By the Book: When we must go down to the sea

05/31/2012 10:00 PM |

Probably, everybody needs to run away to sea at least once. In the first chapter of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,’ our narrator, Ishmael, explains it as “a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I have always loved the beginning of “Moby Dick” and have read it many times with delight and high expectation of continuing and finishing the whole book, but I never do. I get bogged down somewhere. I forgive myself for this. I think people are allowed to put down books that are not working for them.

I, myself, ran away to sea when I was 17, but it was on a Norwegian freighter, not a whaling ship or a four-master like the tall ships that will be in Greenport Harbor this weekend. The ship was cheaper and, I thought, more exciting than an airplane. I spent two weeks of a damp, drizzly December mostly locked in my cabin to avoid the unwanted attentions of the captain and the only other passenger aboard. I looked out at gray water meeting gray sky, saw some whales, read a lot of books and felt all the enormous feelings that 17-year-olds can feel.

Written by a 19-year-old, ‘Maiden Voyage’ by Tania Aebi is the true story of the first American woman and youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe alone. She went in 1987, in a 26-foot sloop her father offered as an alternative to a college education with the stipulation that she sail solo around the world. The maiden survived storms, collisions and loneliness and lived to tell the tale, like Joshua Slocum before her in his famous 1900 book, ‘Sailing Alone Around the World.’

Another fabulous true story is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Story of a Ship-wrecked Sailor,’ written in 1955, when Marquez was a young journalist, as a series of newspaper articles. The book’s subtitle is “who drifted on a life raft for ten days without food or water, was proclaimed a national hero, kissed by beauty queens, made rich through publicity and then spurned by the government and forgotten for all time.” Apparently the Colombian dictatorship of the time was unhappy when the sailor and the journalist contradicted the official version that there had been a storm (there hadn’t) and that the ship, a destroyer, had not been overloaded with contraband cargo (it had been). Soon there was a new dictatorship, which was also unhappy with Garcia Marquez — and vice versa.

Two other superb nonfiction accounts of going off to sea are John Moynihan’s ‘The Voyage of the Rose City’ and Harvey Oxenhorn’s ‘Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic.’ Mr. Moynihan, son of New York’s famous and beloved senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, left Wesleyan University to ship out in the Merchant Marine for a 45-day trip that turned into a four-month ordeal and learning experience. Harvey Oxenhorn sailed on The Regina Maris, a white oak barkentine built in 1908 and once a feature of the Greenport waterfront. When he signed on, Mr. Oxenhorn had romantic expectations about the voyage from Boston to Greenland to study humpback whales. A poet and an academic, he was unprepared for the rigors and discipline of shipboard life. (He must have gotten bogged down somewhere while reading “Moby Dick” or he would have had more of a clue.) Eventually, he begins to get a grip on how he fits into the little world of the crew and the big world of economic and environmental conundrums. Whales are only one part of it.

One of my favorite stories about a young person going off to sea was written by Maurice Sendak. The book is ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and the young sailor is Max, who is sent to his room without any supper for making mischief of one kind and another. Luckily “an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” He becomes king of all wild things and leads a wild rumpus, until he gets lonely and wants “to be where someone loved him best of all.” He also smells good things to eat, so he sails back “into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” This is an awesome picture book, with a sea monster (but no whales), many, many fewer words than “Moby Dick” and a much happier ending.

May all our voyages into the great unknown, including yours, dear departed Maurice, resolve themselves with such wisdom, comfort and exuberance.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.