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Old 01-06-2001
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
The Not-So-Cruel Sea


Hurricane Mitcha Category 5 monsterslammed much of Central America as well as the four-masted cruise ship Fantome in 1998.
Toward the end of his excellent new book about Hurricane Mitch, The Ship and the Storm sailor and author Jim Carrier passes on some interpretations of that calamitous Western Caribbean storm of 1998 that many of us might echo. After Mitch unexpectedly altered course smack into the path of the 282-foot cruise ship Fantome—destroying it—the cruise line's founder, Michael D. Burke, said it was "Like the storm went after the ship. Like the devil itself." Besides diabolical, the storm was also characterized as a predatory animal—"a huge beast," for example. Fate was also cited as a cause of the catastrophe. While Carrier quotes no versions of the old saying, "That black cloud had my name written all over it," he does mention a fatalistic interpretation of Fantome's ultimate end. A man aware that Burke's ships had problems with safety inspections speculated, "Father Time finally caught up with him."

One of the things that makes us human is the ability to invent or latch on to metaphors or symbols that enrich our religious convictions and explain or cushion harsh reality. But as reassuring and entertaining as images of storms or fate chasing our vessels may be, they can sound hollow. Hearing the name-on-cloud claim one too many times, Yachting magazine columnist Alf Loomis once inquired in which font, exactly, the name had been inscribed on that thunderhead. Worse, such images can serve as tools of dysfunctional denial as they gloss over a true, hard reality that we really should acknowledge.


The 282-foot Fantome in the days before its tragic undoing.
One of the truest and hardest realities in almost every event is that, beyond a certain stage, what happens is pretty much out of human control. In the case of the hurricane and Fantome, once Mitch turned into the Gulf of Honduras, the skipper's options became extremely limited. He first had to take time to off-load the guests. Then, cornered in the Gulf and guided by what seemed to be reliable weather forecasts, he considered three possible courses of action: try to hide up a creek, or try to slide around the approaching storm by heading either north or east. When the odds of making the correct move in a dangerous situation are just one out of three, and the danger is immense and pretty unpredictable, you might as well be in a lottery.

Most of us do not relish staking our lives on lotteries. A world in which chance plays a part seems like a world of chaos. Our discomfort with randomness can take the form of denying its existence altogether (for example in the platitude, "Chance is just a fool's name for fate," immortalized in the appropriately loopy Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcee). At another level, immediately after the Fastnet Race storm in 1979 some surviving crews and observers condemned the victims as "Sunday sailors" of bad boats, as landlubbers who had regarded the Fastnet "as a week's holiday." Besides the lack of hard evidence, these charges made no sense, implying as they did that the only crews who had no trouble in the Force-10-plus gale were professional sailors in perfect boats. (Denial can be illogical as well as self-serving and uncharitable.) Gaining a comfortable distance from contingency and from the misfortune of others comes very easily in such circumstances, as I can testify—haiving made it through that Fastnet blow, I was one of those finger-pointers, until I learned better.


It's not that the sea isn't kind; it's that it's so big it doesn't notice us.
There is a healthier, less possessive way in which to look at the sea. "Not the cruel sea. The sea is impersonal. I don't see how you can call it cruel." The speaker was the offshore sailor and mountaineer Beryl Smeeton, and the occasion was a reflective conversation with her shipmates—her husband Miles and John Guzzwell — aboard Tzu Hang as the yawl made her difficult way through the Roaring Forties toward Cape Horn. "I think that they are kind, both the mountains and the sea," she went on, "and it's only that they are so big that they don't notice us, or seem to forget about us."

A few days after this declaration of faith and self-sufficiency, a great rogue wave somersaulted Tzu Hang. Beryl Smeeton—her body half-broken, pressed on. "Her enthusiasm seemed to sparkle through the cabin, bringing light even to its drab darkness," Miles wrote. They patched up the wreck, got it to shore, and restored it as a yacht. The Smeetons (to address their fear) headed back toward the Horn—only to be rolled once again and to save themselves and the yacht once again. You can read about it in Miles Smeeton's Once is Enough, one of the great books about both the sea and the spirit needed to deal with risk that Joseph Conrad (in Youth) called "the right stuff." Once is Enough (which may also be read as a love letter to a remarkable woman) is out of print, but can be found in libraries and via used book services.


The best approach for surviving storms is to know the boat and her capabilities—and to be forehanded and hopeful.
The Smeetons survived, I think, in large part because of their attitude about life. They accepted as facts that there are such things as randomness and chance, as well as some providence that looks after people in distress. Addressing storm tactics in Because the Horn is There, his book about their subsequent successful doubling of Cape Horn, Miles wrote: "In the end, in a battle for survival, there is no final answer, and no one can be assured that a small yacht will see it through. It depends whether or not she is hit by some particular wave, towering and breaking at just the wrong time." The best approach is to know the boat and her capabilities, and to be forehanded and hopeful.

Water and boats have deep emotional appeal, and may we never forget it. But we should not overly sentimentalize them or their risks. When someone drowns at sea, friends may say, "He would have wanted to die that way." What "he" almost certainly wanted, of course, was to live to sail another day. Given such a tragedy, I think that the best response is to mourn the premature loss of a friend and try to learn whatever hard lessons we can so it does not happen to us. While we cannot control the sea and weather, we can understand them and even predict them to a degree, always keeping in mind that we are but human. As Beryl Smeeton once said, "I don't think that anyone should ever mention victory or conquest with regard to the sea or the mountains."


Suggested Reading List

The Mental Games of Seamanship by John Rousmaniere
When the Boat Wants to Sink by John Kretschmer
Sydney-Hobart and Harnesses Revisited by John Rousmaniere

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