The Call of the Running Tide (Crossing the Pond II)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
–John Masefield, Sea Fever

Mayflower ship
The Mayflower, photo at

Sitting in the bar of this giant Princess cruise ship, sipping my non-alcoholic piña colada, I’m watching outside the window as the ship rail slowly moves upward, squeezing the visible waves until the rail is level with the horizon. Then it reverses, down, down, down, until most of the window is again filled with slate blue, frosted with whitecaps. Welcome to the Atlantic swells.

We are on a TAC, as some of the veterans here call it—the TAC and the TPC—transAtlantic, transPacific crossings. We are a week at sea, to be followed by a meander up the very western coast of the European continent. Get ready to hear about the Azores, Guernsey, Bilbao, Zeebrugge, and all the spots that meet the long blue horizon. But first, we have to get there. I am thinking of the others who came before me, though at first they mostly traveled in the other direction. Like Columbus, the Pilgrims, the kidnapped Africans, and the Irish.

Decent Sailor, Incompetent Governor, Expert Colonizer

One myth about Columbus is that as he sailed out of Palazzo Muger, he saw the ships with the 40,000 Jewish exiles who had just been expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in August 1492. The timing was probably coincidental, though it conjures a great picture.

By 1492, the master sailors in Venice dominated the Mediterranean while the Portugese had a near monopoly on trade down the African coast. The Catholic monarchs, who had only recently merged Aragon and Castile to create a burgeoning Spanish empire, needed money to fund wars and expansion. It took a few years for that smooth-talking Genoese sailor Cristobal Colon to talk Ferdinand and Isabella into financing his trip, but by the fall of 1492, he was outfitting three ships. No jewel-selling was involved.

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
Sea Fever

No sailor in Europe at that time really thought the world was flat. They had maps; they were familiar with Aristotle and Ptolemy. Columbus thought the earth was round but believed it to be far smaller than it was. He was wrong about many things—where Japan was, how to govern a colony, and when best to sail, since he left at the start of hurricane season. He was both racist and petty. A lookout on the Pinta spotted land on October 12th, and captain Martin Pincon of that ship alerted Columbus with a gun salute. Later, Chris insisted he had already sighted a light on land in order to obtain the lifetime pension offered by Isabella to the first person to spot land.

As I mentioned in the last blog, two of the ships were swift, lateen-sailed caravels and one a slightly bigger carrack, all designed for travel not cargo. Note the size of some of the Chinese junk cargo ships of the era in comparison to the Nina.

Junk compared to caravella
Chinese junk compared with the Santa Maria, photo from

Luckily, the expedition hit no hurricanes, and he managed to hit the easterly trade winds going out to land in Haiti. He did take a different route back and navigated up to the westerlies to return to Spain, where he proudly displayed a handful of gold dust, a few natives who “came with him” *coff* were forced,* colorful birds, and native artificats. The artifacts made quite an impression.

Columbus back in Spain
Columbus returning to Spain, Delacroix painting at wikipedia

He must have made the most out of it as the monarchs financed three more voyages, although he was imprisoned and dismissed as governor when stories of his incompetence and widespread practice of torture filtered back home. After the last voyage, as he sickened from either years of bad food and/or sexual diseases, Columbus wrote a lengthy Book of Prophecies linking his exploration to Christian apocalypticism. Whether he was a discoverer is debatable, but he was a good colonizer.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sea Fever

Not Speeding Well A’tall

The passengers on the Mayflower also struggled with challenges, starting with a leaky ship. The Dutch cargo fluyt ship traded its cargo of herring, wine, salt, and hats for 65 passengers and crew in July 1620, picked up on the Thames before traveling to Southampton and rendezvousing with another ship, the Speedwell. The second ship carried the Leiden congregation, the separatist Puritan sect that had fled to Holland to avoid English persecution, and was financing the venture. As they prepared to travel together, the Speedwell didn’t. It sprung leaks twice and eventually was abandoned at Plymouth England, with the now 132 passengers and crew crowding on to the Mayflower.

