This is a transcription of Episode 6 — The Sea: Tall Tales and Big Adventures.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe. one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us. [music].
David: Welcome to season one, episode six of Strong Sense of Placee. Today is all about the sea. We’re going to recommend five books we love with a vivid sense of the sea and then we’re going to talk to my friend B.J. Porter, who spent the last eight years of his life sailing halfway around the world with his family. I feel like there’s nothing that guy can’t do now.
David: He took his family, including two adolescent children, in a boat around the world.
Melissa: I mean, that’s pretty awesome.
Melissa: Are they all spies or action heroes or something?
David: I don’t know.
Melissa: Maybe we’ll find out later.
David: So, the sea is just a huge metaphor. It is a metaphor for everything that’s important to us. It’s a metaphor for adventure and creativity and love and all of that. It’s vast and amazing and dangerous and mysterious. And we’re going to talk about all that today.
David: Let’s get started with the 101 one on the sea.
Melissa: Okay. So as usual I nerded out on words, and I got curious about what the difference is between the ocean and the sea. Because I feel like in everyday language we kind of use those interchangeably. But they are not the same thing. Do you know what the difference is between the ocean and the sea?
David: I feel like the sea has more adventure to it, and when I’m talking about the ocean, I’m talking like orang a specific ocean.
Melissa: Okay. Would it surprise you to know that that is not the definition of the sea and the ocean? [laughter]
David: A little bit.
Melissa: Okay. Here we go. Seas are smaller than oceans and are usually located where the land and ocean meet.
David: So really the ocean is more adventurous than the sea cause it’s bigger.
Melissa: And often seas are partially enclosed by land. If we want to get really technical, some geographers say that two things that we call the sea — the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea… some geographers say that those are lakes because they are completely landlocked, but they’re filled with saltwater.
David: Also, the Dead Lake doesn’t really have the same vibe.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s less romantic. So as usual, vocabulary is both specific and a little confusing, which is one of my favorite things. And we named this episode The Sea because it sounds romantic, not because we are using the technical definition of the sea. Moving on to oceans, there are five oceans on planet Earth, Dave. Ccan you name them?
David: I am ashamed to admit that I cannot name the five oceans.
Melissa: I mean to be fair, I did forget one of them when I was testing myself. So here we go. Pacific Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern.
Melissa: Southern Ocean. Oh, okay. Do you know how many seas there are? I’m going to guess you don’t because no one does. There is disagreement about how many sea there are. National Geographic says that there are 50.
David: So if there are 50 seas, why does everybody say the seven seas?
Melissa: So it’s an ancient phrase that was originally used to describe all of the world’s oceans. So again, diving into the murky waters of vocabulary of sea and ocean. It first appeared around 2300 BC in a poem by a poet named Enheduanna. She was Sumerian. Sumeria was part of Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq. She was a high priestess of the goddess Inanna who was associated with love and beauty, sex, and also war justice and political power.
Melissa: So basically all the really good stuff.
David: All the important things. Yeah.
Melissa: So Enheduanna wrote a series of hymns in honor of Inana and inone of them, she used the phrase ‘the seven seas.’ If you remember nothing else from this spiel on an Enheduanna remember this.
Melissa: She is the earliest poet whose name we know, so she is the first female poet ever.
David: She’s the first poet. Thanks for getting that started. That was really important.
Melissa: It was really important. I also really love that it was inspired by the goddess of love, beauty, sex, war, justice, and political power. Boom.
David: I mean that is quite a business card. [laughter]
Melissa: Okay, so now we’re going to fast forward through time a little bit. Different cultures have used the phrase ‘the seven seas’ to describe different things. The ancient Romans used it to describe the waters of the Adriatic. And Arabs used it to talk about trading routes East to China.
Melissa: So everybody is kind of throwing these words around to describe what they perceive to be the most important bodies of water. There’s a really beautiful passage from a ninth century historian named Ya’qubi.
Melissa: I had to do a lot of pronunciation practice for this episode. … Ya’qubi… and his description is both poetic and kind of a map. So I’m going to read a little snippet. The whole thing is amazing. I’ll put a link into the show notes so everyone can read it.
Whoever wants to go to China must cross seven seas, each one with its own color and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it. The first of them is the Sea of Fars, which men sail setting out from Siraf… it is a strait where pearls are fished.
Melissa: And it goes on and on to talk about islands and Kings and a sea that can only be sailed by the stars and the danger of serpents that ride the wind and smash ships. It’s a whole thing. It is amazing.
David: Do we know if this was his attempt to actually tell you how to get to a place or was this sort of a fictional?
Melissa: He was historian.
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: So it was fairly accurate.
David: All right.
Melissa: As far as poetry can be accurate…. Let’s talk about pirates. The earliest documented pirates were plundering other ships around 1400 BC.
Melissa: And then when the Greeks came along, they actually gave piracy their blessing as a legit profession.
Melissa: The pirates we know with fancy velvet coats and bottles of rum and a parrot on their shoulder didn’t come along until the golden age of piracy, which was around 1650s through the 1730s. I’m going to be talking about a really good pirate story when we talk about books today.
Melissa: One more tidbit before we move on. According to some estimates, there have been about 3 million shipwrecks over the centuries, and that means that the ocean contains more historical artifacts than all of the world’s museums combined.
David: That’s unexpected.
Melissa: Unexpected. So there are countless treasures sitting at the bottom of the ocean and all you need is a map with a big X on it and you can find them. [laughter]
Melissa: Pop quiz! Can you name the five oceans?
David: Atlantic, Pacific, Southern, Arctic, Indian.
Melissa: Boom! Well done. You learned something today, David.
David: Look at that! I also want to throw in that when I was doing my research for the ‘two truths and a lie’ that’ll be coming up shortly, that anyone who’s listening to this podcast is probably hearing it after it went under the ocean.
David: Yeah. So for the past few decades, according to the Asia Pacific Economic Corporation, submarine cables buried deep within the oceans have carried more than 97% of Intercontinental data traffic.
Melissa: Intercontinental data traffic.
David: Yeah. It just goes right under the sea. So hello all of you fish… [laughter]
Melissa: … and there’s a mermaid.
Melissa: And a giant clam. [laughter]
Melissa: [singing] Rock Lobster. Oh, you should totally put ‘Rock Lobster’ in there.
David: Yeah. That won’t get us sued or anything. That’s a good idea. [laugher]
David: Okay. Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
Melissa: Aye, captain!
David: I am going to say… I kind of want to roll my Rs on all of these lies now. Yeah, I’m going to say two truths and one lie. Mel does not know what the truth is. So I want to say before we get started that I am not super proud of this lie. It’s a little hidden, but I think you can get there.
David: Okay. Statement one. Once a rubber duck was dropped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and years later it was found on a beach in Scotland.
David: Statement two: two thirds of all marine life is unidentified.
Melissa: That is super creepy if that’s true, man.
David: And statement three: In the early 1900s, Greek sponge divers found an ancient clockwork computer at the bottom of the sea.
Melissa: Darn it. They all sound crazy enough to be true. You’ve done it again. Okay. Rubber ducky… clockwork at the bottom… Oh, the animals thing.
David: Two thirds of all Marine life is unidentified.
