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High Sea Chantys

This time I’m taking to the high seas. What child of the primordial soup doesn’t like their stories salty?

shadowIn the fall of 1991, deep wreck diver John Chatterton found a German U-boat under 230 feet of water off the New Jersey coast where no U-boat had ever been recorded sunk.  According to all the history books, it simply couldn’t be there. It took Chatterton and fellow diver Richie Kohler six years, multiple dives to recover artifacts, exhaustive record searches through the National Archives and the Naval Historical Center, multiple trips to Germany, the solicitation of an endless anecdotal history from other divers, U-boat crew members, their relatives and U-boat historians, and above all a mutual devouring obsession to solve this enigma at the heart of Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers. But that’s just the plot on which hang the other, even more gripping stories, the ones about the price of friendship, the testing of character, the insanity of war, the writing of history, the human love for mysteries and the equally human need to solve them, and through it all an over-the-shoulder look into the claustrophobic and sometimes fatal world of deep wreck diving.

blueIn Blue Latitudes journalist Tony Horwitz follows in the footsteps of Captain Cook, beginning with a week working as a member of the crew on board a replica of Cook’s ship Endeavor.  I’d always thought of Cook as this stereotypical British officer, all his buttons properly polished and looking down a very long nose at all these dreadful loincloth-clad natives. In fact, Cook was born in a pigsty, was subject in his youth to a strong Quaker influence, and worked his way up from shoveling coal to captain in the British Navy.  He wrote about the aboriginal people he met with respect and admiration.  His name is now a bad word all over the Pacific, but in truth Cook was the best white man they’d ever meet. This already lively narrative is made more so by Horwitz’ travelling buddy Roger, one of the funniest, most cynical guys ever to walk through the pages of a book.

raiderDid you know the last shot fired in the Civil War was fired in the Aleutians? You would if you’d read Confederate Raider by Murray Morgan, a book about the Confederate raiding ship Shenandoah, built and commissioned to disrupt if not destroy the Union’s whaling industry in the North Pacific. Built in England, armed in the Madeira Islands, the Shenandoah travels around the Cape of Good Hope and starts sinking Yankee whaling ships from the south Atlantic on. Unbeknownst to them, the war ended in the middle of their search and destroy cruise. When they discover this they are afraid to surrender to a Union ship for fear they will be sunk out of hand, so successful has been their mission, so in an extraordinary feat of seamanship they sail south, dodging homicidal Union vessels all the way, round Cape Horn and surrender to the British back in the UK, without suffering a scratch. One of the great sea stories.

enduranceIn August 1914, Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail from England to Antarctica, their goal to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. These guys didn’t have any kind of luck but bad. First their ship gets stuck in the ice for ten months, then the ship is crushed in the ice, and then they float on the ice for another five months before taking to the small boats. And that’s just the beginning. Given up for lost, it would be 20 months before the rest of the world knew they had survived, against every imaginable force the sea could throw at them. Whenever you think you can’t do whatever it is that you must, read Endurance by Alfred Lansing.

armadaNo reading list of an ocean-going library would be complete without at least one account of a sea battle, and Garrett Mattingly’s classic The Armada will put you at Sir Francis Drake’s elbow on board the Elizabeth Bonaventure when he sails into Cadiz to singe the beard of Philip of Spain. A marvelous you-are-there book, beginning with the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and ending with Elizabeth the First’s butt sitting more firmly on the throne of England than ever before in her precarious reign. I so want someone to make a film from this book, and make it well. Colin Farrell as Drake, maybe?

farleyAnd then, of course, there is Farley Mowat’s uproarious The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, which is worth reading for the three cardinal tenets of rum drinking in Newfoundland alone. (“The first of these is that as soon as a bottle is placed on a table it must be opened. This is done to “let the air get at it and carry off the black vapors.”)

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