The Deadly Storm

[Originally published as “A History of Hurricanes” in the Waterway Times.]

Galveston, 1900

It was a day of sullen heat and stillness, the sky colored with iridescent scales. Ships steaming through the Gulf of Mexico rolled on an oily swell, their crews sprawled in the scant shade of bulwarks and ventilator cowls. Smoke hung around the ships’ stacks and rained soot on the upper decks. Below decks the engine room gangs worked stripped to the waist, their bodies oiled and sweating in heat approaching 120 degrees. It was September 8, 1900.

The swells broke heavily against the beach at Galveston. Through the morning many of the city’s residents had gathered to watch the thundering surf. They were like spectators at a stranger’s funeral, curious but uninvolved, as the pier crumpled into driftwood. Then the waves climbed the shore, splintering bathhouses and the boardwalk. Several onlookers weren’t quick enough to escape the advancing storm surge. They were the first to die in the Galveston hurricane. Within 18 hours the dead would number more than 6,000.

The surge was the precursor of the storm. The water advanced relentlessly, rapidly, as much as 2.5-feet per hour, until it stood 15 feet above mean sea level. The whole city of Galveston, built upon a barrier island, was nowhere more than 10 feet above the normal height of the sea. The entire city was soon wave-swept.

Surf 10 to 12 feet high battered beachfront houses whose residents had climbed into attics to escape the flooding. Currents generated by the storm surge scoured the sand from around the foundations. Debris—timbers, beams, entire walls—became rams driven by the weight of the storm. Their houses collapsed beneath them.

There was no accurate measurement of the wind strength. Measuring devices were carried away by the storm. Dr. Isaac Cline, meteorologist for the Army Signal Corps stationed at Galveston, estimated the wind more than 100 miles per hour. Terracotta tiles ripped from roofs were fired like shrapnel into the streets. Many of the dead were later found decapitated.

Heavy debris collided with those struggling to stay afloat—to stay alive—in flooded streets where the dead were more numerous than the living. Weakened from exposure, injury, and the relentless hammering of waves, people lost strength, lost hope, and finally lost their grip on whatever piece of flotsam kept them alive. Children were torn from their parents’ grasp. Wives sank from the view of their husbands. An entire orphanage drowned. The bodies of the nuns and children were afterward found still tied together in a futile effort to save themselves.

In the darkness and the driving rain, it wasn’t possible for the suffering to see their own outstretched hand until the lighting illuminated the devastation in fierce and unforgiving detail. Beneath the caterwauling of the wind was another sound like Arctic ice fields breaking in a spring thaw. Entire blocks of houses were splintered stumps. Timbers were grinding in the waves.

After 10 hours the wind began to ease and the storm surge, driven inland, turned back toward the sea. Tons of water hurtled like a freight train into buildings already weakened by wind, waves and battering from the opposite direction. Many of those who had survived the worst of the storm and thought themselves spared died in the final surge of destruction.

Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the days following the storm, rescuers found 3,000 bodies in the wreckage of buildings, 1,000 scattered in streets and yards, 500 on the bay shores. Another 500 may have been carried out to sea. On the railroad bridge between Galveston and the mainland, 48 corpses were counted, the bodies embedded like buckshot in the girders. Farther down the barrier island another 1,200 may have died. Almost 18% of Galveston’s population didn’t survive the night.

When the water receded, the dead weren’t only human. Rotting fish littered the streets. The bodies of drowned rats, dogs and cats were piled in windrows. The stench became unbearable in the oppressive heat. To avoid epidemic disease, disposal of the dead was imperative. Anyone capable of working, willing or not, was impressed into service collecting the dead for mass burial at sea, (there was no place ashore to accommodate so many graves), the bodies loaded onto a barge and stacked like cordwood. Many of the corpses were stripped of clothing by the force of the storm. They were counted but never named.

When the barge had put to sea the crew discovered there weren’t enough links of chain and scrap iron onboard to weight each of the bodies individually. Some 700 were thrown overboard tied two and three together. Others weren’t weighted at all. The incoming tide washed many of them ashore again.

Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The grisly work of collecting the dead continued by torchlight. Generous rations of bourbon and strong cigars were issued to the workers. They breathed through handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol and smoked cigars to mask the smell. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, decomposition was rapid. The bodies soon lost the rigidity of rigor mortis and had to be shoveled into carts. The fixed bayonets of the militia were all that kept many of the men at their work. Superintendents of the work gangs finally gave permission to torch the wreckage wherever they found bodies rather than extricate them.

