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.’

The Marine Quarterly, summer 2012 edition

The latest Marine Quarterly arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I must say that once again the ‘the thinking sailor’s sea journal’ does not disappoint.

In fact it’s full of interesting surprises. A 1912 account of a Cowes Week involving Meteor, the Kaiser’s huge racing schooner, reveals some comically dreadful seamanship from the skippers and crews.

It also provides a reminder that before 1914 relations between the German leader and important and rich British and American figures were sufficiently amicable that they were competing regularly. It will always be a mystery to me that the horrors of World War I that followed were allowed to take place – but I guess the scary answer is that once the world embarks on a particular track, the momentum can quickly become unstoppable. I’m sure we all hope today’s leaders are listening.

There’s a well researched piece on Scottish sea monsters, an article describing the history and joys of gig racing in the Scillies and Cornwall (I didn’t know that gigs were developed for racing as much as for the piloting trade); a description of the strengths and weaknesses of the Falkland Islands’ defences (I’m sure the Argentinians will examine this closely); and an explanation of the techniques used by amateur lobster fishermen.

Keep the numbers of lobsters you catch very small, and you don’t need a licence, it seems.

But the article that amazed me more than any other is a superb piece about the sailing events of the 1948 Olympics, which took place off Torquay. For those who know me well, the simple fact that I studied an article about a sporting event from beginning to end and declared myself rapt will be powerful evidence that this is worth reading.

Subscribe today, I say: www.marinequarterly.com .

Perpetual Ocean video brings the oceans and seas to life

This animation from the NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio shows how the currents of the ocean move across the planet – and for me several things fall suddenly into place.

It’s as if the world is alive – which some think it is. You can see how a sailing vessel can be in an area where one of the great trade winds currents might be expected, and yet fail to find them or find a huge vortex that could carry a sailing or boat in entirely the wrong direction.

The film clip also shows the great rush of wind and water that roars around the Southern Seas, the challenge of navigating in the Far East, and also the great confusion that exists off the Cape of Good Hope and the southern end of the continent of Africa – I’m reminded that it used to be called the Cape of Storms.

This is smashing stuff! My thanks to Chuck Leinweber of the wonderful Duckworks for pointing it out.