Melissa: I think that that is true. I think it’s true that there are a lot of creatures in the ocean that we don’t know about. I think it’s true.
David: That one’s a lie. And here’s why. And this is why I’m not particularly proud of this lie. So in 2013 Buzzfeed did an article, wrote an article called ‘16 Things No One Knows About The Ocean,’ and that was the first thing. Two-thirds of all marine life is unidentified. And then a writer for Discover magazine, Christine Wilcox, read that article and wrote a rebuttal called ‘16 Things Buzzfeed Doesn’t Know About the Ocean.’
Melissa: Get it, Christine.
David: Yeah, and it’s a great article, and we’ll link to it. Part of that article, her rebuttal was this: We’ve identified around a quarter of a million marine species. Once you removed the duplicates, which is a whole other issue. And this is SOME of the species in the ocean. See the trouble with saying ‘two-thirds of all marine life remains unidentified’ is that it implies we know how much marine life there is.
David: Yeah. We don’t actually know how many species we haven’t identified in until we identify them. Current estimates are mathematical models based on species discovery rates and leading taxonomic experts with some statistical hand-waving to produce a number.
Melissa: Taxonomic experts! There are so many fun phrases in this podcast so far.
David: But she goes on to say that there’s an extraordinary amount of life in the sea that we have yet to identify and not all of it is tiny. And in fact, as of the writing of the article there had been a new species of shark, skate, or ray discovered every two weeks for the last decade.
Melissa: Wow. I was going to ask if some of it is, you know, little tiny sea worms. But it’s actual sharks and stuff.
David: Yup. And the closer you get to the bottom of the sea, the weirder it gets.
Melissa: Go, animals! Way better than people. Even the animals that have weird headlights and live in the bottom of the ocean.
Melissa: Okay. Tell me about the rubber ducky.
David: Okay. The rubber duck: In 1992, a cargo ship container tumbled into the North Pacific dumping 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys that were headed from China to the U.S.
Melissa: I hope there’s a picture of that!
David: Currents took them, and news reports said some of them eventually reached Maine and other shores on the Atlantic and South Africa and Australia. They just took off.
Melissa: Those poor little ducks thought they were going to a bathtub and then end up in the open ocean. [laughing]. This is not what I signed up for.
David: Please help. There’s a book about it called Moby Duck [laughter]
David: Yeah, Moby duck, The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists & Fools Including the Author Who Went in Search of Them. Which leaves us with: ‘In the early 1900s, Greek sponge divers found an ancient clockwork computer at the bottom of the sea.’ And that is true.
Melissa: And when was the computer built?
David: It was a mechanism built around 200 BC.
David: Yeah, BCE. It showed the sun position, the moon position, and phases. It predicted eclipses. It looks like the clock my grandparents used to have on top of the television. It’s got 30 little gears and it’s said to be easily one of the most advanced technological artifacts of the pre-Christian period. It’s regarded as the first known analog computer. You can make precise calculations based on astronomical and mathematical principles developed by the Greeks. We don’t know anything about who built it or why or what it was doing in the sea or why anybody would transport it on the ocean. It’s called the Antikythera mechanism. There’s a YouTube video about it. We’ll link to that. According to researchers, the most plausible story behind the mechanism is that it was used to teach astronomy. I have so much respect and so many questions about the guy or the team that built that thing and then put it on the sea and lost it. Oh.
Melissa: Maybe they got angry one day and threw it over the side of the ship in a temper tantrum.
Melissa: Possibly. What if he was traveling with it and went to the bottom of the sea himself?
Melissa: Way to make it sad, Dave. [laughter]
David: Okay. That’s two truths and a lie. Now we’re going to talk about five books we love to set on the sea. Mel, what’s your first book?
Melissa: I’m starting with Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. I knew I wanted to read a book about pirates. And I considered Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. But then I found a book with a lady pirate. And her name is mad Hannah Mabbot. And her ship is called The Flying Rose.
Melissa: And my heart was stolen immediately.
David: She made off with your heart like a pirate does. [laughter]
Melissa: Exactly. So it’s 1819 and Mad Hannah Mabbot has kidnapped a famous chef. He is actually called the Caesar of Sauces. And she tells him that she will not kill him if he makes her areally delicious, exquisite meal every Sunday and eats with her.
Melissa: So it’s a little bit like the story of Sheherazad with the roles flipped and pirates and gourmet food. The story is told through the chef’s diaries. So we’re getting things from his perspective, and he is a big whiny baby.
Melissa: I mean I don’t want to be rude ‘cause he was kidnapped by pirates, which is pretty harsh. But in the beginning, part of me, I was thinking, you know, ‘Come on, dude! Man up. You got kidnapped by pirates. This could be a big opportunity. This could be fun.’
Melissa: Yeah, he’s a little scared, which you would be. But then he has several near death experiences, including almost drowning twice and getting shot.
Melissa: And through the course of these really perilous circumstances, he finds his courage. So about a third of the way through the book, you are on-board with the chef.
Melissa: One of the things I really loved is that it has 19th century style chapter headings.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: So Chapter One: Dinner guests in which I am kidnapped by pirates. Chapter 19: The culinary uses of a cannon ball in which trust is betrayed. He describes the crew as ‘a traveling circus’ because they are all sizes and shapes and hues. They have bullrings through their noses and tattoos, turbans. They’ve got gold thread braided in their hair. There’s a giant named Mr. Apples who loves to knit.
Melissa: I really loved Mr. Apples.
David: Sure! How could you not love Mr. Apples.
Melissa: And there’s a deaf deckhand who becomes a kitchen boy. So the chef who has been ripped away from his regular life starts to enjoy being aboard the ship, and he gets really, really creative with very limited supplies that he has to make these gourmet meals.
Melissa: There’s this really cool passage where he makes sourdough bread starter by scraping yeast off of old raisins and mixing it with coconut water, and then he puts it in a little tin box and straps it to his waist underneath his clothes so that it stays warm and the yeast can grow
David: Is that a thing?
Melissa: That is a thing.
David: [laughing] Wow.
Melissa: So over the course of eating these delicious Sunday meals together, the chef and Mad Hannah grow — I’m not going to say friends because that’s giving them a little too much credit in the beginning — but they have kind of an alliance, and she feels a lot more comfortable talking to him because she’s very educated.
Melissa: She’s very sophisticated and refined even though she’s a pirate and because she’s the captain and she’s a woman, she can’t really socialize with the rest of the crew. She has to remain separate from them. So she really looks forward to these meals with the chef, and she really likes eating good food. She is totally awesome. She’s of course very brave and saucy as you would expect, but she’s also always impeccably dressed, and she’s also really brutal. As a woman leading a crew of men, she can’t really show vulnerability, right> There’s this one scene where… she does not allow her crew to do drugs. She is very firmly anti-opium, which was not really a common stance in the early 1800s.
Melissa: The opium trade was boomin’.
Melissa: And she finds out that one of her crew has been using opium, and she gets one of the otherpirates to flay, his cheeks open with a knife.
Melissa: Yes. So the story has some really sweet parts where there’s like, ‘We’re in the kitchen making food. It’s so much fun.’ And then there’s, you know, getting your face cut open by a fellow crew member. Pirates.
