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Posts Tagged ‘sailing’

Already! (Or, Baudelaire at Sea)

April 9, 2014 | by

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Alfred Jensen, Tall Ship, late nineteenth century

Baudelaire was born on this day in 1821. You may know that he’s credited with coining the term modernité, or that he helped to shape our theory of the flâneur; but you likely did not know that he was a seafaring man, with an unslakable thirst for the ocean. (An irresistibly bad pun presents itself: Boatelaire. But let’s pretend I didn’t write that.) Here’s “Already!”, a prose poem translated from the French by Aleister Crowley.

ALREADY!

A hundred times already the sun had leaped, radiant or saddened, from the immense cup of the sea whose rim could scarcely be seen; a hundred times it had again sunk, glittering or morose, into its mighty bath of twilight. For many days we had contemplated the other side of the firmament, and deciphered the celestial alphabet of the antipodes. And each of the passengers sighed and complained. One had said that the approach of land only exasperated their sufferings. “When, then,” they said, “shall we cease to sleep a sleep broken by the surge, troubled by a wind that snores louder than we? When shall we be able to eat at an unmoving table?”

There were those who thought of their own firesides, who regretted their sullen, faithless wives, and their noisy progeny. All so doted upon the image of the absent land, that I believe they would have eaten grass with as much enthusiasm as the beasts.

At length a coast was signalled, and on approaching we saw a magnificent and dazzling land. It seemed as though the music of life flowed therefrom in a vague murmur; and the banks, rich with all kinds of growths, breathed, for leagues around, a delicious odour of flowers and fruits.

Each one therefore was joyful; his evil humour left him. Quarrels were forgotten, reciprocal wrongs forgiven, the thought of duels was blotted out of the memory, and rancour fled away like smoke.

I alone was sad, inconceivably sad. Like a priest from whom one has torn his divinity, I could not, without heartbreaking bitterness, leave this so monstrously seductive ocean, this sea so infinitely various in its terrifying simplicity, which seemed to contain in itself and represent by its joys, and attractions, and angers, and smiles, the moods and agonies and ecstasies of all souls that have lived, that live, and that shall yet live.

In saying good-bye to this incomparable beauty I felt as though I had been smitten to death; and that is why when each of my companions said: “At last!” I could only cry “Already!

Here meanwhile was the land, the land with its noises, its passions, its commodities, its festivals: a land rich and magnificent, full of promises, that sent to us a mysterious perfume of rose and musk, and from whence the music of life flowed in an amorous murmuring.

 

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Small Island: An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

July 24, 2013 | by

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Nathaniel Philbrick has written six books on United States history, most of which take place on or by the sea. In 2000, his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex—about the sunken whaleship that inspired a young Herman Melville—won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He then wrote Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, followed by Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History. Because of In the Heart of the Sea and his articles on the whaling industry, Philbrick and Melville have become something of a pair. Philbrick recently wrote the thin and ruminative Why Read Moby-Dick? and the introduction to the last Penguin Edition of Moby-Dick.

I had read In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower years ago, but it wasn’t until this past spring when a local bookseller handed me Philbrick’s first book, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, that I decided to write him a letter. There’s a thrifty, poetic quality to the makeup of that book, a clear joy in the research alone. It’s rawer, not so carved by what reviewers have noted as Philbrick’s masterful use of narrative and perspective in his other books, and so shows his research instincts clearer. He includes a description of the spring day when early Nantucketers set a pit of snakes on fire, and the time in 1795 when robbers bent pewter spoons into keys to steal $20,000 in gold coins from Nantucket Bank. Farmers on the island used to fertilize fields by scaring sheep at night with burning coals, and whalers traded their pant cuffs for sex in the South Pacific Islands. I put my e-mail on the bottom of the letter and dropped it in the mail. He wrote back in June, offering lunch and a “ramble” around the island.

