Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea


Peter Benchley

On a rainy afternoon not long ago, I was wandering through a cemetery in a seaport town. The town had been born in the 1600s, had thriven as a center of the whaling industry until the middle of the 1800s, and had by now settled into a peaceful old age as a village sustained by summer residents and tourists.

The history of the town was etched on the cemetery's headstones. One after another, they spoke with stark simplicity of the fate of many of the townspeople.

"Lost At Sea."

"Swept Away."


One stone in particular caught my eye. It memorialized a man who had died in 1846 at the age of twenty-four. No tender poem graced the granite, no Biblical exhortation. Beneath the notation "Perished At Sea" were two words that, to me, spoke volumes:

"Welcome Home."

What struck me about those words was that they bespoke no anger, no resentment; they did not rail against death or nature or injustice.

resentment; they did not rail against death or nature or injustice. They were words of acceptance, acceptance not only of the inevitability of death but of its rightness. To me they said, in effect, "From the sea we come, on the sea we live, to the sea we must return."

But at twenty-four?

What kind of person chooses a life in which an early death is not only a risk but a probability? What leads a man or woman to leave the land and venture into a world alien and unknown--cold, fickle, forbidding, and possessed of a power beyond anything the mind can imagine?

Of course, the sea should not be alien to us, nor we to it. Biologically, we are all creatures of the sea. For the first nine months of our existence we are obligate water-breathers, and in the course of our development we pass through stages that confirm our past as animals more at home in the sea than on land.

past as animals more at home in the sea than on land. Yet, we are strangers in the ocean. Although three-quarters of our planet is covered by water, most of it is more than two miles deep, so even those of us who spend our lives in, on, and around the sea are able barely to scratch its surface.

Still we persist, many of us. There is a worldwide community of people whose lives are wed to the sea. They are almost a race apart, though they are, in fact, all races, all colors, all creeds, worshiping gods personified as everything from sunlight to fish. They are not a single society, though they share skills and attitudes and philosophies of life.

And of death.

Fatalism is almost a prerequisite of the seafaring life. "What the sea wants," goes an old British expression, "the sea will have." And, evidently, the sea wants a lot.

Consider: in the United States, which is among the world's most advanced nations in terms of technology and safety, commercial fishing is the single most dangerous profession. The death rate for commercial fishermen is 161 per 100,000 workers, compared to 13 per 100,000 for police officers, 25 per 100,000 for truck drivers and 50 per 100,000 for taxi drivers.

A list on a wall in the city hall of Gloucester, Massachusetts, records the names of some 4,000 local fishermen who have died at sea since 1874. An estimated 6,000 others perished in the 250 years prior to 1874, and the surname of nearly every fishing family in the town can be found somewhere on the wall.

Men and women go to sea; men and women die. As the captain in John McPhee's Looking For A Ship says, "Almost every hour of every day someone is getting it. Right now someone is getting it."

Fatalism, however, is not synonymous with resignation, at least not any more. It used to be that seafarers would not bother to learn how to swim, the theory being that if you went overboard you were as good as dead. Lifejackets were often scorned, for much the same reason. Nowadays, sailors and fishermen in most countries are taught to handle themselves as well in the water as upon it, and boats that don't carry safety and survival gear cannot legally leave port.

Since prehistory, people have employed protective devices--however ephemeral they may have appeared--to give them an edge against the spirits of the sea.

Vessels from Christian lands carry shrines to the Virgin Mary or to any of several saints; individual sailors wear medals or lucky charms.

Micronesians place ornaments in the bows of their canoes--they may be no more than decorated planks of wood--to ward off weather, guide them across the trackless ocean, and defend them against their enemies.

Inuit hunters sew amulets in their clothing and protect precious charms with waterproof pouches.

There are things not to do, as well, to avoid failure or calamity. Don't carry an umbrella aboard a boat; don't change the name of a vessel; don't open a hatch while at sea.

In Scotland and Ireland, don't wear clothes dyed with colors made from sea plants, for the sea will want to reclaim them.

In Newfoundland, don't keep the first fish of the day. Spit on it and throw it back, and you will be assured of good fishing.

I remember being in the Turks and Caicos Islands years ago, and finding a tiny eighteenth-century figurine amid some shipwreck debris. I wanted to bring it home, but our captain's wife, a Bermudian, insisted that I throw it overboard before we set sail. "It sank one ship," she said, "and I won't be party to its sinking another."

It may be tempting to dismiss these sensibilities as superstitious quirks, but to do so would be ignorant and foolhardy. Superstitions, like cliches, are usually grounded in basic truths or hard-won experience.

What is a seafarer? Can people from nearly every culture on the globe be bundled together by their traits or eccentricities or attitudes? No, and yes.

They have no secret handshakes; there are no universal shibboleths. But there are special skills, wonderful arcana, and languages peculiar to the sea. In English alone, countless words and phrases hatched at sea have migrated ashore into the landlubber's lexicon: "aloof," "bear down," "scuttlebutt," "skedaddle," "junk," "slush fund," "son of a gun," and "letting the cat out of the bag," to cite but a handful.

When I was a child, I hung around the docks on Nantucket, marvelling at the impossible knots tied by grizzled men with hands as hard as hammers. The knots had names redolent of far-off places and exotic practices: sheepshank, clove hitch, true lover's, Turk's head.

As I grew, and spent more time on the steel-gray waters off the Atlantic Coast and the turquoise shoals of the Great Barrier Reef and the gunmetal blue of the Bermuda deep, I came to believe that there was an element of the magician in every seafarer.

They could predict the weather by the haze in the sky or by a change in the smell of the salt air.

They could identify a school of fish by the way the water roiled.

They could locate seldom-visited spots in the open ocean, not by landmarks--for there were none--but by the contours of the bottom and the patterns of the tidal runs.

Seafarers are possessed of many other qualities as well: an ability to endure boredom, loneliness, and separation; instincts, honed by experience, that trigger instantaneous responses to sudden emergencies; loyalty to one another, coupled with faith in themselves; a fierce independence, sometimes at the expense of comfort and family. As Milt Miller says in Peter Matthiessen's Men's Lives, "Independence costs you a lot of money."

And this above all is possessed by every seafarer: a profound, abiding, unwavering respect for the sea. He or she may enjoy the sea, may profit from it, may hate it and wish to leave it, but, one and all, they know that their lives continue only at the sufferance of the sea.

No wonder, then, that they personify it as a god or demon, a friend or enemy. For, come the day when it turns upon them . . .

Welcome home.

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)