Melissa: So one of the things that I was thinking when I was reading it is that it was just for the first, I don’t know, two-thirds of the book, it was just straight-up rip-roarin’pirate story. It was really fun, but I wasn’t, you know, super emotionally invested. Mmm. Tolkien lovers, please do not get mad at me. But I had the same experience when I read The Hobbit where it’s really fun, but it was all kind of happening in my head. I wasn’t really invested in the story with my heart.
Melissa: Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s still a fun read.
Melissa: But then about two thirds of the way through the book Stuff Happened, and it transformed into being about family and justice and loyalty.
David: Oh… that’s nice.
Melissa: And I had so many feelings and then the ending was perfect. Oh, the ending landed so beautifully, and I cried a little bit.
David: Aw, that’s nice.
Melissa: Which I hardly ever do when I’m reading. Even when I’m very invested in the characters, I am not usually moved to tears even when sad things happen and I was genuinely moved. It was great. So it’s really, really fun. And also very moving and strong, strong sense of the sea. You are on that pirate ship.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: That is Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown.
Melissa: Team Mad Hannah Forever!
David: Yes. Also. Mr. Apples.
Melissa: Mr apples.
David: Okay. My first book is Moby Dick.
David: by Herman Melville.
Melissa: And everyone just turned off the podcast. [laughing] Where is my fast forward button?
David: So — and I wanted to talk about this because I wanted to talk about two things. One, the actual act of reading Moby Dick and two: Moby Dick as a book. And before I get into this, I want to talk a little bit about my reading life. So when I was a young kid, I was a huge reader. My mom was a librarian. My dad called himself the best educated cab driver in Cincinnati, and we would hit a library pretty hard, right? And I read a lot and then when I got to be a teenager, things took a turn, and I was going through some troubles, and I was an adolescent, and I had an overly-complex relationship with my school and I distanced myself from reading fiction and particularly the classics. And honestly the teachers were putting books in my hand that I’m not sure what ever appealed to any version of me.
David: Things like to The Lighthouse and _A Separate Peace.’ And I kept reading. But the stuff that I was reading was science fiction and nonfiction, that kind of thing. And I got very good at not reading the assigned reading.
Melissa: Well, and you and I have talked about this before. I think both of us were pretty adept at listening to what people were saying in class and then acing the tests without reading the books.
David: I was not acing the tests; I was doing okay. But still I could get through.
Melissa: You could fake it.
David: Yeah. I could pass. And literary fiction in particular was not a thing that I was… I don’t know… it just got distant to me. And I particularly remember teachers talking about similes and metaphors and themes and foreshadowing and all of that. The mechanisms of literature and being turned off by that.
Melissa: Well those are things that are supposed to be invisible when you’re reading. They should, you know, they’re creating the experience but you don’t want to be highlighting them when you’re reading them.
David: Yeah. I had this rough relationship between me and literary fiction until I think I was in my mid-thirties and I got out of it because I joined a book club and they wanted to read fiction and I was ready for that. So let’s do that. And that was a really great book club. Later we named the book club Book Church. Not because we were particularly religious, but because we realized that you could find enlightenment in a book. And that was nice to get together and share your experience with regards to a book. And if any of you guys are listening, Hi! and I hope you’re doing well and I miss you. One of the members of that group formed his second book club and that book club was called Required Reading Revisited. And the idea was that we would go back and read this stuff that they read in high school and I was supposed to read in high school and the 13-year-old version of me was like, ‘Ugh.’ And the 40-year-old version of me was like, ‘Yeah, okay. Let’s give it a shot now.’ So I know there’s a whole bunch of people who are to us now who are already on the classics train, right? Classics are classics, duh.
Melissa: Very eloquently put. I felt that. [laughing]
David: But I also suspect that there are some people who are more like me and a little skeptical of reading a classic, and I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you that some of the classics that I’ve read have been fantastic for me. And age makes a huge difference. I wasn’t ready to read The Great Gatsby when it was assigned when I was 13, and I don’t think anybody really is but when I was 40, the message of longing and failing and the trials that the American dream rang way more clearly. I could hear it. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the classics and particularly in regards to a book club because they have something to say. I’ve been in, but clubs where we read a murder mystery and you get together and other than, ‘Wow, that was cool.’
Melissa: There’s not a lot to discuss, necessarily.
David: But the classics are classics for a reason. They offer depth and issues and substance, and talking to somebody else about a book, it might change your mind about the book itself and it will also allow you to get to know other people better because you’re talking about things that matter. So Moby Dick. I read Moby Dick as part of that group and I was dreading it.
Melissa: It’s a big doorstopper.
David: It is 700 page trip to sea.
Melissa: I mean, that sounds right up my alley, but I know that not everyone loves a book that takes two or three weeks to read.
David: Yeah, it’s and it’s a tough voyage. It is. You will know how to crew an 1800s whaling ship when you are done reading this book. There is a lot of detail. There is a lot of the sort of — the classic read on this book is that it’s about Ahab’s obsession with the whale and it is, but you spend a lot of time hanging around on the ship and watching men do their work and getting the feel of what it was like to do just the back-breaking dangerous work of whaling in the 1800s. It’s weirdly put together. You start with a strong narrator, but then he kind of vanishes for awhile and there are bits of songs and epic poetry and soliloquies, there’s a sermon in this thing. There’s a chunk of what seems to be a history book. It’s a lot, but when you finish reading that book, you feel like you have had that experience. Like, you’re soggy from being on the sea.
Melissa: Every time I hear you talk about reading Moby Dick, I walk away from the conversation determined to pick up Moby Dick and start reading it. I love how much you love this book.
David: Yeah, and you know, part of it was my experience. Part of it was the time. So I do want to say two reading notes about this book. First, I read this book with Spark Notes in hand, and I have no shame about this and I don’t think anybody else should either. It allowed me to make sure I was getting what scholars think I should be getting out of the book. You might buy a guide if you’re going to Italy to see stuff that’s important to you, and you might buy a guide if you’re going to read a classic. It is the same thing.
Melissa: 100% agree. Part of the reason that I fell so madly in love with Jane Eyre is that I’d read it the first time when I was a teenager because my friend Renee gave it to me and I liked it fine. I was really attracted to the romance part of the story. But then later I re-read a Norton annotated copy that had so many footnotes that explain vocabulary and what was happening in society at the time and provided so much more context. And I think your analogy of having a tour guide is 100% apt because sometimes you need a guide through something that was written 200 years ago.
Melissa: Completely different context.
David: 200 years ago for an audience that had the general knowledge of the time.
Melissa: And didn’t have a lot of other distractions, so sitting down to 700 pages was a nice way to fill the time.
David: So second reading note. The beginning of Moby Dick. Moby-Dick starts with…
Melissa: ‘Call me Ishmael.’
David: Yes. Famous line. ‘Call me Ishmael.’ I think people read it with that tone [says it in a very straight-forward tone] ‘Call me Ishmael.’ And that does a disservice. That opening paragraph is one of my favorite things maybe I’ve ever read and it’s because I read through the first page and a half and then I realized that Melville wanted this to be read with something like the voice of Tom waits.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: He’s not going to lie to you, but he might hide the truth.
