Thursday, June 29, 2017

They Needed a Bigger Boat...Real Shipwrecks, Real Stories


Recently, I have embarked on a new, rather morbid fascination with nonfiction featuring shipwrecks and the stranded crew's quests for survival.  This is a departure from my usual crime spree nonfiction and my love for political nonfiction.  Shipwreck: the very word conjures up images of carnage, desperation, survival, unkempt beards, cannibalism, and the ultimate battle between the forces of nature and man.  As a society, we have romanticized the idea of a shipwreck, of the castaways stranded, and of the epic battle to get home.  There is absolutely nothing romantic about Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.  These are stories of horrible circumstances, lives in peril, the brutality of nature, the despair and hopelessness that come with the dawning realization that they are probably not going to survive.  Nevertheless... I hate to admit, these books, although stark, gritty, horrifying, and enthralling do nothing to dispel the myth of the rugged sailor making life and death decisions and prevailing over the environment.  Once immersed, the reader will realize that these are also stories of strength, grit, perseverance, hope, faith, and the discovery of what mankind's spirit is truly made of when confronted with doom.  The shipwreck, which is a momentous disaster, is just the beginning...

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick was published 2000 and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction that same year.  It traces the voyage of the Essex, a whale ship out of Nantucket that served as the inspiration for Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  The Essex was commissioned to venture into the Pacific Ocean and hunt sperm whales, a valuable source of whale oil in the 19th century.  In 1820, more than year into their voyage, a sperm whale bull attacked and sank the ship, leaving 20 men stranded on small whaling boats, adrift in the Pacific.  The tale inevitably devolves in tough decisions, bad decisions, desperation, death, and an unlikely ending. In the Heart of the Sea weaves a tale of a disaster that affected a crew, a community, and became a grave warning that resonated throughout generations of sailors: do not underestimate nature.  He is sparse with his descriptions, focusing on drawing out the action and the development of the crew members as they changed from everyday sailors to survivors.  Drawing largely from the account of Thomas Nickerson, the 14 year old cabin boy who was one of the few survivors of the ordeal, Philbrick's account of the Essex focuses less on the actual crash but more on the reactions, actions, and lack thereof from the crew.  He develops the crew based on the historical evidence, primary resources, and personal accounts recorded from the survivors; the reader witnesses crew members either rise to occasion of survival or sink abysmally into despair. What makes this book so startling is that Philbrick does not shy away from pointing out the numerous mistakes and fatal decisions made that, if done differently, would have made this shipwreck just a mere inconvenience.  However, Philbrick writes the tragedy with grace, understanding, and empathy.  It never crosses the line into the sensational; this is not a sensational story meant to illicit shock and a fascination for gore. It is to remind audiences of the ultimate cost of fighting nature and the prices sometimes paid by men who considered the seas their real home.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing was originally published in 1959.  Comprised from the diaries kept by crew members and from lengthy interviews conducted by Lansing with the elderly remaining survivors, Endurance is an intimate portrait of the ill-fated exploration voyage to Antarctica in 1914.  Unlike In the Heart of the Sea, Endurance could be considered the ultimate survival success story.  Under the helm of Captain Ernest Shackleton, the Endurance sailed to Antarctica, became trapped in ice, and was eventually crushed from the pressures of the changing ice pack flows.  This left the 28 man crew faced with surviving a landscape of nothing but ice and freezing water, not to mention the prospect of a more than 800 mile journey to inhabited land.  Eventually, 28 men were rescued. Their ordeal became the poster child for successful survival, exemplary leadership, and unbreakable teamwork under dire conditionsEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is more of a biographical account of the ordeal, rather than a typical historical nonfiction.  Lansing does not spend time discussing the circumstances in which the Endurance sailed; the story is about the ship, the wreck, and the quest for survival.  There is little speculation, interpretative insight, or later research in this book, just straight recounting of the facts. With this style and with the incredulous circumstances of the event, the narrative definitely reads more of a fiction action story than a true to life story.  However, Lansing does an excellent job in building up hope, then dashing it, then rebuilding.  The reader is constantly on the edge, wondering if the next page spells disaster or rescue for the crew.

These are two vastly different accounts of vastly different tragedies.  However, these books are well worth reading around the same time.  It is an interesting break down of how similar situations can have completely outcomes.  I could recommend reading them in the order I presented here; the technological differences and progression of communication in less than a hundred years is incredible and no doubt had some impact on the events' endings.  However, the human spirit and the basic instinct to survive has not changed much. Readers will be buoyed by the resilience of the crew members; these books, these memories of strength and courage might serve as a reminder that we are tougher than we think.

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