In 1864, responding to his friend Victor Hugo’s invitation to visit Guernsey, where the writer was living in exile, the French painter Gustave Courbet wrote, “In your sympathetic retreat I will contemplate the spectacle of your sea. The viewpoints of our mountains also offer us the limitless spectacle of immensity. The unfillable void has a calming effect. I confess, poet, I love terra firma and the orchestration of the countless herds that inhabit our mountains. The sea! The sea with its charms saddens me.
On May 2, 2011, Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette emailed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen to report on the traditional Islamic procedures that were followed in the burial of Osama bin Laden. “The deceased’s body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased’s body slid into the sea.”
“If ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness, and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The sentence ends the first paragraph of his 1912 essay “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic.”
Around noon on April 27, 1932, while aboard a steamship southeast of Florida, poet Hart Crane, intoxicated and still wearing his pajamas, jumped overboard. The ship’s captain later told Crane’s companion, Peggy Cowley, “If the propellers didn’t grind him to mincemeat, then the sharks got him immediately.”
Zheng Yi Sao, a Cantonese prostitute, married a pirate captain in 1801 and helped him build up his sea empire, so that by 1805 it consisted of four hundred junk ships operated by forty to sixty thousand pirates. In 1810 the Chinese government, rather than continue to suffer losses, offered the pirates amnesty if they were to retire. Zheng Yi Sao accepted and, according to one historian, led the remainder of her life peacefully, “so far as is consistent with the keeping of an infamous gambling house.”
“There is a dockyard at Woolwich where one hundred warships of all sizes are built yearly to replace ships lost to the enemy or which have become obsolete. Because of the high costs of armaments and machinery, the government is usually in debt and forced to borrow from the public,” observed Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, a Persian ambassador on a diplomatic visit to London in 1810.
Suetonius, a biographer of Roman emperors, claimed that the violent ruler Tiberius had a clifftop location in Capri from which he liked to watch his victims thrown into the sea. “A party of marines were stationed below,” Suetonius wrote, “and when the bodies came hurtling down, they whacked at them with oars and boathooks, to make sure that they were completely dead.”
Samuel Johnson enlisted Tobias Smollett, author of Roderick Random, to help rescue Johnson’s “Negro servant Francis Barber” from naval service—“a state of life,” as James Boswell wrote, “of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence.” Johnson once said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” At another time he claimed, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
“Ten dolphins are now being trained for special tasks in the Ukrainian state oceanarium, and the Ukrainian military are regularly training the animals for detecting things on the seabed,” a military official told a Russian newspaper in 2012. The source went on to say that some dolphins would be trained to combat enemy swimmers, using special knives or pistols affixed to their heads. The Ukrainian Defense Ministy later denied the program’s existence.
“Just opposite, an island of the sea, / There came enchantment with the shifting wind, / That did both drown and keep alive my ears,” wrote John Keats in Hyperion. It was published in a collection of poems in 1820; Keats died the following year. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley, returning from a visit to Lord Byron, drowned after his schooner, the Don Juan, capsized. His body washed up on the Tuscan shore a few days later. In his pocket was a copy of Keats’ poems.