Time to Eat the Dogs

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Archive for Oceans

The Reenacted Voyage

SSV Corwith Cramer

In May 2006, I sailed out of Key West aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134 ft steel brigantine belonging to the Sea Education Association. With 7800 square feet of canvas, the Corwith Cramer looks like it sailed out of a painting by Fitz Hugh Lane. Yet it is a modern craft, fully outfitted for research, complete with bathymetric equipment, hydrographic winches, biological sampling equipment, sediment scoops, and rock dredges. Not that I would know the difference between a scoop and a dredge. In my former career in science, the mysteries of life were something best looked at indoors, preferably under a laminar flow hood where they wouldn’t infect you.

The Laminar Flow Hood

Today my research questions are different. They focus on humans rather than marine ecology or rarefied microbes. And it was the human element of the voyage that made the its greatest impression on me, namely my own halting adaptation to life aboard ship. As the Cramer’s B squad, we worked in eight hour watches, manning lookout, checking the weather, hoisting sail, and swabbing the sole. My berth was above the table in the galley, so I had to step over people eating (day and night) in order to get anywhere else in the ship. I slept three to four hours at a time, bathed in sweat. It was a breathtaking, bewildering, exhausting experience.

Crow’s Nest, Corwith Cramer

It was, nevertheless, an experience which affected my research, because it showed me, in a way I never really understood before (reading books in the archives), the profoundly exhilarating and unsettling nature of life on a ship packed with officers and crew. Suddenly it seem didn’t odd that scientific specimens disappeared or disintegrated before making it back to the metropole. It didn’t seem odd that Pacific and Polar expeditions so often ended in mutiny or violence. (Not that we had mutiny on our minds. The crew of the Corwith Cramer was friendly and professional. I’m just projecting what it would be like to be on such a vessel for years at a time, with a larger crew, smaller berths, no fresh food or refrigeration, few links to the outside world, mixed together with the occasional bout of scurvy). Nor did it seem odd that explorers sometimes stayed in touch with former shipmates forty or fifty years after the end of the expedition. While the Corwith Cramer bore no resemblance to the the Fram, the Beagle, the Endeavour, or any other famous crafts of discovery, it gave me a way of understanding some of the events that took place on these vessels long ago.

For me the reenacted voyage offered inspiration, a way of seeing, in a new light, historical events. But this is not alway the objective of such voyages. Maritime adventurists often find a different inspiration in the reenactment, principally to recreate earlier events. For example, Philip Beale, leader of the Phoenician Ship Expedition, plans to sail a 21 meter square rigged ship around Africa in hopes of showing that the Phoenicians accomplished this route in 600 BC.

The Good Ship Phoenicia

As Beale put it in a Reuters interview:

“”The Europeans think it was Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias who did it first. But I think the Phoenicians did it 2,000 years earlier and I want to prove it.

And on his website:

“The Phoenicians obviously conquered the Mediterranean, but did they really go all the difficult and long way around Africa? That is the question.”

That is indeed the question, but one that Beale will be no closer to answering after the Phoenician Ship Expedition sets sail. Phoenicians may or may not have sailed around Africa, but Beale could never recreate the voyage with any accuracy because he knows where he’s going and how he’s going to get there, something that the first Phoenician navigators would not have known. Indeed, 14th century Venetians had a much better sense of the African coastline and Atlantic currents, but still feared passing beyond Cape Bojador (on the West Coast of Africa) because they’d be sailing against the current on the way back.

Another example: in 2005, British trekker Tom Avery sledged with to the North Pole in 36 days, a feat that he claimed “rewrote the history books” because it proved Robert Peary could have made it to the North Pole in 37 days as he claimed in 1909. While there may still be doubters, Avery hopes “that we have finally brought an end to the debate and that Peary’s name will be restored to where it belongs in the pantheon of the great polar explorers.”

Avery, channeling Peary, at the North Pole

But Avery’s expedition differed from Peary’s in significant ways. Avery was a robust 29 when he reached the North Pole. By contrast, Peary was 52, hobbled by the loss of eight toes, and suffering from a variety of ailments. Avery could afford to pack light on his trip since he didn’t have to make a return trip back to land (his party was airlifted from the North Pole shortly after he arrived). Peary, by contrast, had to slog his way back under dog power.

Beale and Avery, I’m afraid, have succumbed to Kon-Tiki Syndrome, a state of mind in which reasonable explorers start believing that they are the philosopher’s stone, agents with the power to transform reenactments into the gold of historical proof. I am a great believer in such voyages as experiential education, but they have no value in telling us what really happened in the past. Unfortunately there are no shortage of adventurers and sponsors willing to organize such expeditions. What to do. Blame Thor Heyerdahl.

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