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Extract: The Sea Journal

Posted on 10 May 2019

Huw Lewis-Jones, editor of 'The Writer's Map' returns with The Sea Journal, a collection of first-hand journals and sketchbooks created on ocean voyages across the ages. Read an extract from the introduction by Huw titled 'Unknown Waters'.

Theodore Gericault made this sketch of a storm off Le Havre, France, in 1818. He was working out the composition of his masterpiece, 'The Raft of the Medusa', by carefully studying ships and sea conditions. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy Getty’s Open Content Program

You know it’s getting rough when there’s tea in your boots. But things could be much worse. Safely down from the outer deck, I’m now in my cabin trying to write the log. My tin mug is on the floor, wedged between my rubber boots, and my back is braced against the bunk. e porthole above me is bolted shut and covered in a layer of ice half an inch thick. With each heave and roll, waves block out the sun hanging low in the sky. Up on the bridge, the view is of unending ocean. Storm clouds steel grey and bruised purple are gathering. Icebergs are on the horizon and are scattered further still across the radar screen.

A few days ago we crossed the Antarctic Circle and have made good progress. But last night the waves rose and bitter winds came on from the south. Now as we punch our way through the swell, our ship strains and groans. I think of the mariners who sailed these seas before us in their wooden ships. In conditions like these they would have had to run before the wind, or reef sails to weather the storm under bare masts. It would have been a long and weary night indeed. No electronic charts to guide them. No hope of rescue should they need it.

The sea is a broad canvas for imagining. And whether sailor or artist, a passenger or simply a holidaymaker on the beach enjoying the view, our eyes – and our minds – continue to be drawn to the sea. Ships have been part of the human story from early on and our efforts to overcome the challenges of the oceans began long before written accounts. Craft of all kinds have set out to sea, and people and ideas moved around the world with them. Men and women, families and nations, all have dared the impossible when setting out on their journeys. Some of the earliest stories that survive are accounts of sea voyages.

A View of Staaten Island with a Herd of Seals’ – the Isla de los Estados, off the eastern extremity of Tierra del Fuego. Seal hunters had a short-lived factory camp here in 1787, which they abandoned after their ship was wrecked bringing in supplies. Bacstrom’s voyage camped here in March 1792, clubbing seals and boiling their oil. Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

So much has changed for seafarers since then, however. The world’s coastlines are known, and its hazards mostly chartered. A century ago, ships’ bridges were open and there were no self-steering systems as we have now to keep a safe course. Sailors couldn’t always take shelter when things got rough – they had to be out there, in the open, at the helm, up on the yards. Nor were there winches to help muscles control the sheets and halyards. The seafaring life created a tough, uncompromising breed, experienced in nature’s frequently vicious moods. The prayer of Elizabethan captain John Davis says it all. A veteran of the Arctic, he had hoped to circumnavigate the world, but the odds were against him. In 1592 his crew was down to just ve t men. ‘Oh Lord, if we are bound to die,’ Davis wrote in his journal, ‘then I would rather have it in proceeding than retreating.’

In the end, most ships are wrecked, sunk, scrapped or sold. Only a few survive. This is the way of history. As I write my journal, braced against my bunk, I remember the ships that have come south into these waters. Erebus and Terror were the rst to penetrate the Ross Sea in 1841 and were later assigned to an Arctic expedition, disappearing o the map. The first men to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland, in 1899, came on Southern Cross, but by 1914 she was sealing, hit ice and sank near Newfoundland. Douglas Mawson’s steam yacht Aurora was lost at sea in 1917 returning to New Zealand, having hit a mine laid by the German merchant raider Wolf. The only trace of Aurora was a lifebuoy picked up near Australia, covered in barnacles.

