Monday, April 17, 2006

Anonymous death

Sunset in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

The recent passing of a friend’s father had me mulling mortality again and, coming near the weekend that Christians celebrate death and resurrection, it also had me considering the way we deal with the end of life. Volumes have been written about the topic by far more knowledgeable individuals than myself, but few concern themselves with the deaths of mariners.

As I’ve said before, seafaring is the most dangerous job a human being can take on: thousands and thousands of people set out upon on the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers of our planet never to return home. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just a fact of their lives. To travel at sea is to constantly journey over the wrecks of ships and the bones of their inhabitants. They’re overwhelmingly forgotten and anonymous, submerged beneath fathoms of water in the darkest and coldest of places.

Bridge officers on MV Canmar Spirit, off the coast of Newfoundland

The anonymity of these deaths at sea irks many merchant mariners. To be forgotten in life is one thing; to be forgotten in death is quite another. Several seafarers spoke to me about the aftermath of a recent accident aboard a Canadian Navy submarine. The HMCS Chicoutimi was on her maiden voyage from Scotland to Halifax in October of 2004 when a fire broke out as she was traveling on the surface of the Irish Sea. Acrid smoke filled the boat’s compartments and left her without power, wallowing in rough waters. A number of the crew were seriously injured and one, Lieutenant Chris Saunders, died in an Irish hospital a few days later. His death became front-page news in Canada, his dedication and service to his country lauded by politicians in Parliament. When this submariner’s body arrived home in Canada it was met by dignitaries including our prime minister and Lt. Saunders was accorded a funeral with full military honours.

And yet Lt. Saunders died not in battle, nor even in a war zone. He died doing his job. A few weeks before his tragic death, a couple of fishermen from Newfoundland drowned when their vessel took on water in the middle of a storm. No one stood in Ottawa to commemorate them; no government leader appeared at their funerals; and no one remembers their names, except the villagers of St. Brendan’s Newfoundland, where the seafarers left wives and children behind.

For the record, those fishermen who perished were two brothers, David and Joseph Ryan.

I mean no slight to members of the Canadian navy and military here, merely to recount what commercial seafarers told me. Six and half thousand professional mariners will die on the job this year. And few will be celebrated, though many will be mourned in private.

September morning somewhere over the mid-Atlantic Ridge

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Keeping Time

This is a two-fold post, one to update what’s going on with my book, the other to recount more nautical tales. Muted apologies for no recent postings, but time's been a problem of late...

My book, Ocean Titans, has been out here in Canada for a couple of weeks. So far, it’s been a quiet release, but the hope is that word of mouth – and some good reviews – will help to get things moving. As well, I received the news recently that the book will be released in hardcover form in the United States beginning this fall, thanks to Lyons Press down there. And that it will available in a number of library systems shortly (including the Toronto Public Library and the St. Catherines, Ontario, libraries.)

I encourage anyone interested in the sea, merchant shipping and those whose lives revolve around these man-made leviathans to check out my book and pass the word to all and sundry.

Meanwhile, I was again thinking of my time at sea working on the book as I changed the clocks around my home this past weekend. Going between Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time seems so much of a fuss to many of us, that we forget those whose jobs require constantly shifting between one time zone and another. Like mariners.

The Prime Meridian, Greenwich, England

I was in London about a year and a half ago, about to cross the North Atlantic with a container ship and her crew, when I made a trek to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. I wanted to see the Prime Meridian, that demarcation line from which all the world’s time zones have been standardized. Established some 250 years ago, this imaginary frontier between east and west can still be seen painted through the windows of the Observatory and highlighted in the adjacent cobble stoned courtyard. At 1:00pm (1300 hours) each day, an aluminum ball still drops from the spire of a nearby tower so that any vessels moored within sight upon the Thames River can set their chronometer accordingly.

Second Officer Jakub Rosicki plotting course on MV Antwerpen

Of course mariners today rely far more on computers and the global positioning system of satellites to determine their longitudinal positions, but each and every commercial vessel out there still maintains a ship’s clock that is set to Greenwich Time (also known as Universal Time or Zulu Time). But any good officer can still plot a position using the chronometer, a calculator and a set of Admiralty charts – just in case the computers go down.

Another surprising item stored somewhere in a ship’s wheelhouse is a sextant, that unique device required to shoot the sun or stars. Aboard the MV Antwerpen they carried two brass models crafted in what was once the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and holding one in my hands was a delight. Like the chronometer, it’s there in case all the high tech equipment fails. And along with a library of nautical charts, mathematical indexes and operational manuals, these are the tools that make a vessel self-sufficient in navigation.

Third Officer and Cadet at chart table of MV Canmar Spirit

The skill and precision that merchant mariners use everyday makes me wish I'd paid more attention to my high school math classes. But, then again, I never did become a true seafarer. Only an observer. More thoughts soon.