“It was like living in a battlefield. The fuel-oil smoke hung over the city, day and night, and the heavy air was never free of the smell of carbolic acid, of line, of putrefaction.” (Death from the Sea: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.) despite the presence of so much death, there were no vultures. The carrion eaters were also victims of the storm.

Looters found despoiling the dead were summarily executed by the militia—stood against the nearest wall or pile of debris if no wall was handy and shot without the hindrance of a trial. The same brutal justice was delivered to amateur photographers. “Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends were being shot down like thieves. Two, it was stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.” (Dallas News, September 14, 1900.)

Flight

Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.

Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.
Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.

Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.

The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.

There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.

Osprey nest in drowned tree stump, Chocowinity, NC.
Not all Osprey nests are inaccessibly high in trees. Chocowinity Bay, NC.

The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.

Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.

Osprey diving with talons extended.
Osprey diving with talons extended.

Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.

Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.

Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey gaining altitude with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

 

Growing old or aging?

I’m closer now to 70 than 60 and the end of my life is looming like a winter moon over an empty field. I’m not frightened of my death but thankful I still have some time to make sense of my life.

I’ve rushed headlong through my life, rarely taking time to look at the patterns that recur, again and again, like the turning of a screw or the ascent of a spiral. I suppose reflection is the purpose of old age, if there is a purpose, and there must be. Everything born will die. In Robinson Jeffers brutal phrase, “lopped at the ends by death and conception,” which makes death no less important than birth. They are events entangled like particles, defying the distance between.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. What then of the unexamined death?

Most people don’t grow into their old age, they fall into it while obstinately looking the other way. They live as if they’ll never die; death always takes them by surprise.

I think old age is a gift not given to everyone. For those of us fortunate to live long enough, it can be a quiet place before nightfall where we can look across the span of years at the pieces of our lives, turn them this way and that and puzzle out the patterns. It’s a time to remember what was forgotten in the rush to grow up, a time to reconcile the harm done to us and the harm we’ve done others. And somewhere find forgiveness.

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi-sabi, that values the beauty of imperfection, the old, broken, and worn down. It’s an aesthetic shadowed by a sense of melancholy for the flawed beauty of life. But melancholy isn’t pathological. It’s an appreciation of the beautiful transience of the wind through the pines. Old age can be wabi-sabi or it can be ignored, denied, resisted, and terrifying.

In Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Death is the crack that allows the light into life.

Growing old requires paying attention. It requires acknowledging our mortality, our finiteness, our frailty. And it requires living with a pensive sadness for what is no longer, what never should have been, what never was. And in the lengthening shadows, to recognize there never was a need for forgiveness, only understanding.

Advent

Chocowinity, North Carolina, has ever been a village, since before the revolution and now, but not without its small tragedies. September 22, 1711, the first house to burn in the Tuscarora Indian War was owned by John Porter, Chocowinity.

It’s small, even by the measure of villages. Chocowinity had a population of 820 in the last census. It sits near a bay by the same name. People find both difficult to spell. Without consulting the villagers, in 1917 the Norfolk Southern Railroad decided to rename the place Marsden. Easier to spell on a telegraph line, apparently, and toadied to one of the railroad’s investors, Marsden J. Perry. The railroad didn’t return the proper name to its place until 1970 when 2-way radios replaced the telegraph.

The fact that a railroad could arbitrarily change an historic place name says something about the callous use of power. That the Norfolk Southern Railroad was still using Morse code and a telegraph in 1969 says something about the loss of power.

Sitting in an attic room overlooking Chocowinity Bay, I can hear the Norfolk Southern locomotive as it snakes through the wetlands, whistling at bridges and railroad crossings. Eventually, the sound of the train’s diesel-electric engine drifts across the water like the churning of boulders in distant surf.

I came to Chocowinity as a refugee, although I didn’t know it. I’ve lived my entire life in the United States, never realizing it was a foreign country.

I’ve long since abandoned the religion of my parents and grandparents and generations before them. And now I’ve lost faith in politics and progress, even human rationality. Where is there left to stand?

Perhaps there has always been only one place to stand. On the earth, feet planted in the dirt, enveloped by an ocean of air. I’ve thought too much and felt too little. I’ve lived inside my head, staging endless dramas and bloody retributions, all no more significant than a tempest in a teacup.

Joseph Conrad had it right in The Mirror of the Sea. “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

To see the sun rise like thunder over the Pamlico Sound or the sawgrass wreathed in fog, to see still water stippled by the tail flips of bass feeding on insects, to see the tide rise and fall in a rhythm older than time—those are things that help me feel less competitive, less belligerent, less human.

