“‘Here comes the Cape Horn!’ said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow-ports and hawse-hole and over the knight-heads, threatening to wash everything overboard. In the lee scuppers it was up to a man’s waist. We sprang aloft and double reefed the topsails, and furled all the other sails, and made all snug. But this would not do; the brig was laboring and straining against the head sea, and the gale was growing worse and worse….. We made up our minds to head winds and cold weather.”
~ Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, 1840
As I began to emerge from my gravidity-induced grogginess, the world felt new again. Or maybe that was just me. Second trimester evidently equated with second wind.
I almost wished I could have stayed oblivious a while longer, because the upcoming turn around the Cape had me anxious. Every squall and bank of fog felt ominous as we approached, and I reflected that there might be such a thing as too much research-reading. Our green hands didn’t really know what we were heading into, and our old hands had survived it already and treated it as something of a matter of course. I, on the other hand, had read every account I could find, and developed almost a paranoia as a consequence.
I knew our likely best-case scenario was a month or so of gale-strength winds and untamed weather, shipping seas so cold they’d be frozen if the water were fresh, pelted with sleet and accumulating snow on deck. All that with no greater relief from the cold than a hot cup of coffee.
Well, but the whale-hunt had seemed like an impossibly absurd undertaking before I saw it unfold—and these men had carried that off. Men in ships all over the Pacific were carrying that off, and carrying on around the Horn as well. Never mind that the infamous Captain Bligh and his Bounty had attempted it for a solid month without headway before turning tail and taking the route around Africa instead. Never mind that Captain Porter of the Essex had written, “our sufferings … have been so great that I would advise those bound into the Pacific, never to attempt the passage of Cape Horn, if they can get there by another route.” Never mind all the stories of horrors. Several hundred New Bedford and Nantucket whalers made the passage with regularity.
I decided I was hampered in my attitude by my twenty-first-century sensibilities and sense of what was an “acceptable” level of risk or discomfort. If it wouldn’t be attempted in my time, it went into the bucket of “impossible.” And you’d better believe this wouldn’t be attempted in my time—not without GPS and safety harnesses and motorized back-up capabilities and maybe even a chase boat. Not to mention cameras, because the feat would register as an astounding one, and its undertakers as absurdly adventurous and daring.
This business of going around the Horn had me all wound up, just like the idea of having a baby without all the support of a hospital. It made me realize how cushioned and coddled we are in the twenty-first century, how immunized and immured from risks or danger. Even things that still happen to people—like miscarriages or cancer—somehow seem to come as a shock when they do occur, as if misfortunes are the exception to “normal,” rather than equally applicable to everyone.
Can you imagine the hissy-fit an OSHA inspector would have aboard a whaleship? Or imagine how ambulance-chasing attorneys would flock to whaling ports to promise sailors “the compensation they deserve” for their injuries or suffering? Or imagine an HR department filing complaints against autocratic captains? Obadiah would laugh himself silly (a state in which I’d never seen him) if I tried to describe some of the legal contrivances that would be commonplace in a couple centuries.
And I wonder if all those “protections” have really made people any safer. Looking at these sailors clambering around the rigging—not a stunt-double in sight—I had to conclude that all the bubble-wrap hasn’t made people any stronger.
And I found a strange comfort in that. There may not be any safety nets here—literal or figurative—but I was surrounded by men who weren’t accustomed to relying on any.