Saturday, July 21, 2012

Echo's Voice

When Every Thumb was a Marlinespike

The Longwinded Shantyman

A Spontaneous Song Circle.
Copyright 2012 by Cheryl Jones

     My dog Echo’s first experience with a crab was when one latched onto her upper lip after her inquisitive nose brought it within range of the crustacean’s snapping pincers. Echo’s frantic barking alerted me to her predicament. The sight of the crab bobbing with the rhythm of her baying was made even more hilarious by the repeat of Echo’s indignant yelping echoing off the cliffs bordering the opposite shore. The silly girl thought the sound was another dog, and split her attention between barking at the distant hound mocking her and the evil red rock that had reared up and bit her.

      What was a great laugh then was actually quite instructive when you stop to think about it. What if Echo’s situation had occurred during the age of sail? What if it had been fully dark out? Or foggy? What could Echo’s voice have accomplished for a mariner of old? Back then, the demise of most ships wasn’t the sea, it was the shore. A sailing instructor I once trained under was fond of saying, “Rocks are hard, water is wet, and the wind will blow where it will”. With those three truths in mind we can begin to form a picture of what the past sailors had to contend with in order to keep their vessels afloat. A traditional sailing ship didn’t have radar, or a spotlight, so what to do to pierce the gloom? Many tricks were employed, but the most common was to use echo’s voice to literally hear the distant shore.

Sonic Ranging in the Age of Sail

      In dry air, sound travels approximately one mile every five seconds. With that in mind, if a loud enough noise was created aboard a fogbound vessel that lay two miles from a rocky shore, the resulting sound waves would radiate outward, echoing off the danger ten seconds later, and then arrive back at the ship ten seconds after that. A navigator hearing an echo after twenty seconds, even if blindfolded would say, “The shore is two miles away.” But how could that sailor first produce a sound loud enough to remain audible for more than a quarter of a minute on a foggy night?

Firing blanks from the privateer Lynx's carronades.
Copyright 2012 Cheryl Jonesion

      It is an interesting historical fact that cannons and swivel guns were used for navigational sonic ranging more often than they were for hostilities. There was no need to expend shot. The gunner would fire a blank charge; just as the sail training vessels do now during mock battles. The shape of the echo would tell a great deal about the invisible object. Imagine the audible difference between a tree-lined shore, a sheer cliff, and a rugged mountain. All produce different reflections - and a sweeping shoreline produced them at different intervals. This proved a highly accurate method of gathering navigational data and is how the original charts of Puget Sound were created. If a vessel were close enough to the object of concern/interest then there was no need to expend black powder. A found object, such as a conch shell, could trumpet a cry loud enough to produce the necessary echo. In closer quarters hand clapping and even human voice were resorted to.

      In modern times I have tried all of these methods and found that they work astonishingly well. You can try it for yourself. Go from room to room in your house and in each close your eyes and clap your hands. Listen to the different size of each room - the hard, bright walls in the bathroom and kitchen, the soft quiet of the bedroom. Watch and listen intently during the next thunderstorm, or better yet, the next time you are boating close your eyes and sing a shanty. Perhaps a voice will join you from far away - echo’s voice. Perhaps that is what the sailors of old heard singing back from the rocks, and in their desperate loneliness spun the tales of the sirens. 

Mark Olson

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shanties as Oral History

The Longwinded Shantyman

Photo by Rande Gjerstad - The children still gather to listen

  My next-door-neighbor Earl is 98 years old. Earl tells a story of breaking his arm when he was a boy. He remembers that day vividly because the trip to the doctor was his very first ride in a car. Imagine that, Earl’s parents, just one generation back in time, had grown up without ever seeing cars. In that very recent past, most of the world could not afford a cart, much less a horse. It would be a banner day indeed to travel by coach. This situation must have impacted people’s world view tremendously. What truly mattered, the “scope” of our ancestor’s existence, was the distance that could be traveled in half a day, on foot - then you must turn around, if you were to safe at home by nightfall. That truth scaled the size of communities and shaped our collective mindset. A sad fact was that a good portion of the population was illiterate - what was beyond the horizon could not travel to you in the form of a book.

  In this world walked, (or rode) the travelers. Those men moving from inn to lodge, fort to garrison, carrying news, language and songs. What must have those rare bards been like to those with an experience spanning a mere 30 miles? The maps, stories, strange new words and songs they would bring would be as memorable as Earl’s first ride in that car. The traveler might have even seen a city, or a snow-topped mountain - things almost impossible to believe.