I’m not certain being human continues to carry an evolutionary advantage. What served us well in small, naked bands on the savannah may not serve on a planetary scale. And I don’t think technology will be our deus ex machina, plucking us from the inevitable consequences of a bad script. This is who we are, who we’ve always been. Unless we can become something else.

What comes next?

To see! To see!

The Mud Fleet: Memories of the Coastwise Trade

[First published in Bay & Delta Yachtsman, San Francisco.]

On a winter’s day between the world wars, the fog lay heavily upon the Oakland Estuary, the narrow water between the Oakland waterfront and Alameda Island. The fog obscured a fleet of wooden ships stranded upon the mudflats, the plumb bows of stream schooners driven hard against the shore. Paint peeled in patches from their hulls and ironwork corroded in the salt air.

Old men attended them, dawdled with their broken gear, and pumped the bilges dry. They talked to themselves or an obliging stranger about the days when the steam schooners dominated the coastwise trade, hauling lumber, passengers, and livestock from the dog holes and outside ports along the West Coast. And sometimes they hauled a more clandestine cargo, cases of liquor concealed between double bulkheads during Prohibition.

The old men recalled the likes of Midnight Olsen and Hog Aleck, Saturday-night Jack and Whispering Winkle, captains of the coastwise fleet, men as old as themselves or dead already. They recited ships’ names like a litany:  Celilo and Bee, Chehalis and Svea, Idaho and Oregon, Wapama, Hanalei and the historic Lakme. There were at least 27 ships intimately associated with the Estuary where they first launched or finally came to rot.

A Graveyard of Ships

The Oakland Estuary first served as a graveyard of ships when the captains and crew of square-riggers abandoned their berths in the Gold Rush of 1849 and left their ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove or the San Francisco waterfront. Eventually, many of the hulks that hampered navigation were grounded on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove and to serve as warehouses and hostelries, jails and bordellos. Those with hulls and rigging still sound were towed up San Antonio Creek, the original name of the Estuary, and laid-up for better times. The same fate later awaited the steam schooners but better times never came, only teredo worms and dry rot, steel ships and diesel engines.

Unlike steel hulls that retain some value as scrap, not much could be salvaged from an old wooden ship, but it was wood that had given the steam schooners a purpose, wood for their hulls and lumber for their cargoes. Lumber was the primary product of the dog hole ports along the coasts of California and Oregon, named perhaps because they offered hardly enough room for a dog to chase its tail. Milled boards were loaded by a wooden chute led to the deck or a wire sling. The dog holes offered only a dangerous anchorage and often a lee shore upon which many a sailing schooner had wrecked. The introduction of the steam engine as an auxiliary provided greater maneuverability and independence to the coastwise fleet. The Lakme was among the first of the sailing schooner converted to steam in the 1880s. Her wooden bones probably still lay buried in the mud along the Estuary’s shore.

In command of the mud fleet was Captain Karl Rohberg who had served the Wilson Brothers as mate and captain for 35-years, 15 of those years as caretaker of the Svea, Idaho, and Oregon, all hard aground on the mudflats. He had been captain of the Svea, once towed through the Golden Gate bottom-side up. She had also earned the distinction of having 100 quarts of whiskey seized from her cargo in Grays Harbor, Washington.

The Oregon rotted near the hulk of the Svea. She had also sailed under the Wilson Brothers’ flag and was one of the coasting fleet that survived the night of February 4, 1921, when a gale, spawned among the Aleutians, battered the west coast with winds clocked at 75 miles per hour. The steam schooner Klamath wasn’t so fortunate. She stranded on the beach near Point Arena and broke apart.

Hull Full of Coffee Beans, Full Head of Steam

Another among the mud fleet was the Bee. She had also once capsized and towed to port. Returning with a cargo of Mexican coffee, with a full head of steam and coal smoke trailing from her stack, she labored heavily in a full gale on her return passage, shipping green water over her bows. She took water in her hold and the coffee beans swelled until they burst her decks. Eventually, she was salvaged and towed to San Francisco where she was condemned to the mudflats and never sailed again but remembered for an odd episode in her history when she hauled reindeer in the Alaskan territory.

In 1892, the Hay and Wright shipyard of Alameda, across the estuary from Oakland, launched the tiny Albion of 214 gross tons. Intended for the lumber trade, she was pressed into service as a passenger and cargo carrier in 1898 when the rush was on again for gold in Alaska. Overladen with passengers and freight, wallowing in the swells and with seas sometimes breaking on deck, the Albion steamed from San Francisco to Alaska and returned with a strongbox full of gold. That such a small wooden ship survived the hard passage was remarkable. That she even attempted it was foolish but the profits realized from the Alaskan trade tempted the more adventurous as well as the more acquisitive. The steam schooner Luella reportedly paid for herself on a single voyage north. The doughty Albion eventually stranded on Stewarts Point, March 21, 1913.