Melissa: He’s spinning a yarn.
David: He’s spinning a yarn. And so here is — I’ll read you the first paragraph, the first little bit of the paragraph.
[sounds of the ocean under the words - David reads in a gravelly voice]
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Melissa: That was fantastic. I kind of want you to read me the entire book.
David: I wish the whole book was written with that narrator. He kind of disappears after awhile.
Melissa: Does he come back?
David: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You periodically get to see him.
Melissa: I feel like that was a pretty good sales pitch on Moby Dick.
David: I think it’s a great read. But more importantly I would recommend finding your friend or two and reading some classics and talking about them, particularly classics that you’re a little daunted by. Get a friend and maybe some Spark Notes, and roll up your sleeves and do it. And that’s Moby Dick by Herman Melville. What’s your next book>
Melissa: For my second book, I’ve chosen Dark Voyage by Alan Furst because I really wanted to pick a novel that captures the kind of paranoia and claustrophobia of being on a ship with strangers.
Melissa: I chose Alann Furst because he writes World War II spy thrillers. Have you read any of Alan Furst books?
David: I haven’t and I keep meaning to?
Melissa: So The New York Times called him ‘America’s preeminent spy novelist,’ and he’s compared quite often to British authors like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. There’s a lot of focus on the minutia of spy craft. But the reason I really like them is because all of his novels have heroes and heroines that are regular people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. We know this is one of my favorite things about novels. Give me a dicey situation with someone who is not used to it, and let’s see what happens.
__Melissa:__So business people or journalists or actors are generally recruited by somebody to work in the underground or do this one simple mission. And then before they know it, they’re up to their eyeballs in dangerous circumstances. Love it.
Melissa: So this one is set on a ship in May, 1941, so pretty early in World War II and the ship is a tramp freighter. I didn’t know what that was.
Melissa: So for everyone else who’s not up on their ship terminology, a tram freighter is a ship that does not have a fixed schedule or fixed ports of call, which means it just goes wherever the cargo it’s carrying dictates.
Melissa: So it’s kind of like a mercenary soldier.
David: Tramps like us.
Melissa: So in real life, during World War II, the British lost almost 1600 ships to mines and attacks and other sea disasters in just two years, between 1939 and 1941. 1600 ships. So they started conscripting civilian boats to help them carry out missions. And in this book, we get the fictional story of the ship called the Noordendam, which was drafted into service. And it’s captain is Eric DeHaan.
Melissa: He is just a sea captain. He is not a master spy. And he’s your classic good man in bad circumstances. I loved him. He loves to read. They are vivid descriptions of his room on the ship and how he is specially-built bookshelves for his books and his records and his record player and he loves the ocean. He’s kind of a quiet, thoughtful, pensive man. And now he’s caught up in the war. At the beginning of the story when he’s recruited, he’s asked about his political affiliation and he says, ‘I believe in kindness and compassion. We don’t have a party.’ So right there I was like, ‘I love you, Captain DeHaan.’
Melissa: He does get a real love interest in the book. A Soviet journalist who is on the run from her Soviet masters, and the story rather than following one plot line from beginning to end is kind of episodic. So they go on different missions, and you find out what happens in each of these mini missions. And then there is one overarching thread of basically what is happening to Captain DeHaan now that he is basically behaving as a spy. His crew also gets recruited without really realizing it. These are guys who are used to hauling crates around and now they’re being fired on. They’re being chased by recon planes. They sail through a minefield. The description of sailing through the minefield, like, just now talking about it, my palms got a little sweaty. It was amazing. The detail is so precise. Alan Furst is really good at giving these very precise details that kind of transport you right there.
Melissa: And I chose this for Strong Sense of Place because it has a very romantic perspective on the ocean and the life of a sailor. And then it’s juxtaposing that with this super-intense, very suspenseful World War II is basically exploding all around everyone. In addition to the action plot, there’s also this really sweet kind of breathless wartime romance. Because of course anytime you throw people together during the war and they don’t know what their future’s gonna hold. The journalist, the woman actually says, ‘It’s better to do what you want and then what will happen, will happen.’ which is both sad and sweet because I think she says it right before they kiss for the first time. And there are some really nice moments among the crew. One night they throw a sheet up on the deck and they watch a bootleg copy of the Busby Berkeley film Footlight Parade, and it just kind of broke my heart a little bit to think about these men who are literally fighting for their lives, but then also find a moment to relax a little bit and joke and have fun even though, literally, that could be their last night.
Melissa: One more thing I want to say about _Dark Voyage is that the ship pulls into numerous ports throughout the course of the story. And Alan Furst does a really nice job of differentiating those cities from each other. When the captain is recruited, he is in Tangier and you get such a sense of what Tangier was like. After World War I, it was divided among nine different countries, so it became a place where there were a lot of spies, but it was also perceived as very glamorous, so there were a lot of movie stars. So Tangier has this whole glamorous, dangerous vibe about it and the captain is recruited in Tangier and, like, you feel all of that. And when they’re sailing they carry commandos to Tunisia and they take some explosives to Crete and you really get a sense of what these different port cities are like. So in addition to feeling like you’re on the sea, you also get to experience a little bit of what it’s like to pull into port and see what the wharf area is like and what the weather is like. So if it wasn’t for the fact that there were bombs exploding everywhere, it would be a really glamorous trip.
David: Yes. That’s the problem with World War II romance.
Melissa: Yeah, the kissing is interrupted by explosions. This was a great book. I feel like it helped me understand what it would feel like to be on a ship in World War II, and it also really beautifully captures the love of the ocean and the breeze and why someone would devote their lives to sailing on a ship.That is Dark Voyage by Alan Furst.
David: That sounds great. My next book is Into the Storm: Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival by Tristram Korten. It’s about a hurricane that hit the Bahamas in 2015 called Hurricane Joaquin. It sunk two ships. One was a massive cargo vessel called the El Faro and the other one was called the Minouche, a smaller ship. Everyone on the El Faro, 33 men and women, were lost at sea, and everyone on the Minouche survived. The wreck of the El Faro was one of the worst U.S. maritime disasters in the last 40 years. There were a lot of factors, but a lot of it had to do with the arrogance of the captain.
Melissa: Mmm… shades of the Titanic.
David: A little bit. Tristram Korten, the author, does a remarkable job of telling these two stories in parallel. And he starts out… there’s sort of a three-act structure where you get to know everybody in the first act —
Melissa: So that later you can have your heart ripped out when they don’t survive.
David: Yes. Exactly that.
Melissa: Some good writing, though. Isn’t that what we went from our stories? To get to know people and then maybe have our hearts ripped out a little bit.
David: It’s a little weird when they’re real people.
Melissa: It is weird when they’re real people. It’s kind of like that when you’re reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, too. He introduces you to the people and then some of them don’t make it.
David: Yeah. And that’s what happens here too. The third act of the book is about what happened after, which involves some finger pointing and some corporate machinations. And also the media coverage because the El Faro was widely covered and the Minouche, was barely at an afterthought.