They finally set sail in September, no longer in good sailing weather and getting worse by the day. The crossing was stormy, with enormous Atlantic waves crashing against the timber so frequently that the water fractured a support beam. Their navigation tools were still relatively primitive; they had a compass, a log and line to measure speed, and an hourglass to measure time. One boy was born in transit: Oceanus Hopkins. Conditions were primitive, with most passengers having only the size of a bed, and having to stoop below deck. But they could cook a little in groups, using an iron tray with sand in it, and could read by candlelight or play cards to pass the lengthy voyage. (I wonder if they ever played Trivia—that seems to be a favorite pastime on our ship, with contests a frequently as five times daily during the crossing—my five day progressive trivia team took a respectable third place.)

Almost 60 days later, they sighted Cape Cod and tried to head south to Virginia, where they thought they had permission to settle. But they were forced to turn back and anchor in Provincetown harbor, where they wrote and signed the famous Mayflower Compact document.

A group of 34 went ashore, poorly clad and ill-provisioned. Wet and cold in the late November weather, several died from that first night. The rest stayed on board for months as they decided how to proceed. By March, half had died from a disease that was a nasty combination of scurvy and TB. During that time, the first European child officially born in New England was christened Peregrine White. Eventually, the Leiden sect got off the ship, started “borrowing” corn from the natives, thumping Bibles, and trying to guess which among them were witches.

Brooke slave ship
Brooke’s slave ship, photo by wikipedia. org

CAPTION: Plan of lower deck with the storage of 292 slaves, 130 of these being stowed under the shelves as shewn in Figure D…by means of platforms (in the manner of galleries on a church)–caption from exhibit from Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788

In the Manner of a Galleries on a Church

Of course, at least the crossing of the Pilgrims was voluntary. Mass numbers of people crossed the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries without their consent. Conditions on the African slave ships that ran from the Ivory Coast down to the West Indies were an abomination. A whole bed’s length and a five foot ceiling would have been a luxury to them. As many as seven hundred were “stowed” on ships like the Brooke, where they were “shelved” with 2 ft 7 inch breathing room between planks, chained, and left unable to move, even to relieve themselves on the month long voyage.

The Brooke example was used to help pass some kind of regulation, where Parliament in 1788 limited the number of slaves allowed on a single ship to be 450.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
Sea Fever

Tiresome, But Better than Ballast

Today, the steamships like my 3000-person behemoth only take a week to cross the Atlantic, but even as late as the 1840s, passengers were still ferried in sailing ships in tight conditions, though nothing as extreme as the slavers. The mid 19th century saw a mass migration from one particular country of desperates: Ireland, escaping from the Great Potato Famine.

Cunard steamships existed at the time and could cross the ocean in two weeks; however, those were only for the wealthy. The rest were still on clipper ships, and those took six weeks from Liverpool to New York, four days shorter when starting from an Irish port. Cargo ship owners sold excess space for as little as ten to twenty shillings. Often, the ships had original carried guano, hides, lamp oil, or old rags and weren’t cleaned or even hosed down before taking on passengers. The owner’s attitude: “Passengers were tiresome but better than sailing in ballast.” A new “triangle trade” developed, where New Orleans sent cotton to Liverpool, Liverpool sent Irish to the northeast U.S., and New York sent coal and manufactured goods to the southern plantations.

…the emigrant had never known what it was to sleep in a bed. Give him pork & flour & you would make him sick. Let him lie on a good firm deck & eat salt herring, he would be hale & hearty.
—Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted

In 1846, mortality was high. One passenger in nine died on the vessels leaving county Cork. When storms came, the hatches would battened down for days, with not food or water provided. Water would become ankle deep in the hatch. Stephen De Vere, “a public-spirited Irish landlord,” traveled as a passenger in order to assess conditions and report back to Parliament in 1847, which eventually prompted requirements for improved conditions, with maximum passenger allotments and minimum requirements for food and water provisions. Even with the three quarts of water provided, however, it was often made drinkable only from adding vinegar.

By the end of 1847, the awful toll could be calculated from the 441 immigration ships that had made the crossing. Of 98,105 passengers (of whom 60,000 were Irish), 5293 died at sea, 8072 died at Grosse Isle and Quebec, 7,000 in and above Montreal. In total, then, at least 20,365 people perished…–from coffin.ships.html

While I know passengers occasionally get served watery coffee or very sour wine on our 21st century cruises, it is a far cry from water with vinegar in it. We get more to eat than salt herring and hard tack. And no matter how I might complain about the tiny room and cramped shower, I don’t have to stay in bed the whole time, and it’s much, much bigger than 2 ft 7 inches. Plus plenty of pineapple danish, so I don’t need to worry about scurvy.

