formerly the Archives and Collections Society  

A wave is born

I have often been asked if I kept any notes from my address at the Mariners' Service in South Bay, Prince Edward County, a few years ago. It will be recalled that this is, in North America, one of the very last remembrances of this type, commemorating our sailors lost at sea; this particular one started in Cherry Valley nearly eighty years ago. Here are my notes:

     Somewhere a wave is born. Maybe in the Southern Ocean, in the albatross latitudes where the seas are rarely cut but by a keel, where in days gone by, a single wooden whaler might have been the only vessel seen for years. In these latitudes, the world is a ring of water around the southern icecap, the wind knows no limits. The great waves are born here, they travel the furthest, unencumbered by land. Many times higher than man, they travel at speeds no ship can match.

     Somewhere a wave is born. Maybe a ripple in a protected bay of the Great Lakes, where yesteryear schooners used to anchor to shelter from squalls and snow at the end of the season. If they had a mind to it, short, sharp waves - marching across the Lake, not far to go.

     And these waves will die somewhere, dashing into myriad droplets of water on the cliffs of Cape Horn, or sighing to a stop on the sand and shingle of Salmon Point. These waves are the writing of the wind on the water. These waves are born from nowhere, yet from everywhere. Oceans and lakes are rarely still. The wind will always set the ripples, the wavelets, the waves and the crashing breakers into movement. The wind will forever give rise to power and movement, and the oceans and lakes will respond.

     And mariners will respond. Just as the waves are the writing of the wind on the water, the wind has taken mariners from one place to another ever since the origins of time. Moses and the bulrushes or the Exxon Valdez, man has always gone to sea. As Swinburne said:

I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea,
I will go down to her, I and none other,
Close with her, kiss her, and mix her with me.

     Water and land meet and mix in a multitude of fashions around the world. Rugged rocks or softer headlands, standing out to sea, peaceful green land yielding to the unknown. The unknown and the temptation to travel, to discover what is beyond the horizon, to explore, to go beyond . . .

     Mysterious attraction to the sea, to the water, to the wind, to the waves? Surely, but where does the mystery lie? Was the Phoenician's attraction to commerce more mysterious than a modern single-hander's wish to circumnavigate the world? Did the Grand Banks fishermen spend months at sea only for economic reasons, to support their wives and children, or did they have deeper reasons? Are not the sea and the lakes and water some three fourths of our lives? Mariners live in and around these great bodies of water. Again Swinburne:

A pulse in the life of thy straits and bays,
A vein in the heart of the streams of the sea.

But who are the Mariners?

     Why define who the first sailor might have been? Maybe sitting on a log, paddling with your hands or just staying in the current, came first. But soon the South Sea Islanders were sailing outriggers, our first nations were using sophisticated birch bark canoes rather that dugouts, sail took over from oars. Mariners started using the wind, the wind that put its signature everywhere. And the wind became addictive to mariners. Listen to the poet:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

     Is this an overly romantic view of the sailors trade, the mariners' way? Probably not - most of our families arrived in this country by sea. Certainly all of our ancestors here in the County arrived over the water - before the bridges were built. Barley days and fishing, schooners and rum running are part of our heritage. We cannot deny our past.

     What is our past, our heritage? What has the sailor learned that he has brought back? Is it just the Mariners language that reminds us of the sea. We talk "by and large" - a sailor's expression - of sending our sons to sea. Many a landsman has become a seafarer, as Kipling said, in the manner that his Sea-Wife: " . . . wills her sons to the wet ploughing" where a schooner "slid, as it were, into long sunk avenues and ditches which felt quite sheltered and homelike if they would only stay still; but they changed without rest or mercy, and flung up the schooner to crown one peak of a thousand grey hills, while the wind hooted through her rigging as she zigzagged down the slopes".

Is our heritage important?

[I ad-libbed a little on Bequia whales. Canadian seals.]

     The wind and the seas become a way of life, perhaps a legend, a domain of mystery to some, a source of awe and wonder to most, an unending kaleidoscope of visions and sound, of power and majesty, of beauty and of fear. We never forget, we never understand all. As Dauber said:

"I want to be a painter," he replied
"And to know the sea and ships from A to Z,
And paint great ships at sea before I'm dead;
Ships under skysails running down the Trade;
Ships and the sea; there's nothing finer made.
But there's so much to learn . . ."

How much is romantic?

Quinquireme of Nenevah, from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.

     But we have gone a long way. Engines have replaced sail. Vibration and pollution have replaced the song of the wind and the smell of the kelp. Today's mariner is a technician, a mechanic, a business man:

Dirty British coaster with a salt caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road rail, pig lead,
Firewood, ironware and cheap tin trays.

     The sea demands some sacrifice - some accidental, some planned. During the last war Canada built 400 cargo ships of ten thousand tons or more. Seventy three were sunk and more than 2,000 merchant seamen died.

     And the Navy, once a proud tradition, changes. The Royal Canadian Navy is no longer Royal. The uniform has become somewhat anonymous since 1968. But . . . the RCN at war's end had 100,000 men and women manning 400 fighting ships from cruisers and carriers to motor launches and torpedo boats. The RCN lost 28 ships and about 2,000 men. The RCN fought mostly in the battle of the Atlantic, but in other places too, and those that died, died mostly in the Atlantic, accompanying convoys to battleworn Europe or on the northern route to Murmansk - all this zigzagging at maybe six knots, in the cold and the gales.

     Let us remember them - the vast majority men (and women) from all corners of Canada, few of them were sailors, members of the RCNVR. They knew next to nothing about the sea when they joined. But they learned. They went out and they did their jobs. They escorted 25,000 merchant ship trips, and delivered 180 million tons of cargo. Let us hope that we could do it again, if need were, and let us remember those who did it fifty odd years ago.

     Mariners will live with the mystery of the winds and the waters, plying their trade, or whiling away the hours of a long watch or a pleasant Sunday afternoon, but for most there will be a return to land, to family and friends, to perhaps a final rest after years at sea, of watching yellow dawns and Sargasso weed, of grey skies and howling winds, of ships with sails and ships that motor, of little ripples and huge breakers, of sailormen friends and of fishermen acquaintances, of heroes and ordinary seamen:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie;
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

 

Picton, 9 August 1998
Copyright © 1998, the Skipper

Revised: 31 March 2012