David: It was hard to find information on the Minouche and what happened. The author of this book Korten interviewed everybody — went through thousands and thousands of pages of reports. It’s a remarkable document of what happened and it turned out well. It’s a page-turner. The event that stayed with me most in the book is there is the focus for awhile on a US Coast Guard team, a helicopter and a rescue swimmer who go out to get everybody off the Minouche and the idea of getting in a helicopter in a hurricane going out in the middle of the night to a place where people are in a, like, an inflatable raft.
David: And diving into the water and, one at a time, getting those men back to the helicopter . And there’s two rounds, right? They fill the helicopter once, they fly back, they come back again — and you meet that guy.
Melissa: Wow. That’s so cool. And what is going through your mind when you’re about to do any step in that process?
David: Exactly, right? And you meet both of those guys in the very beginning of the book when they’re kind of having their life and talking about shows and stuff that you and I are both like, yeah. And that’s a common life.
Melissa: When they go from the helicopter out to the ocean and they are going to rescue the people from the raft. Do they jump into the water from the helicopter?
Melissa: And it’s pitch black out?
Melissa: And it’s windy. And raining.
David: It’s not pitch black. There’s a, there’s a third guy on the helicopter who’s got a light.
Melissa: Okay. So you’re in a little cone of light.
David: You’re in a little cone of light.
Melissa: And you’re rescuing people who are really scared.
David: And the water is very turbulent. And many of the guys on the raft didn’t speak English. So there’s a time when he’s trying to comfort them and tell them everything’s gonna be okay. And he’s very aware that they don’t, they’re not getting that message. And the time when he leaves.
Melissa: Oh my gosh.Because the helicopter is full and they have to come back for a second trip? Oh, that would be terrible.
David: Yes. Yeah. And that is just one part of one part of one scene in this book.
Melissa: So is the experience of reading this book all harrowing or is there some up-ticks towards the end? She asked, hopefully.
Melissa: I mean, it is kind of there in the title. It’s a sea disaster.
David: It’s a sea disaster story. Bad things happen. You hear about how bad it was, which if you have any empathy at all is horrific. There is tape of, for instance, the crew of the El Faro talking to each other, right when the ship is going down and he, the author transcribes some of that into the book. It’s not the kind of thing where you’re looking for a happy ending. There isn’t really a happy ending for the El Faro, the crew of the El Faro. It’s a tough read in that in that way.
Melissa: I mean it does sound fascinating.
David: Yeah. It is that, and you get the full experience. I found it a really fascinating read. This book really shows the power of the sea and the ocean and nature and how if you bring hubris to that situation, you’re in danger.
David: Even with all of our modern resources, even with satellite and modern manufacturing and all of that stuff, we still have few defenses.
Melissa: Yeah. Mother nature is in charge. Even though we like to think we are.
David: Yeah. But it also gives you a sense of the people who work at sea now and what their lives are like. I thought that was really fascinating. That is _Into the Storm by Tristram Korten.
Melissa: For my last book, I really wanted a novel that would explore being on a luxury cruise ship. Because confession time: I watched the Love Boat every Saturday night when I was growing up. [laughter] You had the Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I was into it.
Melissa: And another confession: When I am in a reading slump or need a comfort read, sometimes I read a Jessica Fletcher mystery, which is based on the TV show Murder, She Wrote.
David: Right. Solid literature.
Melissa: It’s like potato chips, but it’s not even Lays potato chips. It’s the knock-off Lays potato chips.
David: The grocery-store brand.
Melissa: And I say that with all affection in my heart because I have read these books, so I am both mocking them and saying that I love them. Murder, She Wrote is also a wonderful television show. And I’m telling you all of this because there is a Jessica Fletcher mystery set on the QE2.
David: Is that what you read for our fifth book?
Melissa: I did read that book. I am not talking about it on this podcast. But it made me crave a good book set on a cruise ship.
Melissa: And that’s what I’m about to talk about now. This book is called The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen. So David and I read this book together because we were on a road trip in the United States. We were driving from Pennsylvania to upstate New York and we stopped into a bookstore as one does.
Melissa: And I saw this book on one of the display tables at the front of the shop and read, I think, two sentences of the flap copy and just stopped because I really love stories set in enclosed places and this has a little bit of, it’s not really a mystery but there’s suspense in it. And that was all I needed to know. So we picked it up and David read it to me like an in-real-life audiobook the whole time we were driving, and it was a fantastic experience, and I really loved the book. So I’m going to tell you about it. This is a literary novel that is kind of a mashup of character study and suspense novel. So it’s a page-turner, but it’s really beautifully written. So imagine the Love Boat, but instead of being cartoony it’s really, really smart and kind of realistic. Would you agree with that Dave? Because you read this book, too.
David: For me, this book tips a little bit more toward literary than Love Boat.
Melissa: I mean, it’s a LOT more literary than Love Boat.
David: But on the spectrum between — on one end you have Love Boat, and on the other hand you have Ulysses, It’s farther along towards Ulysses.
Melissa: Well, let me explain why I threw Love Boat in there.
Melissa: This is a 1950s vintage ocean liner, and it’s making its last cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii before being sent to a scrap heap. And the cruise company has decided that this cruise is going to be a retro throwback. So there are vintage cocktails, there are old fashioned menus, there’s string quartets, cell phones are banned and there are no children. It’s just super fancy retro cruise for two weeks. It’s meant to be very, very glamorous.
David: For the first few chapters of this book, I thought we were — because I think I read this book blind — for the first couple of chapters, I thought we were getting into a murder mystery.
Melissa: So we meet three main characters and they’re kind of our guides through the whole novel and each of them is really, really compelling. And they, each chapter kind of focuses on a different character. So first there was a middle-aged woman who used to be a journalist and is now a farm wife in Maine, and she has a lot of mixed feelings about that. There is a Hungarian chef who has just gotten promoted, and he’s really trying to prove himself in the kitchen. There’s this great scene in his first chapter where he’s meeting the delivery trucks that are delivering the food for the cruise, and it’s just going into great detail about him looking at the avocados and the shrimp and thinking about what things he’s going to make. And it was absolutely fascinating because it was so realistic and immersive.
David: Yes, I totally agree with that. That was one of the things that I really liked doing. Of the things that you’ve said, two things I wanted to mention. One was the characterizations are so nice, really vivid. I really enjoyed spending time with these people. The other thing was, yeah, the little glimpses of how a cruise ship actually works. Crew stuff and particularly the kitchen. I found that really interesting.
Melissa: Yeah. You get a lot of behind the scenes. There’s a separate bar for the crew, so you see, like, what is going down in the crew bar when the rest of the passengers are sleeping or laying out on the sundeck and getting drunk themselves. But there’s this real divide between the two.
Melissa: The third character is I think my favorite. She is an elderly Israeli violinist and she plays with a quartet and that quartet is going to be entertaining the guests on the cruise and these four people, you could write a series of novels about the four people in this quartet.
David: Strongly agree. I really love the quartet.
Melissa: They have known each other their entire lives. The’re Israeli. They are you really into classical music and even though they’re, I don’t know, I think they’re in their eighties, they are still, like, flirting and fighting and drinking and just wringing every last ounce of life that they can out of this lifetime. They are amazing.
David: And bringing their baggage forward. There’s 60 years of ‘I told you.’