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when then long trick’s over.
Sea Fever

How to Harness the Wind (Crossing the Pond I)

Sailing is a prime form of technological magic that we take for granted. You stick a boat in the water with a standing sheet of cloth or plastic and expect it to start zooming wherever you like. Pretty miraculous, though. Like flying, it’s not just going fast and having wings, but how the wings are shaped. In the same way, sailboats move because of how the sails are shaped, and how they’re allowed to move.

Phoenician ship
Phoenician ships ruled the Mediterranean 3000 years ago, photo by Jennie Hill

Human cultures have a lot of coastlines, so for eight millennia, those cultures learned how to navigate long distances–without computers, electricity, steam power, sextants, or even nails. The Portugese, Phoenicians, Vikings, and the Chinese all created distinct seafaring dynasties, each in their own turn. As I’m about to start a journey across the Atlantic on a boat, I decided to try to understand exactly how they did it.

If Square, Add Oars

The oldest known ship, the Pessoe canoe in the Netherlands, dates back to 8000 BC. From Easter Island to the fertile crescent to the Inuit, people have been hollowing out a tree or lashing logs together, raft-like, in order to move across the water. Many added a bit of cloth mounted on a stick to move away from the wind, plus some oar power to keep going when the wind was in the wrong direction or nonexistent.

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Free Tax Advice (Well, Not Really)

Photo from McClatchy

Sophia Loren and Spiro Agnew have it in common. Al Capone, Leona Helmsley, and Wesley Snipes are also all linked, but in a different way. And Martha Stewart and Lindsey Vonn make the list, even though their situations were completely different. What’s the common thread? Tax problems, a fitting subject for a blog five days before April 15th.

It seemed like a great time to pontificate about tax rules and hand out some free tax advice, for today is the last day I will be helping out with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. As a reminder, this program partners with the IRS and United Way to allow volunteers to file taxes for free for those whose income falls below a threshold. If your income is low, and you didn’t take advantage this year, mark your calendars next February to find out where the nearest VITA site is near you! As I tell clients, your taxes are done for free, which means you get what you pay for. Same with today’s blog. But here are a few tidbits of tax advice, both frivolous and useful.

The 861 Tax Protest Argument

Wesley Snipes tried to use what is called the “861 argument” to avoid paying taxes, which points to section 861 of the IRS code that defines income sources. Snipes and others argued that the IRS code doesn’t explicitly list all possible ways you can earn income, and therefore any income-generating activity not on the list is not taxable. Multiple tax protesters using this logic have been taken to court in the last thirty years, and none have won.

No tax protester has successfully argued that you can legally avoid paying taxes.

Snipes followed the advice of two fraudsters, Tom Clayton and Larkin Rose, who called themselves the American Rights Litigators, and then later renamed their group the Guiding Light of God Ministries. Much later, they were renamed federal prison inmates # 357-551 and #AX7-832. Not only did Snipes refuse to pay millions owed for money made as a film star, but he attempted to amend previous year filings and request millions in refunds. At one point after he was indicted for tax evasion, he tried to enter South Africa on a false passport. (He also wanted his trial venue to be moved out of Florida because Ocala is racist. The judge disagreed.)

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J.S. Bach: Sewing Machine or New Age Streamer?

Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!

CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe

Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?

Argumentative, industrious, myopic Herr Bach, photo at

Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.

The Industriousness of Bach

Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.

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Courage is a Muscle

What doesn’t kill us make us stronger

–old adage sung recently by Kelly Clarkson
Wrestling kids from movie Fighting with  my Family
Wrestling teenagers from Fighting with My Family, photo at Rolling Stone

There’s a temptation with sports movies to call them derivative, Rocky knock-offs, as if Rocky invented the concept of striving, training, working past obstacles, and succeeding. All good sports stories—and today’s blog is about two of them—reflect life, which is striving, working past obstacles, building courage, and succeeding. Then struggling again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The key element to well-made movies about athletics isn’t just about the success at the end, but about the development of character by the participants along the way. How they get there is really the story. Two films I recently watched, 2011’s Best Documentary Undefeated and the recently-released Fighting With My Family, both did an exceptional job of demonstrating how this works.

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