Few events can thrash a life—or glorify it—as effectively as a storm at sea. It is a chaotic thing, as indifferent to normal order as a war. A few souls like it that way. Beryl Smeeton, whom I introduced last month (Sailing with a Master Mariner), was twice almost killed near Cape Horn yet welcomed what she called "a feeling of exhilaration, a feeling of battle" that came upon her during a fight for survival. Another storm warrior was Theodore Roosevelt, who came up with the influential notion of the value of "the strenuous life," and who as a youthful sailor survived a winter squall that left him not fearful, but absolutely enchanted with the sea.
Smeeton and Roosevelt are among the characters in my new book, After the Storm: True Stories of Disaster and Recovery at Sea (International Marine/McGraw-Hill), which will be in bookstores around May 1. Although it has some material on seamanship, After the Storm is not a technical book about storms at sea—we have plenty of those—but an exploration of the human response to them. I set out with two goals: 1. Tell the stories of some remarkable storms that had some remarkable human consequences. 2. Better understand the meaning of the human relationship with the sea by looking at it through the prisms of the storm and maritime history.
I chose many storms for After the Storm and described 12 at length—eight gales, two hurricanes, one waterspout, and the black squall that ended the naïve romance with the sea enjoyed by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While all these storms are linked by a circle through history or geography, all dozen share three features:
First, each story makes clear that storms are equal-opportunity oppressors that do not care at all whether a mariner goes to sea to catch fish or search for God, carry cargo or seek adventure, win a war or win a race. Whether their interest is in striving against the sea or in floating upon it sweetly, all may go out there so long as they are properly respectful of the sea’s powers and are prepared for its whims. No one is privileged, no one is invulnerable. Biography is not destiny.
Second, the natural human quest for meaning burrows deep into any storm. "Old sailors may have odd ways of showing their religious feelings," Joshua Slocum remarked, "but there are no infidels at sea." While many survivors of the storms in my book call on orthodox faith to help them through the chaos of the deep, others create myths or superstitions, some of which may seem bizarre (do you know the ones about unlucky rabbits and black bears striding the upper rigging?), but all of them making sense in their own way. No physical entity has inspired such hate and such love as the sea. While the wind has usually been considered good—in the Bible, the same Hebrew or Greek words mean both "wind" and "divine spirit"—for millennia the sea has been feared as the home of chaos, evil, and despair. At the far other end of conviction, all too popular among pleasure sailors, stands the modern romantic notion of the sea as an always-enchanting preserver of life. In fact, a healthy relationship with the sea moves between the extremes of floating and striving. In any case the sea must not be taken for granted.
Third, of all the beliefs of the men and women in the storms in these stories, not the least important is faith in the power of personal connection to help people through disaster. In the havoc of a hard blow, the norm at first seems to be alienation, not human contact. "This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one’s kind," Joseph Conrad observed in Typhoon. But Conrad’s long experience at sea also taught him that most men and women struggle constructively against this alienating power. "It is, after all, the human voice that stamps the mark of human consciousness upon the character of a gale," he wrote. When I began work on this book, that voice was well known to me through my own experience in storms and other crises. Dipping into studies of post-traumatic stress disorder, I saw that psychologists also see the fight for connection as both crucial and normal. This is so even among the fabled "iron men in wooden ships" who care like us, feel like us, weep like us.
In September 2001, as I was preparing to write the last two chapters of this book, the worst storm came upon us in acts of fascistic terrorism that killed thousands, including a former shipmate of mine. The human connection briefly seemed remote, but after that dreadful tempest the familiar struggle for connection stirred. As I put the last touches on the page proofs in early March, I could not doubt the fundamental belief that a good life is connected not only to God and nature and the sea, but also to other lives. Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us of that need.
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