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. And they’re very blunt with each other. It’s really awesome. And then the ship itself is also a character. The ship is the queen Isabella and she has a very sparkling, glamorous history.
Melissa: So we get to know all of these people. I would say the first, maybe half of the book, is really just meeting these people and watching them do cruise ship things. They go for drinks, they go to dinner, or they listen to the music.
David: I see where you’re going with the Love Boat thing now.
Melissa: I mean it’s WAY smarter —
David: but these random characters get onto a boat and they interact.
Melissa: Yeah. So the first, I’m going to say maybe half of the book is getting to know these characters and just seeing them enjoy their time on the cruise.
Melissa: But the thing that Christenson did in her writing that I found really fascinating is that even when they’re having dinner or listening to the quartet, there’s a slight feeling of unease. You can sense that something is going to happen, but you don’t know what that something is.
Melissa: And while we’re seeing the guests on the cruise ship, we’re also getting to know the crew and seeing what their experience is like. And it’s a little bit like an Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey situation where on the top deck, it’s all beautiful clothes and cocktails and watching the sunset — and below deck, there’s something going on with the crew. And again, you’re not entirely sure what it is, but you can see that the international crew is not treated very well, either by the passengers or by the company that owns the cruise ship. They’re underpaid, they have cliques, they sit in their staff bar kind of according to their nationality. So even though it’s this retro glamorous cruise experience, you kind of feel like, ‘Oh, something is coming and I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably not going to be too nice.’
Melissa: So three things that I loved about this book.
Melissa: One, the food description. The food descriptions in this book are amazing. I could have included this one in our restaurants episode from a couple of weeks ago.
David: [laughing] It’s true.
Melissa: The author, Kate Christensen, has written two food memoirs, which we will link to in the show notes because those are great too. She really knows her way around food and she knows how to talk about it in a way that serves the story. So it’s not just tacked on to be, like, ‘We’re in the kitchen now. We’ll talk about food.’ It is integral to understanding this character and his experience on the boat. Loved it. Second, we get to see the political hierarchy in the kitchen and also by extension throughout the whole cruise ship. It’s a little bit like the military except that it’s not as formalized really. So the crew members are all — they curse a lot, let’s put it that way.
Melissa: So it’s, it’s less buttoned up in the military, but the stakes feel that high. And the relationships between the different levels of management feel that high. And finally the characters, which we talked about earlier. These people really got under my skin, and when we were reading it on our road trip, I couldn’t wait until we got back in the car so I could see what was happening to these people while we were gone. They were that three-dimensional and robust. So I absolutely loved it. There are parts that are really funny and some parts that are really tender or there is a lot of suspense and I don’t want to talk about what happens, but a thing happens that kind of blows your mind. Do you have anything else to add Dave?
David: Easily the best thing about this book is the characters. I really enjoy the characters, which is not to say the rest of it is isn’t handled well cause it is.
Melissa: Yes! Kate Christiansen, give us spin-offs of all of those characters. Give us backstories, give us a whole world of the people who were on the last cruise.
David: I kind of want that quartet to go on and solve crimes.
Melissa: That would be amazing. [laughing] Okay. So that is The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen.
David: Those are five books we love set upon the deep blue sea. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I read more than just the books I talked about today. And you did too. So we have a blog post that includes more novels set on the deep blue sea. I also wrote an article about the first around the world cruise, which was on a ship called the Laconia. That was in 1922 and the world was gifted a diary from a woman named Miss Eleanor Phelps Wilds of Teaneck, New Jersey. She was a young woman and she went on that cruise and she documented everything. So in my article, I introduce her a little bit and link to photos. It is a treasure. We have two Food+Fiction recipes for the sea, including a Tom Collins cocktail, which I recommend drinking while you read The Last Cruise. All of that and more is at strongsenseofplace.com. Next, David is talking with B.J. Porter about his experiences sailing halfway around the world.
[sailors singing a sea shanty: We’d be all right if the wind was in our sails…]
David: I’m here with B.J. Porter and we’re going to talk about his adventures at sea. I am gonna recap the last 20 years of your life and you tell me if I’m right on this.
David: Roughly 2002 or 2003, you brought up the idea of sailing to sea and living full-time on a sailboat with your wife who at the time was employed as a doctor.
David: So I’m very curious about her initial response to that. [laughter] Let’s go on first. So a couple of years after that, you purchased a 53-foot sailboat, which you named the Evenstar. And then you moved onto that boat in 2012.
BJ: That’s correct.
David: So, and then after that you cruise the US east coast. You went off to the Eastern Caribbean through Panama and the Galapagos, the Marquesas, French Polynesian, New Zealand, Fiji, and ultimately, Australia.
David: So you sailed halfway around the world over eight years, and you did all of that while you were raising two children.
BJ: Yeah, when we left, our children were 15 and 12 so they weren’t, they weren’t babies. They were, you know, they were middle school and high school age. Which I think was easier, although a lot of people are very nervous about doing that, particularly the high-school-age students because of social issues. And I think also issues with the whole educational aspect. I mean, we were teaching calculus on homeschooling, on the boat, stuff like that.
David: I want to talk about that, but let’s step all the way back to what inspired you to do this. At what point were you, like, ‘You know, this is a good idea.’
BJ: Well, I always wanted to sail. I went back many, many years ago. I sailed even back in high school, and when I’m up in Traverse City, Michigan, with some of the, you know, where a lot of people from Cincinnati went. I sat down and realized it’s something I always wanted to do with my life. And so when we moved to back to Rhode Island after Kathy’s residency, we bought a boat. So the 53-footer was the first boat we bought. It was, in fact, the fourth boat that we had bought over time. And as we were doing this, I was racing and we’re spending time, you know, doing fun things with the family. So a lot, most of our weekends were out going to islands, going to Cuttyhunk, going to Block Island, going to Martha’s Vineyard. And we really loved that time.
BJ: I also started reading about people that were actually just doing this all the time. And the whole concept of just going out to see the world in a different way where you’re not just flying somewhere for a week and just bunging in and then coming back again. Seemed like a great way to see the world. And yes, my wife’s reaction was, ‘Uou’re nuts. That’s crazy.’ That was definitely her. She thought it was the silliest idea she’d heard the first time I mentioned to it. Yeah. But you know, we read some books and we discussed it and we eventually came around to the idea, obviously. Yeah. Yeah.
David: I mean, to me that encapsulates all of the sort of wonderful aspects of life . My wife calls it ‘frexcting.’ It’s frightening and exciting at the same time.
BJ: It is. And it’s, you know, it’s such a radical departure from — I mean, you probably got this when you said, ‘Oh, Hey, we’re going to leave the U.S. and move to Prague.’ You know, such a radical departure from what people do that a lot of people don’t understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what it’s going to be like. And you don’t really either. You know, there are a lot of people have written books about this and we read a lot of books about this, but nothing really prepares you for what it is.
David: And how did your children react when you dropped this plan?
