Saturday, October 17, 2015

El Faro

Note: This program first aired October 17, 2015.

I work here in Maine, at a maritime college, a school who’s mission is to train young women and men to drive and power the thousands of ships sailing at any given moment on the ocean. Ships that transport consumer goods and bulk commodities, food and cars, oil, gas and coal, ships that carry humans from place to place, ships that ply every available waterway on the planet. It’s been a hard couple of weeks on campus, if you have been following the news, you will understand why. A ship carrying five alumni, including some very recent graduates, drove straight into the path of a major hurricane and sank. The entire crew of 33 was lost at sea.

Humans have had a relationship with the sea from the beginning of our existence. There is evidence that as we evolved in the open woodlands and grass lands of Africa, climatic shifts pushed us to spread out, and as we spread, we made it to the coast line and found the ocean. One hypothesis has it that it was the nutritional content of sea food that enabled our brains to evolve to what they are today. Evolution aside we are sea loving people. In the US over 39% of the population lives in coastal shoreline counties, over 123 million people. The numbers are similar if not higher world wide.

We have used the sea as a source of food, a medium for migration and trade, and even a spiritual well spring. Those most comfortable at sea are truly a breed apart, I see this in my students all the time. They can’t really explain it but they are happiest with the open horizon in front of them, nothing but water around them, the deck in motion under their feet. I once went to the Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland, and it was the first place I had been where I felt in a visceral way that there was enough room for my head, enough space for my mind to wander. I suspect that is what mariners feel on the sea, that and freedom. On the sea the rules of land don’t apply, until of course, they do. The sea may make you feel free and invincible, but this, like nearly every human story, is an illusion.

I am reading Moby Dick with my students this semester, and Melville captures this essence perfectly, in the chapter called Brit he writes “…by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters, though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; never the less, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.” And a few lines later it continues “Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

We developed bipedal motion to carry these big brains around, and these big brains have gotten us out of some pretty amazing situations (Apollo 13 anyone?). But its in our hearts where humility dwells, and I think we love the ocean for that reason, she is a wilderness and we set sail on her at our peril. Science and skill could not save the well trained mariners of the El Faro. Science and skill could not help the Coast Guard rescuers find the ship or crew, flying at the outer limits of possibility in nearly impossible conditions. We’ve got the equation all wrong, it isn’t our intelligence and ingenuity that is limitless, its the power of the sea.


On humans and seafood:

UN on coastal population