  Now, imagine a sailor coming into the village. He is not a traveler on horseback, bringing news from hundreds of leagues distant. No, this strange man is telling stories of the far side of the world. He speaks casually of people of different colors, of mountains that smoke, of salt water without end. At first you think him mad, but the elders of the village say others like him have come this way before, with similar stories, words and songs.

  And that is the crucial point: reinforcement. Everything out of his mouth is memorable and will be repeated, everywhere he goes. Your village may die out, victim of a killer plague - your whole world, its unique words, customs, and language, destroyed in a few months, but not the sailor’s. His world is everywhere. His words are sprinkled all around the globe, waiting for a parallel development to again push that term to the fore, reinforcing it yet again. Or perhaps with some expressions the continuity will never be lost and people will never stop using them, we will just forget their origins.

  I wonder if his songs will ever die? Will the tunes he ground out to pass the time while on watch stay with us over the centuries? Will there come a day when folks gather in a circle and remember the first world traveler, his words and his stories of far-away places? Maybe the leader of the circle will keep track of the time on an instrument named after those long lonely hours our first shantyman spent on deck, watching the sea and sky…

Who knows?

Mark Olson

Monday, July 9, 2012

A True(ish) Story - Harbo & Samuelsen

In Brooklyn, New York,
at the turn of the century,
Lived two young Norwegians
so brave and so bold,
Frank Samuelsen only halfway
through his twenties,
George Harbo had just become
thirty years old.

Now, Harbo had spent all his life on the water,
he shipped in square riggers while barely a lad.
His partner likewise was no stranger to workin',
No matter the task he gave all that he had.

“We'll see you in France
or we'll see you in Heaven,”
cried Harbo and Samuelsen out on the bay.
Two hardy young oystermen after adventure,
no one believed they could row all the way.

Many men had attempted to cross the Atlantic,
in small wooden boats that were driven by sail.
Those that succeeded were welcomed as heros,
but many there were who did nothing but fail.

Then a rich publisher offered a challenge
that men in a vessel no matter the size
could not make the crossin' without steam or canvas,
and ten thousand dollars he named as the prize.

Now dredgin' up oysters by hand is no picnic,
and these two young fellas were tough as a whip.
Said Frank, “If we row only four miles an hour,
in fifty-four days we could finish the trip.”

Obtaining a sponsor
they started their training;
they ordered a dory made of cedar and oak.
Just eighteen feet long
with a draft of eight inches,
and Fox was the name of their cockleshell boat.

On the sixth day of June,
eighteen-ninety and six,
Messrs. Harbo and Samuelsen started to row.
They took food and water to last until August,
and the newspapers said
they were foolish to go.

From the slip in Manhattan
they rowed through the narrows,
and out for the gulf stream and onto the deep.
Each day they would row
eighteen hours together;
each night they took turns
gettin' three hours sleep.

Well, their stove wouldn't light
so they ate cold provisions.
Their arms and their hands
became swollen and cramped.
The odd passing vessel that took 'em on board,
was their only relief from the toil and the damp.
Then out on the Grand Banks
the weather attacked 'em;
the wind humped the water
into mountainous waves. They lashed down their oars;
they tied on their lifelines
and prayed they were not going
straight to their graves.

A monstrous wave hurdled out of the darkness,
rolling over the Fox and her terrified crew.
Their lifelines held fast
but they lost half their water,
and most of their food it was swept away, too.

They carefully rationed the little remainin',
prayin' for help as they rowed through the brine.
At last a tall ship appeared on the horizon
with the colors of Norway a floating behind.

Well, the Captain could not be convinced
they weren't crazy, but he gave them supplies
and they went on their way.
By the lines on the charts
they were half-way to Europe,
and now they must row sixty miles every day.

The weather held fair,
the two men kept pulling,
all during the days, far into each night.
Then early one morning before the sun rose,
far out on the horizon they spotted a light.

On August the first they made land at St. Mary's,
off the south coast of England
close by Bishop's Rock.
In amazement the townsfolk
gathered down by the water,
where Harbo and Samuelsen barely could walk.

Most men would have stopped then
to bask in the glory,
after having been sunbeaten,
capsized and starved.
But they were both back in their boat
the next morning,
and in less than a week they arrived at Le Havre.
So all of you listening
that yearn for adventure,
like Harbo and Samuelsen so long ago.
Like them be prepared for the task you'll be facin',
they were not only brave
but by God they could row!