BJ: My son was pretty much ready to pack a bag and leave. My daughter — my son, the older one of the two — my daughter was less enthusiastic. She was about three years younger than him. He is the far more enthusiastic sailor of the two of them. And both of our kids were involved with, they both learned how to sail from a very early age. They were on the boat when they were on our bigger boats when they were babies. We had them in junior sailing programs. Our son took to it like a duck to water. Loves it!He’s working now as a yacht designer. That’s something that he’s aspired to do since he was eight and that’s what he’s doing with his life. That’s what he wants to be. He eats, sleeps, and drinks boats. So he was so excited to go.
BJ: Whereas my daughter had this whole, you know, she has a room and her stuff and her things and her friends. She was a little more resistant to the idea and didn’t really love it for a long time. But again, we discussed it with them years before we actually executed it and we wanted them to know cause we were going to be discussing these things in front of them. We couldn’t simply have a discussion about selling the house or moving or anything crazy like that with the kids or anywhere nearby if we weren’t upfront with them about it. So they knew. They knew several years in advance. I mean we bought the boat we bought even in 2006 with the intention of heading out sailing in about three years. We didn’t end up leaving for six years because of a variety of factors including the housing market and other things like that.
BJ: So, you know, when we bought the boat Evenstar in 2006, it was the express purpose of going cruising on it. So we knew sometime in advance and we had shared that with the kids. You know, it really hit me. We were out on on vacation in our old boat, which was a, a smaller boat, a 40-footer that I both raced in and cruised. So we took it out on vacations but also raced it, which meant that I spent a lot of time, the boat was stripped out, lightweight, and I’d bring all this equipment on to get all the pots and pans and all the family stuff back on. And we go off on vacation for two weeks, sitting out one morning, drinking a cup of coffee, you know, just after sunrise and them watching the mist on the water.
BJ: And I’m seeing the ducks swim by and I realized I wasn’t doing enough of this with the kids. We’d been out, we’d gone fishing, we’d gone over the Island, we’d gone to the beach. We’d just been having a great time. And it was that point. And that was around 2005 that when Kathy got up, I said, ‘I think we should sell this race boat and buy the cruising boat that we want to live on.’ And she said, ‘Well, we’re not ready to go.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s get the boat, see if we like it, see if we liked this boat, learn how to use it.’ And then you can always sell the boat. Worst-case scenario, you sell the boat and you don’t go. But it was that moment. I still remember that watershed moment just sitting there and that quiet morning when the water was like glass and just thinking, ‘I need to do more of this.’
David: Yeah. And you need to do more of that and you need to do it with your family.
BJ: Oh yeah. Yeah. Racing was a lot of fun. But I was spending a lot of time, spending my weekends away with people that weren’t my family.
David: I want to ask you to describe two days for me. I want to hear about a great day and I want to hear about a bad day over this period. And for the sake of drama, let’s start with the bad day.
BJ: One of our worst days at sea was part of probably one of the worst trips we’ve had, which was when we sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand. We were a little late getting out of Tahiti. We are there because we really liked French Polynesia and it was fantastic, but we did have to get out eventually both because of impending weather patterns and also because our visas were running out.
David: All right.
BJ: So we had been having problems with our boat’s generator. Ever since we’d left for the first two years out, we were having all sorts of difficulties with the generator, which is what we’d use to recharge the batteries to run all the boat’s power, you know, to run all the boat’s refrigeration and the freezer and all that sort of stuff. So we started to leave Tahiit, and the generator promptly broke, so we had to turn around and go back.
BJ: And then we had to wait to fix that and wait to get approval to leave. So we were late getting out, and we had also had another repair done to a sail that we discovered wasn’t done right once we were started sailing. And it was a long, long trip and it was mostly upwind, which is never pleasant and the weather wasn’t great and the sail wouldn’t trim, so we couldn’t sail close to the wind. And in the middle of all this, we had a day that was, it was good conditions for flying our spinnaker. And we got ready to fly the spinnaker and we actually put it up, I believe for a little while, for a couple of hours, but then the wind died off. So I took the spinnaker, we put it back in a bag and left it up on the bow.
BJ: Conditions changed, and during the process of the conditions changing, everyone in the boat looked at that spinnaker and said, ‘Oh, that’s been kinda there. We should maybe do something about it.’ But nobody spoke up. And as the conditions deteriorated and it got windier and we started sailing more upwind and waves were coming over the boat, it got dark. And then the next morning when the sun came up, I looked and I saw that the spinnaker was gone. And that was for us, that was a really low moment because a new spinnaker for this boat is a pretty expensive piece of equipment. You know, you’re talking thousands of dollars worth of sail that just kind of went poof because we were tired and we were cranky and we’d been out to sea for a week without seeing another boat or nothing. Not even so much as a bird.
BJ: And we just, it was a really down, down moment. It wasn’t a dangerous moment, but it was just maddening. It was frustrating and you’re sitting there saying, ‘Wwhy am I doing this? This is so stupid. I just like flushed thousands of dollars overboard because I was just too — I didn’t have my act together enough to go out and take care of it.’ Yeah it was heartbreaking because I know my son, the enthusiastic sailor, loved that sail. He loved to put that thing up because we went really fast with it. I had to tell him when he got up. I said, ‘You know the spinnaker’s gone and fell overboard and he was very upset and it was very — it sounds stupid. ‘Oh, you lost the sail.’ But it was a very emotional time because it was such a challenging trip because that troublesome generator had also failed and the engine had started spitting water out and sprung a leak. So we had all sorts of problems on that trip and that was just kind of the worst point of it.
David: Yeah. How long a trip is that from Tahiti to New Zealdn?
BJ: That was about 2300 miles. It took us 16 days. We were at sea for 16 and a half days.
David: You said everybody was onboard. Is it just your family or are there extra people?
BJ: Just the four of us. And until the last child went off to college, we’d never really sailed with anyone else — except for the, except for our children and us.
David: I would imagine that would make you a very tight unit.
BJ: Yeah. It feels really complete when the four of us are together. Like this year we were together again at Christmas. You know, even though my son is working and has a job and a place and is out in Washington, we were able, because we got stranded here for the holidays, we were able to get everyone all together and it really — that sort of feeling of, ‘Oh, that the gang’s all here. The team’s complete again.’ because it does that because we work well together. When we do things, there’s not really a lot of shouting and you don’t need that much communication ‘cause everyone knows what they’re doing. You talk things out gently ahead of time. And just because we’ve all worked together so much on it.
David: That’s lovely idea. Really. That’s so nice. Now did you guys live aboard this whole time?
BJ: Well, since 2012 yes.
David: Oh, we didn’t talk about the good day. What was a great day?
BJ: You know there have been so many of those you could pick almost any day on that sail from, for example, the Galapagos — that’s a trip that’s called the Milk Run. And we got out there for 16 days and we actually lost our autopilot 300 miles into the trip and we had to hold change our whole watch schedule so that we had more people on watch all the time and we had to hand steer the whole way. We sat down with our kids and discussed, ‘Well, the autopilot broke,. We can turn back or we can press forward, and it’s going to be a lot more work. If we turn back, we’re not going to get to French Polynesia this summer.’ And they said without missing a beat, ‘We’re going to go. We want to go forward, let’s sail forward.’ So, we did. That whole trip was kind of like one high point. Even though we were tired and we were doing extra watches — because you had to have someone whose hands were on the wheel all the time and someone’s sitting next to them who can get up and manipulate the sales and things.