The Hay & Wright shipyard also produced the Phoenix which ended her days on the mud near the yard where she was built, and the Hanalei, which was not so fortunate.

Wreck of the steam schooner Fifield, Bandon, Oregon, February 21, 1916.

 

Wreck of the Hanalei

On November 23, 1914, the Hanalei was steaming down the coast from Eureka, bound for San Francisco. She carried 34 passengers, 26 officers and crew, and a cargo of lumber, cattle, sheep, and hogs. A heavy sea was running. Visibility was obscured by fog and rain when the watch on deck suddenly saw breakers directly ahead. The engine was backed hard astern and the Hanalei steamed clear but her position was uncertain. She circled in the fog, sounded her whistle, occasionally stopped her engine, drifting and listening and sometimes hearing surf breaking perilously close. Then she stranded with her stern on a reef off Duxbury Point. Her bow was only 300 yards from the shore but she was surrounded by surf boiling in a cauldron of shoals. The Hanalei carried no radio to call for help but the staff of the Marconi Wireless Station at Duxbury Point heard her distress signals. They alerted San Francisco.

The tugs Hercules and Defiance, the Navy transport U.S.S. Rainbow, and the steam Richmond all went to her aid but couldn’t press close enough to the reefs to be of assistance. Lifesaving crews from the Golden Gate and Fort Point Stations had their boats swamped in the attempt, their crews either drowned or washed ashore. Frustrated rescuers lit bonfires on the beach, their haggard faces colored by the fire, their hair damp from the fog, as the surf beat against the shoreline. They were helpless to aid the dying ship.

After 16 hours, debris and bodies began to wash up in the surf. Only 16 passengers of 34 survived.

Most of the steam schooners were fitted to carry passengers although secondary in importance to freight. The 200-foot Celilo was equipped to carry as many as 60 passengers, 20 officers, and a million board feet of lumber, no small accomplishment considering her small size.

On that winter’s day between the wars, the Celilo was among the best preserved of the mud fleet. The electric piano still stood in her main salon. The circular companionway leading to the dining room was still intact and the chairs remained, fastened to the deck, where 38 passengers could be accommodated at a single seating. The curtains still hung over the square ports, smelling of mold. The brass lamp was still secured to the bulkhead above the captain’s bunk, green with verdigris. The Celilo was kept ready to return to service when the shipping rates became more profitable but the Depression descended and the water level in her bilges continued to rise.

Of all the steam schooners that once sailed from San Francisco Bay, loaded redwood from a wire chute in some dog hole on the Mendocino coast, or stood across the Humboldt Bar, only the Wapama remains. She lies crippled upon the stocks at Pacific Drydock, her final disposition uncertain, but it seems appropriate that she is still only a stone’s throw from the Oakland Estuary which witnessed the beginning of so many of the coastwise fleet, and their ending.

Passenger dining salon, steam schooner Wapama.

Inarticulable as Lust

“…a man climbs on dangerous paths in the highest mountains so as to mock his fear and trembling knees.” Nietzsche

“The obvious question is why,” Maggie Shipstead wrote in an Outside Magazine article about the Golden Globe Race. “Why choose to sail alone in a small boat through the world’s most furious seas, far from comfort or help, guided by the stars? Why attempt such a journey knowing full well that at times you will be horribly lonely, at others frustrated beyond measure, sometimes bored, sometimes afraid, that death by drowning out in the middle of big blue will be a constant possibility?”

It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question but her answer was no answer at all. “If you have to ask, you’ll never really understand the answer.” In fact, she denied the possibility of an answer. “In a way, there is no answer.”

The sailors themselves are no better at articulating their reasons, their explanations no more satisfying than George Mallory’s reason for attempting to summit Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” He sacrificed his life in the attempt despite his inability to explain himself to others.

Shipstead does make a salient comment. “All the sailors seemed to have decided more or less instantaneously to enter the race as soon as they heard about it, as though the idea had broken a pane of glass inside them, releasing an implacable spirit.”

The immediacy of the decision, without thought or conscious deliberation, is suggestive.

“Fundamentally, the desire to be in the race was just that,” she observes, “a desire as instinctive and unpredictable and inarticulable as lust.”

Instinctive and inarticulable, perhaps, but unpredictable?