© Jerry Bryant - post by Mark Olson

Bryant says of his ballad: "I had to write this song (1985) because it was astounding to me that these two men had accomplished such a feat over 100 years ago and NO ONE REMEMBERED. I am amazed at the perseverance, guts and stamina it took for them to cross the ocean in an 18 foot open boat, without the benefit of freeze-dried food, GPS navigation systems, radios, flashlights, nylon, aluminium, and everything else modern adventurers take for granted. My hope is that my song will allow an awareness of Harbo and Samuelsen's achievement to reach a wide audience, and will provide an inspiration for folks to keep trying no matter what obstacles confront them."
More about George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, the first men to row across the Atlantic Ocean in 1896 without sail or steam, and the book Daring the Sea based on the original logs.

Maritime History and the Oral Tradition of Song

July’s Sea Shanty Song Circle and Sing-Along was all I had hoped it would be - and about a lifetime too short. Our shared maritime tradition is so varied and rich that there are simply not enough hours in a day to convey the nuanced history that the age of sail expresses in its oral tradition of song. Still, we sure gave it a go. Everyone present on that glorious Thursday evening laid to and heaved mightily. It was a wonderful gathering and I trust we all left a bit hoarse, but also a little more knowledgeable about the traditional maritime experience. I enjoyed especially sharing the donated local historical artifacts. Singing a line from a song is one thing, but being able to hold in your hand an object directly relating to the subject propels us into a whole new realm of understanding.

I have gladly accepted Lee’s invitation to lead the circle again in December and ask you all to start thinking now about researching contextual tidbits of your favorite song(s). Think about how to distill the data into a few quick phrases to share with everyone (if you wish and the opportunity presents itself). Just as much as I enjoyed telling you a small part of what I know of sailing lore, I loved hearing what you all had to say (and sing!)

Let’s keep it going.

Fair Winds & Following Seas,
Mark Olson

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You won't want to miss the July 5 Song Circle! Mark Olson shares why...

One and All,
A monumental moment in America's sailing history came and went with little fanfare, back in 1989. Washington State was turning 100 years old, and as we looked back at how far we had come, few noticed the many things we had lost along the way. That was the year Aberdeen launched a replica of the first vessel to carry the (then new) independent colonial flag to the west coast of what was to become the 48 contiguous United States of America. There were many problems with the replica, the most notable being (in my mind) the sad fact that during her maiden voyage the crew of the brig Lady Washington set none of her square sails, due to the simple fact that not one crew member knew how. Far across the Pacific, in the rapidly crumbling Soviet Union, their beautiful fleet of sail training tall ships had fallen into such disrepair that officers had to patrol the decks 24/7 while visiting foreign ports, in order to keep their frightened crews from jumping ship and defecting. Even as late as 1997, when the pride of the U.S. Navy, the frigate Constitution celebrated her 200th birthday, by setting sail for the first time in many decades, an embarrassed command staff had to outsource the task of training her crew to those outside the Navy, because it seemed that the greatest water-borne war machine on Earth had actually forgotten how to sail.

Fortunately our story did not end there. History had not yet truly died. It was merely slumbering in the memories, hearts, and imaginations of a scattered population. These people only needed a touchstone: the sight of sails rising up over a distant horizon - the smell of musty old pages that rustled as they were slowly leafed through - the sound of voices raised in the songs of old - to bring them together. Synergy, dreams, blood, and sweat, would do the rest. Each person held a piece of our shared past, and together they began to rebuild our history.

Yesterday is far from dead. Come take a first-hand look at a scattering of truly remarkable historical artifacts, supplied by local families, dating from the age of sail and steam. Add your strong voice and knowledge to our shanty circle and hear just how far we have come. Who knows? You might carry that missing piece, and bring us one step closer to reclaiming fully what was nearly lost.

We will see you Thursday, the 5th of July....

Mark Olson
Sing Shanties Song Circle Leader

NOTICE: Our July 5 Song Circle will not meet in the cafe as we have in the past. The new cafe, Velocity, is under new management; for the time being the cafe closes at 2:00 p.m. We will meet upstairs in the Maritime Meeting Room from 6:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m., as usual. The space is really great, but beverages and food will not be available, so you may want to bring your own non-alcoholic beverage and a snack.

Directions as follows: The Maritime Meeting Room is on the 2nd floor of the Maritime Heritage Building (yellow building). If you go up the stairs between the red and yellow buildings and look right, there are a set of double doors that lead into the building; the library is to the right. Once inside go straight on about 20 feet and the Maritime Meeting Room is on the left with restrooms to the right across the foyer.