BJ: So we had two people on watch instead of one. And even though everyone was working harder and doing much more of the whole, every day you’re out there in this breathtaking space with nothing around you. When you’re out to sea like that, it’s… It’s never quiet, but it’s not noisy. There’s sort of a rhythm of noise, you know, the boat’s moving and you hear the hiss of the water and you hear the flutter of the sails, and you rarely hear things like birds. But then again, other times at night, it’s quiet enough so that you can hear dolphins come up and breathe next to the boat and you’re out there. And that whole period was just so UP because it was smooth, and it was great sailing, and we were fast. We would get off of watch and we were keeping score to see who could go the fastest, who could cover the most miles in their hour of driving. The whole experience was just very UP.
David: That sounds great. Now is there a routine when you’re bored, is there a sort of a normal day and what does that look like?
BJ: One thing that people don’t understand about this lifestyle is that most of the time you’re not actually sailing. That year that we crossed the Pacific, we probably sailed about 45 days out of that year or 50 days out of that year, which is a lot for that year. That was probably the year we sailed the most number of days. Cause we did 16 days to the Marquesas. We did 16 days to to New Zealand. We had to sail from Panama to the Galapagos. We sailed around it. But most of the time, you’re moving a short distance. So particularly if you’re in the Caribbean, you can move to another country in eight hours.
BJ: At sea, you definitely have a schedule of sorts because we have a watch schedule at night. You always have to have someone in the cockpit. You always have to have someone who’s paying attention to the instruments and the steering and the wind. And during the day, that’s a little bit loose because someone’s always up. But at night, we definitely have a schedule who’s on watch when, from what time, and you get into routines. You get into: okay we eat dinner and I go down and start downloading the weather updates for the next day while someone else is doing the dishes, and then I go go to sleep for a few hours while we’re getting ready for my midnight to 3:00 AM watch. You hit a pattern off-shore, particularly in the longer trips. You don’t hit it too much on a two- or three-day trip. A little four- or 500-mile trip doesn’t really hit that, but you start heading out there for five days or more, you really get into a rhythm of things.
David: So you’re pulling into a new destination. And then are you employed? Are you working for somebody?
BJ: Recently. my wife and I started taking on some more stuff, but we planned this so that we basically could put a big pile of money aside and as much as possible live off the income from that. I started making really complicated spreadsheets years before we left — sort of predicated on the assumption that if I could make it work in theory, there was at least a non-zero chance I could make it work in practice. If I can’t come up with a financial model that works at all, then this isn’t going to happen.
David: For other people who are sort of entertaining this idea of, of putting everything they have in storage and getting a boat and going around the world, would you recommend it?
BJ: Oh yeah.
BJ: I think you do need a certain mindset for it. I mean, you know, this lifestyle isn’t camping and it’s not like living in a house. When you walk in the house and turn on the lights and then you go into the bathroom and wash your hands or flush the toilet, that’s the default that happens in your house. On a boat, you have to make sure that continues to happen. So there’s a lot to think about in terms of self-sufficiency. So if you’re someone that is not necessarily going to be a great problem-solver or who can’t deal with self-sufficiency or adversity very well, it may not be the best way to see the world for you.
David: Can you name a few books that I have a strong sense of the sea for you?
BJ: When it comes to that, I think some of the best books that give you a sense of the sea are some of the books like the Horacio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester. The Jack Aubrey series by Patrick O’Brian. Those are both Napoleonic era, age of sail books that really give you a strong feel for what it’s like to be at sea. There’s a bunch of books out there, and I mean, I can’t really name any specifically that affected me that we read when we were getting ready to go cruising written by people that have done this. I think there’s one called All in the Same Boat and there’s a lot of books along that vein where people come back and they tell their stories. What they experienced. And some of them are very frank about what didn’t work for them, which is good.
BJ: As far as a few other ones. There was a couple of other books that I really enjoyed, sea stories that are more modern, that are based on like truth. One I particularly enjoyed, the one called a Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols which is the story of the first Golden Globe Race, which was a nonstop around-the-world race starting in England, to be sailed solo in small boats. And this was done at around 1965 or so. I think they did this race and it was, you know, I think about eight or 10 boats set out — very small boats — and no one had really been out there solo-sailing, solo circumnavigating in these boats, and they were going to all of a sudden have this race to go out there and being sponsored by a newspaper. There’s a lot of fascinating sub stories from that.
BJ: One was Bernard Moitessier. He was a Frenchman who then wrote another book. He several books. I can’t remember the titles off the top of my head. But anything by Moitessier is a great read about the sailing in the sea. But that book, the Voyage for Madmen sorta describes that whole book. And then there was another book called The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomlin and Ron Hall that sort of zooms in on a very tragic sub-story of that whole race involving a felony and Donald Crowhurst who did not finish the race. And they never found him, although they did find the boat. That whole trip, that whole race and that whole story and the stories around that or just how they evoke a lot of interesting thoughts about being at sea, being at sea by yourself and how you know, for a long period of time and what that takes.
David: Okay. So, let’s do the speed round. I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions and just give me the first thing that comes to your mind. So here we go. Ask for directions or get lost?
BJ: I tend to ask for directions.
David: All right. What do you do for a travel journal?
BJ: Well I do blog. I blog. We also have a ship’s journal that we log things into. We keep, when we’re out at sea, we keep pretty copious notes on hourly position recording and anything we see.
David: What’s your favorite city?
BJ: Probably Paris.
David: Do you learn local phrases or do you make do in English?
BJ: We learn as much as we can locally. It’s very helpful to be able to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Makes a huge difference. In your day in whatever language it’s in.
David: If you could go right now to an airport or train station a and visit another place, where would you go?
BJ: Well, I’m kind of dying to get back to my home, which is a new story. I’ve been away from there for six months.
David: Yeah. Let’s see. Who do you admire the most?
BJ: The people that I like — guys like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan and stuff like that — those types of thinkers have been always the guys I’ve been excited to listen to. And then to read their ideas.
David: All right. Describe your perfect book in three words.
BJ: Deep, engaging, and long.
David: Okay. What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
BJ: Oh, that comes down to the so many different types of beauty. I mean, someplace like the Galapagos has really stark start natural beauty about it and fascinating wildlife. But then you turn around in New Zealand and where you can’t get in the car and drive to a grocery store without driving by a stunning panorama. Yeah, so new Zealand’s up there. The Galapagos is up there. French Polynesia. I would be hard pressed to pick from those three places, and in French Polynesia, specifically down in atolls, is just breathtaking.
David: BJ, thanks so much for talking to me today.
BJ: Good talking to you.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on the sea, including the books we discussed and more book recommendations, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Please be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book- and travel-related things, and please follow us on Instagram for photos, illustrations, short book reviews, and other things we love. We are @strongsenseof
David: If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate it, review it, and most especially, tell somebody else. That really helps us out. And don’t forget to subscribe. So you never miss an episode. Mel, what are we covering in our next episode?
Melissa: We’re heading to North Africa to visit the vast deserts and twisty alleys of Morocco.
David: Thanks for listening.
Top image courtesy of Jezael Melgoza.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.