While there’s not much research on the motivation of long-distance solo sailors, there’s a fair amount on expeditionary mountaineers. The two extreme sports share a lot in common; the extensive preparation, comprehensive skill sets, and the experience of extended periods of grinding tedium punctuated by bouts of blood-thinning fear.

Agency & Emotion

Extreme sports have a high probability that something will go wrong and a high chance of death as the outcome. In the past participation in such sports has been explained as a means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking.

But don’t mistake mountain climbers with bungee jumpers and skydivers. The later, driven by sensation seeking, are addicted to the rush of adrenalin. It’s a quick fix. Sensation seekers are averse to routine work or repetitive experience. They become restless when things don’t continually change.

Expeditionary mountaineers often spend weeks hauling their gear to the base of a mountain. The ascent, one tedious step after another, may take more weeks on a major summit, and then the long return to civilization. Any pleasure is largely retrospective.

A circumnavigation of the globe in the old boats stipulated by the Golden Globe rules will likely take 10 months or more. Something other than adrenaline drives them.

Climbing Mt. Everest
Climbing Mt. Everest

James Lester, a psychologist, accompanied the first American Mt. Everest Expedition in 1963. He described several characteristics prevalent among the mountaineers; desire for agency, lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake, high need for independence and achievement but a low need for intimacy and affection. Personal relationships and domestic life “were more stressful to the average team member than were the icy conditions in a fragile tent in a high wind with inadequate oxygen.”

Additional research based upon Lester’s foundational work (Woodman, Hardy, Barlow & Le Scanff 2010) identified emotional regulation and agency underpinning the motives of participants in expeditionary extreme sports.

Emotional regulation refers to which emotions we have, when we have them, how we experience them and how we express them. Agency is fundamentally an individuals’ beliefs regarding their ability to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Research revealed mountaineers and trans-Atlantic rowers had greater difficulty regulating their emotions than most people and a diminished sense of agency in their everyday lives. At the same time, they had  greater expectations of their own agency. They expected to be more in control of their lives than most people. The discrepancy between what they feel and what they expect of themselves drives some people to climb mountains or cross oceans.

Difficulty managing emotions may result in a constant, low-level anxiety, “a kind of background radiation saturating existence.” People aren’t likely to recognize the source of their anxiety or control it, but they feel it. In the mountains, climbers can trade their ambiguous, internal anxiety for a clearly identifiable emotion driven by external events: fear. Where anxiety has no source or defense, fear is a response to a definite threat. It’s a known enemy.

Extreme environments provide simple, stark challenges where there is no room and no time for anxiety. Failure to control your fear on the pitch of a major peak or a storm at sea diminishes your ability, efficiency, and chances of survival. It becomes a simple calculation. Control your fear or die.

Storm waves
Photo credit: www.coastalliving.com

Where mountaineers struggle with agency most and feel least in control is emotional relationships.

There are metaphorical similarities between the mountains and romance. (The same metaphors apply to the ocean.) Both are perceived as difficult and stressful, a prolonged emotional struggle. The ability to control emotions and master fear while summiting a mountain may transfer positively to managing romantic relationships.

It turns out to be true. Mountaineers returning from an expedition have a significantly heightened sense of agentic emotion regulation (control over their emotional life) compared to skydivers or ordinary folk.

Expectations

Mountaineers and, by extension, ocean racers, have exaggerated expectations for their experiences and achievements in their everyday lives. Characteristic is their continual striving to push their limits., whatever they do. And because of their frustrations achieving those goals in the ambiguous muddle of everyday affairs where they perceive a lack control over their lives, they push themselves to achieve in extreme environments where the rules are simple but the cost of failure catastrophic. They tend to be intolerant of vulnerability and weakness in others because they are intolerant of it in themselves. Their own anxieties provoke a counter-phobic reaction, conquering their fear in high-risk scenarios to overcome their anxiety in common life. It is a complex of emotions and behaviors that has produced spectacular achievements, sometimes at great personal cost.

In a culture that has become increasingly risk-averse, whittling away the personal freedoms to ensure safety and conformity, the high mountains and the open oceans are among the few simple, deadly places where an individual’s survival is largely dependent upon their own agency. We tend to think of sports where the participants risk their lives as pathological but there are benefits as well as risks. We act in ways that enhance our survival, even if the behavior is profoundly paradoxical.

Women of the Golden Globe

Banner photo credit: DHL

The Golden Globe Race will launch July 1 – 18 entrants sailing alone around the world, some 30,000 miles without stop and without assistance, even the assistance of GPS or satellite communications. Sailors in the race run the gamut in age and experience

Jean-Luc van den Heede is literally the old man of the sea. At 72-years old, he has raced, single-handed, five times around the world and still holds the record of 122 days for a solo circumnavigation, east-to-west, against the prevailing winds.

