“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness” – Werner Herzog
A modern ocean liner can cross the Atlantic Ocean from a Western European port to New York in a week, and while maximum speed of current naval warships is classified for obvious reasons, travel in excess of forty knots seems fairly common (which cuts the time for transatlantic travel down to 3.8 days). We move fast. One wonders what consequences this has for our attention as the natural world whips past us at breakneck speeds. Back in prehistory you needed to pay close attention to your immediate surroundings should you wish to avoid being eaten, beaten, or caught in a landslide, but then we learned to sharpen pointy sticks, harness fire, build roads, and raise walls, and vigilant situational awareness tended to be reserved for which cultural taboos you might be violating or whether the cops were nearby. Monsters started fading into the landscape, a casualty of acceleration, caught only out of the corner of our eye in the lamplight of a deserted street or a pocket of virgin timberland.
In fact, the world has sped up around us so much in the past 100 years, it’s a wonder we notice anything at all, with our noses buried in our mobile technology, global positioning to tell us where to go, and the simple fact that a long distance airline passenger can effectively travel 12,000 miles in a day if they were so inclined. Accelerating technological change always manifests first in the arenas of communication and transport, and I’m suspicious this is because they are essentials in effectively organizing to oppress each other, but what do we miss in our race to, well, race?
We’ve always had folks who like to challenge themselves to do things the old-fashioned way, brave the wilds without the aid of GPS or cross vast distances with the rudimentary technology of their forefathers. Sometimes these intrepid fellows simply vanish, and we shrug our shoulders , figuring that’s the price they paid for avoiding modern conveniences, and sometimes we marvel at their successes almost as much as their audacity. It takes a mighty sailing man, a skipper brave and true to turn his eyes to the horizon and figure ancient man wasn’t all that special and if they could cross oceans with little more than moxy and a glorified sailboat, well darn it, we should be able to as well. It should be unsurprising that such adventurers also occasionally encounter monsters, make a note of it, and get on with the business of being comparatively awesome like it’s no big deal.
In the 1800’s, steam power was already on the rise, and ships such as the full-rigged sailing ship Savannah, using wind and a steam driven paddle wheel managed an Atlantic crossing in roughly 29 days in 1819. This is of course one of the main reason sea monsters became less of a problem. Riding high above the waterline, moving fast and loud, we just don’t get as many opportunities to spot the odd kraken. Maybe we’re just too busy with the free drinks, shuffleboard, or hunting enemy submarines to overly concern ourselves with monsters of the deep. But maybe, just maybe, when we stick our noses down there in the brine, we increase our odds of spotting an elusive creature.
In 1878, William Albert Andrews and his brother Asa Walter Andrews of Beverley, Massachusetts stared out at the vastness of the sea and decided to engage in a little bit of one-upsmanship. In 1877, Thomas Crapo and his wife Joanna departed New Bedford, Massachusetts in their 19 foot, 7 inch ketch-rigged dory and arrived in Penzance, England 49 days later. The Andrews brothers figured they could top that. They commissioned the building of a 19 foot lapstrake dory (only 15 feet from stem to sternpost) which they named the Nautilus and intended to use it to beat the record of the Crapos. Total depth amidships was just 2 feet 3 inches. That’s pretty darn close to the water. And just because they were busy showing how tough they were, they didn’t even include buoyancy tanks (not that they had room), instead relying on their own skill at bailing and pumping water out when things got rough. They sailed from Boston Harbor on June 7th, 1878 bound for Paris, France.
The Andrews had a bit of a false start, damaging their sole navigation lantern and losing their binnacle lamp cover on the first night. I haven’t a clue what these are, but I don’t imagine you want to be sailing the Atlantic in a tiny boat without them, so they stopped in Beverley, Massachusetts for repairs, setting sail once again on June 11th. They had themselves quite an adventure. William was hit on the head with the boom (he survived), they nearly wrecked off Sable Island, Nova Scotia, faced rough seas, bad weather, lack of sun (which they needed to get a fix on their position – they occasionally asked passing ships), and gale force winds. At about the halfway point, Walter started coughing up blood, but they persevered, landing in Mullion Cove, Cornwall on 31st July, 1878, after which it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to Le Havre, France where they were enthusiastically greeted.
Oh wait. Did I mention they encountered a sea monster? Captain William Andrews (Walter died soon after they returned to America) turned their voyage log into a popular book modestly entitled A Daring Voyage Across the Atlantic Ocean, and buried amongst the biographical details and descriptions of just what it takes to cross an ocean in a 19 foot boat, he casually mentions that on Wednesday, July 17th, they sighted a fearsome monster of the deep.
Just thirty-four days out. I never took much stock about sea serpents, but I have good reason to believe, after what I saw last evening, before dark, that there are denizens of the deep that have never been thoroughly explained or illustrated by our zoological societies. It was during a moment of intense calm, and I had been watching some whales sporting and spouting at a short distance behind me, when, on turning and looking in the opposite direction, I was startled to see what appeared to be a part of a huge monster in the shape of a snake; it was about two hundred feet off. I saw twelve or fifteen feet of what appeared to be the tail of a huge black snake from five to fifteen inches in diameter, the end being stubby, or round, and white. It was in the air in a corrugated shape in motion, and in the act of descending. I also saw a dark shadowy form in the water corresponding with the tail; also the wake on the water as if more had just gone down, the whole being in motion after the manner of a snake; also heard the noise of the descending part, and saw the splash on the water. Walter being just at that moment at the cuddy, where I keep the hatchet, getting some tea for supper, I told him to pass me the hatchet quick, which he did. He heard the splash and saw the form in the water. I wanted the hatchet, not because I thought I should have to use it, but because I thought it would be a good thing to have it handy, in case I should want to use it. Walter had a swim an hour before near the boat, and the thought of sea serpents being around kind of took away his relish for that kind of sport for the present. During the night we heard from time to time the most horrid noises behind us that we have ever heard on the water—splashing and breathing in a loud wheezy manner (Andrews, 1880, p99-101).
This seems to be a testament to the quality and character of these two salty mariners. In between cups of tea in a 19 foot boat, alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and faced with a sea monster loitering nearby, they calmly pass the hatchet and carry on. After all, what else are you going to do? The things you see when you’re moving low and slow, right? We like to think that the monsters of the world receded along with our superstitions, when it seems that in fact we simply learned to outrun them, and they lurk just beneath when we take the time to stick our heads closer to the water. Our technological savvy has led to our mastery of our environment (for better or worse), but we make a mistake when we assume our mere tools invalidate, rather than simply outpace our monsters, or as John Locke observed, “It is of great use to the sailor to know the length of his line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the ocean”.
Andrews, William Albert, 1843-. A Daring Voyage Across the Atlantic Ocean: by Two Americans, the Brothers Andrews : The Log of the Voyage. London: Griffith & Farran , 1880.