Wednesday, August 27th, 2014
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Open Waters

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I suppose it to be a peculiarly English thing, this intense, near-painful fondness for the ocean that surrounds us. Certainly I had always wanted to be a sailor, and as for many, it was the fine romance of an ocean life that provided the earliest motivation. My preparatory school sat by the sea, and when the nuns took us out for Saturday walks, I liked to stand on the Dorset cliff edges and gaze across the waves toward the lines of great ships far out on the horizon, all of them beating slowly to westward against the wind. The sisters—though their own familiarity with matters maritime tended to be circumscribed by Noah, his ark, and the length of a cubit—helped anneal the notion with the reading of ocean poetry. There was a lot of John Masefield. I must go down to the seas again, of course, but Quinquireme of Nineveh and Stately Spanish galleon, too, though there on the Channel coast we mostly saw those dirty British coasters with their salt-caked smokestacks, butting into the gales with their cargos of Tyne coal,/Road rails, pig lead,/Firewood, ironware, and cheap tin trays, the final three words we scallywags always yelling out cheerfully in schoolboy unison.

Later there was Rudyard Kipling, who was a little more ominous. He reminded us in particular—for these were still imperial days—how vital was the guarding of our seaways and the protection of the massive, plodding steamers that brought all the necessaries of life to our vulnerable little island. There was rationing still in the England of my youth, and the stanza quoted most frequently at school, pointedly, was the last but one:

“Then what can I do for you, all you big steamers,
Oh what can I do for your comfort and good?”
“Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food.”

I didn’t want anyone to stop bringing in the food, since there was little enough of it anyway. So perhaps I was destined to command one of Kipling’s big warships, some heavy cruiser with a name like HMS Illustrious or Invincible. In a uniform wreathed in gold braid and with a sleek beast of a warship under my command, I would go off, either to protect the sturdy merchantmen heading for the Western Approaches, or else make way into the open seas through madly violent weather, chance upon some maritime enemy and give him a jolly good biffing, to remind him who—Britannia, naturally—eternally ruled the waves.

For a while my fantasy was encouraged at the boarding school where I spent my teenage years. The staff there insisted we perform military training each week, binding us first to a year of army basics and only then allowing us to join whichever of the three services we preferred—for me it was naturally the naval cadet force. On my very first day in uniform, we found in our local port the USS Missouri, the great American battleship that Admiral Halsey had commanded and on which the Japanese surrender had been signed in Tokyo Bay in September 1945. The admiral, resident on board, invited us on the ship, showed us the sixteen-inch guns that could fire shells the heft of a Volkswagen, and then—a cunning Yankee ploy, I thought—made us holystone his decks for an hour to show us how hard a sailor’s life could be.

But I loved it; and when later we went out for week-long exercises in a pea-sized British frigate called the HMS Grafton, searching for submarines and firing projectiles called “hedgehogs” at them, and when the weather was so bad that our bow was submerged beneath mountains of cold green water, and when the bridge windscreen was shattered by an especially merciless gale, and when even the sailors’ daily rum ration had to be suspended because it was so unsafe below decks, I loved it still more.

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  • What would be the effect of oilspills and other pollutants on the health of Prochlorococcus?

    Posted by Taisho on Mon 1 Jul 2013

  • Beautiful rendering by an old familiar, winchester always delights, a week or so before the summer issue of the quarterly was upon the stands I was anticipating it simply because it was of the sea, possessed of the love within for the expanse of our oceans, the romance is ever present in the issue and in the essay extracted from said issue, just thought I'd let all know how appreciative I am of a thing done so well, many, many thanks Mr. Lapham for all you and yours do... P.Coll...

    Posted by perry collins on Mon 1 Jul 2013

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About the Author

Simon Winchester is the author of twenty-three books, including Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, Krakatoa, and, most recently, Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Spring 2012 issue, Means of Communication.

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