Phillippe Péché, 57, another professional sailor, has twice won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation and sailed with the likes of Eric Tabarly, Michel Desjoyeaux, Ellen MacArthur,  and Alain Gautier.

Mark Slats, 40, has sailed three times around the world and most recently rowed alone across the Atlantic, beating the existing record by five days.

Abhilash Tommy, 39, has sailed 52,000 miles and the first Indian to complete a solo circumnavigation, beginning and ending in Mumbai.

Nabil Amra is probably the least experienced among them but he’s sailing for a cause.

And the women of the Golden Globe? There’s only one, Susie Goodall, 28, the youngest entrant in the race. She looks like the girl next door if you happen to live in Svalbard.

Sailing is still a paternal sport and women are most noticeable by their absence. Dame Ellen MacArthur, Shirley Robertson, Dame Naomi James, Tracy Edwards, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz and a handful more are recognizable names. Susie Goodall isn’t, not yet.

She’s worked hard to be on the starting line in the company of so many men, recruited a high-profile sponsor, and kept the challenging task of managing the race within the family.

Susie Goodall at sea. Photo credit: DHL.
Susie Goodall at sea. Photo credit: DHL.

Her presence in interviews seems demure, introspective, candidly acknowledging her concerns about surviving the solitude of 9 months alone at sea. Others dismiss it cavalierly.

“I’m looking forward to being on my own,” Abhilash Tommy said. “I like it.”

“Will you miss anything?” he was asked.

“Nothing. Seriously.”

In a recorded interview, Ertan Beskardes said, “Being on my own, sailing on my own, is not a fear for me. I’m really happy with that.”

And the old man of the sea, Jean-Luc van den Heede, is more concerned about the absence of salad. “When you come back after eight months at sea without any salad, I can tell you that the salad is very good.”

Susie is incredulous. “I reckon they’re worried about it. We’re human. We’re not meant to be on our own for nine months. We’re sociable people, sociable animals.”

Kevin Farebrother agrees. “The first month will be difficult. If you can get through the first month, I think life out there – simple life, it’s like life in the mountains, a simple life – its’ about surviving. All the everyday hassles are gone…You won’t get much closer to nature than being in the Southern Ocean…”

What’s Goodall’s strategy for coping with the solitude? Consistent with her sense of identity and independence, Goodall plans to knit her way around the world.

“I love it. I go off into my own little world and before I know it I have a four-metre scarf. My plan is to come back with lots of little hats for everyone, all knitted in the Southern Ocean.”

Knitting may seem an incongruous response to the harsh demands of sailing alone around the world, but it might be brilliant.

The race will be physically exhausting, plagued by lack of sleep, likely haunted by hallucinations, but mostly it will be mentally demanding. “The race is about the effort the person on board makes and their psychology,” said Robin Davie, who competed in the BOC Challenge Around Alone Race but withdrew from the Golden Globe when his boat wasn’t ready in time. “The key is mindset.”

Knitting might be just the thing to calm a troubled mind when the wind in the Southern Ocean is howling and the seas are running mast high. And Goodall might be the only one to complete the circumnavigation with marketable memorabilia.

Unexpected benefits of knitting. Photo credit: Lifehack.
Unexpected benefits of knitting. Photo credit: Lifehack.

Why Sail Alone Around the World?

Sailing alone around the world in a small boat is a dangerous business. Sailing alone and non-stop even more so. Fewer have successfully circumnavigated the earth than climbed Everest or orbited the planet in space. When asked why risk so much for so little, the answers given by participants in the Golden Globe Race are curiously unsatisfying. The challenge, the solitude, the simplicity of life at sea. They are no more illuminating than Edmund Hillary’s explanation for scaling Mt. Everest: Because it’s there.

Imagine you’re standing on the bow of a boat, Thomas Metzinger suggests. A pod of dolphin plays in the bow wave, skimming the surface, leaping into the air, veering left and right with unconscious artistry. It only appears to be play. Leaping into the air saves energy because it’s less dense than water. It’s an efficient way to move forward and breathe at the same time. Their ballistic leaps alternate with swimming submerged, near the surface, typically twice the length of time in the air.

That, says Metzinger, is an instructive metaphor for the way we think.

Metzinger is director of the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosopy at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. He studies the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics.

Dolphin Model of Cognition

In the ‘dolphin model of cognition,’ the surface of the sea stands in place for the interface between conscious and unconscious processing. We spend far less time above the surface than submerged and sometimes we skim the space between, half in, half out.