We met for chowder and beer down at Nantucket’s South Wharf, near the old ships chandlery. Centuries ago, scallop shanties were on the South Wharf, where “openers” shucked for hours under lantern light and pipe smoke. Philbrick had arrived on his bike and exactly on time, wearing wayfarer sunglasses. It was a sunny day; while transcribing the interview, I listened to wind and gulls behind his voice. He speaks energetically, smiles constantly and in a way that evokes Steve Carell, and, mostly, is humble. Later that evening, walking through his house with him and his beloved golden retriever Stella, I saw just one sign of his success: a tiny framed clipping of the July 9, 2000, New York Times best-seller list, in which Harry Potter is on the fiction side, and In the Heart of the Sea is on the other, at number two. He’s proud of his family and talks about them often. He showed me the marks on the wooden floor where his son had practiced cello, and the room full of his grandmother’s paintings, one of which might be of her good friend, Claude Monet’s daughter.

After lunch, we walked through downtown to visit the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. On the way, he pointed in the direction of where Herman Melville visited and dined with Nathaniel Hawthorne the summer after the disastrous publication of Moby-Dick. As in his books, Philbrick resurrects the past with unexpected precision: “Hawthorne,” he said, “was handsome and shy.” When we arrived at the Research Library, an archivist greeted him by holding up a review of his newest book, Bunker Hill. “Did you see this?” she asked, pointing to a caricature of Philbrick dressed like a colonial. “Oh, jeez,” he said, and turned away bashfully. 

Weeks later, sitting in his patio, Stella panting behind us, I asked him why he keeps retelling stories that people already know. The Mayflower story. Bunker Hill. Custer’s Last Stand. “Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling. “Everybody knows about the Little Bighorn. But what do they really know about the Little Bighorn? I knew nothing. What I knew was three sentences that had nothing to do with what happened.” He continued, “In each book, I don’t know what I’m getting into. And if I did know what I was getting into, the book would be stale. There would be no crackle. For me, it’s the act of discovery gives the prose life. Otherwise, it would be dead.”

Why did you move to Nantucket?

We came to Nantucket in 1986. It was my wife’s job that brought us here. She’s an attorney. She grew up on Cape Cod. I’m from Pittsburgh. I love to sail, but I’m not from a maritime area. I had grandparents in West Falmouth—that’s how Melissa and I ended up meeting. We were living in a suburb of Boston before we moved out. She was the breadwinner. I was at home, writing, taking care of the kids. We had kids, one and four.

You were a young dad.

We had Jenny when we were twenty-five. We had made sort of a pact. I said, You’re going to make a lot more money than I will—I was a journalist for what’s now Sailing World, out of Newport.

Neither one of us had spent any time here. It sounded like a good concept—no commuting, everyone would be close. We arrived in September—probably the first people to move to Nantucket without ever having spent a summer here. It took me a while to connect with the community, because I was at home with the kids. But then I got interested in the history of the island, and began to hang out at the archives. Away Off Shore is a product of learning history on my own, of going alone to look around the archives. Read More »

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Falling Overboard

November 2, 2012 | by

Illustration by Madzia Bryll, a fellow member of the crew.

At first, I couldn’t sleep on the ship. At night, bunked beneath the waterline, I put my hand against the wooden hull and imagined dark water on the other side pressing back. I lay awake holding my breath, picturing the route I would swim through a maze of cabins and hatches if the ship went down. In port, Bounty had looked tremendous: one hundred and eighty feet long, three masts stretching a hundred feet into the sky, and a thousand square yards of canvas sails. But underway, with ocean spreading toward horizon in every direction, she was small, and inside her I was even smaller.

I had lost my job and my marriage when I saw Bounty for the first time. I wanted to stowaway, cast off, and leave the ruins of my life behind—and Bounty let me. Yet I left far more than grief on land; what mattered at home—education, achievements, appearance—was irrelevant at sea. It was unsettling to abandon all that I thought defined me. I sat in the galley with the other deckhands and wondered what they understood from my face. I was uncertain of what remained.

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