breakdown, like Donald Crowhurst. Others become hypnotised by the sea and jump to their deaths.

‘Off the Deep End looks at the sea’s physical character, how it confuses our senses and makes rational thought difficult. It explores the long history of madness at sea and how that is echoed in many of today’s yacht races. It looks at the often-marginal behaviour of sailors living both figuratively and literally outside society’s usual rules. And it also looks at the sea’s power to heal, as well as cause, madness.’

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Madness at Sea

Madness at Sea

Nic Compton’s latest book looks interesting – to me at least. Apparently publishers haven’t shown any interest, but psychosis, paranoia and the rest have played a part in so many true and fictional tales of the sea. And of course there’s something especially vulnerable about a short-handed or solo sailor that makes the possibility of insanity especially scary… Buy your cheapie Kindle edition copy here.

Here’s what Nic’s back-cover blurb has to say:

‘When Donald Crowhurst’s boat was found drifting in mid-Atlantic with no-one on board, its solo skipper having apparently taken his life, it confirmed what many people suspected about sailing on the high seas: it can drive you crazy. Indeed, the link between ships and psychological trauma is embedded in our culture, from the privations suffered by Odysseus during his ten-year voyage home from Troy, to the emotional torture described in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the obsessive behaviour of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick – all show how the sea can push sailors over the brink.
The first and only book written on the subject, Madness at Sea examines the causes of such behaviour: the physical factors of life at sea, as well as the psychological dynamics aboard ship. It looks at the cultural legacy of madness at sea, and brings the story right up to date with contemporary studies of crews taking part in today’s major races.’