“The point is that the mental contents available to us via introspection are nothing more than momentary flashes of automatic cognitive processing, grinding away beneath the waves of our awareness most of the time.”

Which leads to the perplexing question: Who is standing on the bow, watching the dolphins?

“But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them?”

Which brings us to one of the more recent fields of research in neuroscience and experimental psychology, mind wandering. It seems a surprisingly simple subject for study by something as imposing as neuroscience.

“Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime.”

If we’re not entirely in control of our thoughts and actions, or even entirely aware of them, how do we hold people responsible for their crimes, how do we make moral judgments, how do we explain our reasons for sailing alone around the world?

We’re Not Automatons

If we’re not fully rational beings capable of self-determination, neither are we the witless puppets of our unconscious. “Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

Our minds wander more often than we’d like to admit, several hundred times a day, up to 50% of our waking lives. For some, that includes much of their time driving a car along a familiar route. They arrive, or become aware that they’re lost, without realizing how they got there.

There are networks in the brain responsible for managing distinct functions. The default-mode network manages our time when at rest, when our attention focuses internally, during daydreams or spontaneous memories, when we think about ourselves or the future. Overlapping areas of the brain activate during mind wandering and the functioning of the default-mode network. Metzinger suspects they both serve the fundamental purpose of keeping our sense of self intact and consistent over time. They are the storytellers of ourselves.

“Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”

Which suggests that our identity—the very concept of who we are—is a succession of stories we invent unconsciously and tell ourselves when half-awake. But we aren’t automatons, not entirely. We can influence the storyline, bend it, even if we can’t reinvent completely.

As Metzinger says, “We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look.”

We are less like Ahab standing on the deck of the Pequod, captain of his destiny than Ahab lashed to the back of Moby Dick as the great beast submerged and surfaced, sounded and breached.

It’s not surprising that the sailors in the Golden Globe about to race around the world can’t articulate why they are risking so much and what they hope to gain. Any explanation is likely a rationalization. The truth lies deeper.

Resources

Are You Sleepwalking Now? Thomas Metzinger, Aeon Magazine.

Taking a Knee at Sea

The Southern Ocean seems an unlikely platform for protesting the Palestinian occupation. But then, Nabil Amra seems an unlikely sailor.

Using sporting events as a venue for political protest isn’t anything new. The gladiatorial games were often the scene of political theater, the emperor and Roman patricians an unwitting audience.

Even so, sailing alone around the world in protest is somewhat paradoxical. At sea, no one can hear you scream defiance; no one can see you shake your fist at the oppressor.

Governments also recognize the power of sports as a form of protest. The Palestinian Sail and Surf Federation was training young sailors to compete in the Olympics using a dozen Lasers donated by an anonymous Qatari, that is, until the Israeli Air Force bombed the beach, turning the boats into rubble. The Lasers were a security threat to Israel’s naval blockade. Besides, the military reasoned, Palestinians aren’t allowed to travel.

Carrying the weight of the world. Nabil Amra, Golden Globe Race 2018.
Nabil Amra. Photo Credit: Golden Globe Race.

Before he entertained any ambition of sailing alone around the world in the Golden Globe Race—30,000 miles without stop and 10 months of inescapable solitude—Nabil Amra was a foreign exchange trader on the Minnesota Stock Exchange. I can’t imagine an activity more distant from banking than a solo circumnavigation. Neither can he, I suspect.

He bought a Biscay 36, the last built of its kind, a 28-year-old boat to sail the world, and renamed her Liberty II. It’s a name layered with meaning for Nabil. Liberty is the English translation of his grandmother’s Arabic name. It also speaks to his hope for an independent Palestine.

Nabil’s experience sailing was mostly limited to Minnesota lakes before the qualifying solo sail of 2,000 miles onboard Liberty II required by the Golden Globe 2018 Notice of Race. On a passage from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Portland, Maine he ran afoul of a storm called the Mother’s Day Nor-Easter. He deployed a drogue to slow the boat’s drift but was pooped several times by breaking waves. The drogue’s tether wrapped around the self-steering gear and disabled it, requiring that he hand steer, like Susie Goodall off the coast of Portugal.

The cabin flooded and ruined much of his food, inadequately stored in bins. A hundred miles from port, he was reduced to a can of tuna in the morning, a can of sardines at night, a bit of olive oil and a jar of honey.

He made landfall at Nantucket where the Coast Guard fed him bowls of chili.

Palestinian boy throwing stones. Photo credit: Middle East Monitor.
Palestinian boy throwing stones. Photo credit: Middle East Monitor.

Bones or Spirit?