It is clear therefore that seasickness is the least of a sailor’s worries. In these pages we encounter scurvy and shark attack, pirates, poisoning, starvation, dysentery, hurricanes, even cannibalism. We might wonder why anyone would join a ship at all. When adrift in an open boat, or caught in the doldrums with no breath of wind, parts of the Pacific are surely more like a desert than an ocean. The sun beating down, fierce, merciless; nowhere to shelter, unable to move; not a drop of fresh water to drink. Of course, through the centuries a life at sea also gave sailors exactly that: a living. e sea o ered opportunities – the promise, if not the reali , of freedom, the chance of employment, the means to escape, the idea of new lands beyond the horizon. ough for many seafarers this was not to be, their lives cut short.

One of the most beautiful pictures in the Visboek is a flying fish. Found in tropical seas, its nickname was ‘sea swallow’. National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague (78 E 54)

From the earliest voyages, ships’ officers were encouraged to make care l records. ‘Take with you paper and ynke’, instructed a well-educated mariner in the 1580s, ‘and keepe a continuall journal … that it may be shewed and read at your returne.’ And not just on ship, but on forays ashore too: ‘An inquisitive traveller should never be without paper, pen and ink in his pocket’, wrote another. Keeping a journal fostered a mindset of regular observation and careful recording and offered the means to share that information with others when safely home.

All the sketches in this book have survived journeys. They are eyewitness to great explorations and intimate personal histories. James Cook was fond of using the phrase ‘voyages of discovery’ to describe his endeavours. A brilliant mapmaker even before he entered the Pacific, he journeyed emotionally and intellectually into unknown waters, yet encountered people who had their own histories of voyaging. Maori, Tahitians and Hawaiians would place this enigmatic visitor on their own maps, in ways Cook could neither understand nor control. The knowledge of the Pacific’s sea of islands accumulated by the navigator Tupaia greatly assisted Cook. For generations of Polynesian voyagers the sea was not so much an obstacle as a way.

So what does it mean to make a voyage? Of course, in the simplest sense, it’s a long journey at sea, from one point on land to another. As for discovery, it’s a word that comes from the Old French descovrir, ‘to uncover, unroof, unveil or reveal’. At rst it was used with a sense of betrayal or malicious exposure (‘discoverer’ originally meant ‘informant’), but the positive modern sense of ‘obtaining sight of the unknown’ nds wide usage from the 1550s. Sea journals are filled with discoveries and unknown sights of all kinds.

Voyages of discovery, like Cook’s, were true explorations. e word explore comes from the Latin explorare, ‘to investigate, search out, examine’, obvious enough, but is also said to have origins as a hunter’s term meaning to ‘cry out’. In this sense, explorers set out to nd and tell the world of their new discoveries. Another favourite word found so o en in seafarers’ journals is adventure, which comes from the Old French aventure, ‘to happen by chance’, and from a form of Latin, adventura, a thing ‘about to happen’. is mix of spontanei and ture, with the addition of risk and danger, is its truest meaning. For adventure in the eenth century you might read ‘perilous undertaking’, and then in the sixteenth ‘a novel or exciting incident’. For thirteenth-century readers it is said to have meant ‘a wonder, a miracle; an account of marvellous things’. Today we might think of adventure as many things too: a ris undertaking of unknown outcome, an exciting sequence of events, a commercial speculation. Historic voyages were frequently all of these things. Seafarers set forth to venture, to hazard, and they also brought back proofs of marvels. Within sea journals may be found the wonders of the deep. As Petrarch put it we go ‘forth to behold the mighty surge of the sea, the inexhaustible ocean, and the paths of the stars’, and in so doing ‘lose ourselves in wonderment’.

Man Ray (Photofile)

Merry A. Foresta

The Sea Journal

Seafarers' Sketchbooks Huw Lewis-Jones

The Writer's Map

An Atlas of Imaginary Lands Huw Lewis-Jones

Across the Arctic Ocean

Original Photographs from the Last Great Polar Journey Sir Wally Herbert, Huw Lewis-Jones

The Crossing of Antarctica

Original Photographs from the Epic Journey that Fulfilled Shackleton's Dream George Lowe, Huw Lewis-Jones

The Conquest of Everest

Original Photographs from the Legendary First Ascent George Lowe, Huw Lewis-Jones