Palestinians have the ability to absorb abuse and punishment, Nabil says. As a child, his parents thought his education would benefit from spending a summer in their homeland. He was 12 when they moved to the West Bank. He attended the Friends Boys School, opened in 1918 and run by American Quakers until the school was closed by Israeli authority during the first Intifada.

Walking home from a youth protest against the Israeli occupation, Nabil was arrested and got “a week’s worth of beatings in a tin box.” It was an experience he hasn’t forgotten. When his closest friend was killed by Israeli soldiers, his parents thought it time to return to the United States.

Palestine is “the largest open-air prison in the world,” Nabil said. His desire to sail alone around the world becomes more intelligible in context.

“I’d rather have a broken bone than a broken spirit.”

Note: The original post included a frequently quoted but erroneous anecdote that Nabil’s father served onboard the USS Liberty, a US spy ship attacked by Israeli jets and torpedo boats with significant loss of life.

Solitude at Sea

For 30 days he was confined to a space so small the European Union considers it inhumane treatment for convicted criminals. There was enough room to stretch his 6’ 7” length to sleep but barely. He slept little anyway, 4 hours in every 24. There were no visitors, no conversations except those in his head. The horizon was a perfect circle as if drawn with a compass. Mark Slats was utterly alone.

In 30 days he rowed alone from the Canary Islands to Antigua, over 3,000 miles, breaking the record for the Atlantic crossing by five days. He had previously sailed around the world, single-handed, non-stop, in 205 days. The man knows something about solitude.

Compulsory solitude is called solitary confinement but what do you call it when it’s voluntary?

On July 1, Mark Slats will begin his second relentless, single-handed circumnavigation, this time racing in a fleet of 18 solitary sailors. The Golden Globe Race 2018 will span approximately 30,000 nautical miles, much of it in the Southern Ocean.

For the better part of a year, participants in the Golden Globe will be alone with only the company of a voice heard on the radio. They’ll be challenged by weather, mechanical breakdowns, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation but, perhaps most of all, by solitude.

Mark Slats & Peanuts, his Transatlantic rowing boat.
Mark Slats & Peanuts, his Transatlantic rowing boat.

The Looking Glass Effect

We are social creatures. We create and maintain our personalities, sense of self, and identities by seeing our reflection in the behavior and response of other people, a process Charles Horton Cooley coined “the looking glass self” in 1902. In effect, who we think we are is largely the consequence of how other people respond to us. As a result, “isolation from other people can lead to cognitive dysfunction, mental withdrawal and in some cases psychological dissolution.” (Psychological factors in exceptional, extreme and torturous environments, John Leach.)

In isolated research stations of the Arctic and Antarctic, there’s an effect called the “winter-over syndrome.” People, isolated by extreme temperatures and fierce storms through the dark months of winter, become increasingly depressed and irritable. They experience difficulty thinking clearly. They withdraw socially, get angry easily, and revert to hostility with less provocation. They can’t sleep soundly, lose their appetite, and become anxious or apathetic. And these are people who choose to be there.

The station doctor burned down the Argentine Antarctic research station of Almirante Brown to avoid staying another winter. That’s a pretty hostile reaction.

In some respects, solitary sailors share a similar environment to Antarctic researchers wintering-over. There’s a form of sensory deprivation. The horizon is uniform and unremarkable except in a storm when it’s often terrifying. There’s nowhere to fix their attention, nothing to distract them from themselves. The vast, reflective sameness becomes what Joseph Conrad called “the mirror of the sea.” Thoughts become deafening in the silence. Some people don’t like what they hear.

Sensed Presence

One of the symptoms experienced in the Antarctic was the experience of a “sensed presence,” the feeling that someone else—or something else—is present. Sometimes the presence is only a feeling. Sometimes it’s visible. Joshua Slocum is famous for seeing the pilot of the Pinta onboard Spray during the first solo circumnavigation in 1895. Susie Goodall experienced the presence of two strangers onboard her boat off the coast of Portugal when qualifying for the Golden Globe race.

Solo sailors are notorious for their hallucinations, likely the result of sleep deprivation but social isolation may play a part.

“And don’t get me started on those crazy singlehanded sailors…” Nic Compton wrote in Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea. “…it seemed that any singlehanded sailor who didn’t have some kind of mental paroxysm just wasn’t trying hard enough.”

The litany of dreadful symptoms quoted in the medical journals are largely the consequence of perceived isolation or enforced solitary confinement, something the UN now lists as torture. I suspect solo sailors…or ocean rowers…do not perceive themselves as isolated despite the lack of society. They are where they want to be even if they are there alone.

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."