This week Key West is celebrating Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. It’s a raucous and happy occasion with lots of shenanigans. There’s a contest to see who can parody his writing style the worst. A fishing tournament. An arm wrestling championship. A look-alike Hemingway contest with so many great Hemingway look-alikes that you‘ll question just how many Margaritas you downed. And my favorite… the running of the bulls outside Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Hemingway often drank.
If you’ve never been to Key West for Hemingway Days, put it on your bucket list. Unless you’re an old grump. Then stay away because you’ll be miserable and only annoy the hell out of everyone else.
Two other seemingly unrelated events occurred this past week in a little town almost a thousand miles away, events that are key to appreciating Hemingway‘s past. In Washington, D.C., on July 24, a Senate Committee approved easing restrictions for commerce and travelers to Cuba; and for the first time in fifty-five years, Cuba opened its embassy on Monday, July 20; the United States did the same in Havana.
To appreciate the significance of these two events, let me take you back in time. When Hemingway moved to Key West in 1929, he was a consummate sportsman. His love for boxing and hunting are legendary. In fact, he kept a boxing ring on his property where he sparred with locals. “We kinda took it easy on Mr. Hemingway,“ one local boxer confessed. “After all he was payin’ us, and he was the Mr. Hemingway.“
But when Ernest first came to Key West, the truth is he knew little of the sea or fishing. That would soon change. One afternoon out on the Gulf Stream he was so impressed with the boat that he ordered an identical one with a few minor changes. When it was delivered, he named it the Pilar.
From 1928 to 1940, he learned the art of fishing from two people: Sloppy Joe Russell and Carlos Gutierrez. Sloppy Joe was his fishing partner and owner of the bar where Hemingway drank when done writing for the day. Carlos Gutierrez worked as his first mate for years on the Pilar. The two men turned Hemingway into a maritime stud though he might grow angry were you to suggest such a thing.
Someone asked me recently if pirates ever took vacations back when they sailed the Spanish Main. “It must have been nice; all that gold to spend in Port Royal on rum and wenches, and going out plundering when you felt like it.”
While it seems like an idyllic life, the harsh glare of truth tells a far different story. Many pirates had their favorite places to operate. Like the pirates of today, some chose the Indian Ocean. Others the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. The fact is staying in port in a half dazed state for incredible lengths of time wasn’t really an option.
For one thing, the call of the sea was never far from their ears. Nor was the news of ships laden with treasure. Eventually, the long arm of the law grew closer and closer forcing them to look for new hideouts and strongholds. Add to that many pirates planned their year around the seasons.
Quite a few pirates followed the sun, so to speak, leaving the beautiful blue-green waters of the Caribbean for points north. They’re adventures might stretch all the way to New Foundland before returning south much like a cowboy following the rodeo circuit.
Perhaps you heard of this sailor quite at home in the Caribbean. His name was Blackbeard, and he held Charleston ransom for a treasure chest of medicine. Farther north, he had his cozy connections with the governor of North Carolina who gave him refuge in the bays of his coast after raiding ships off Virginia. He became such a pain in the neck to Alexander Spotswood, governor of Virginia, that it prompted him to send Lieutenant Maynard to resolve the situation once and for all. The end result was Blackbeard’s head jutting from the bowsprit when Maynard sailed into what is now known as Blackbeard‘s Point at Hampton, Virginia.
So if you’re a pirate still working on your Arrrrrrgh or someone with a pirate heart working a nine-to-five job, remember life wasn’t all rum and cokes for the Men of the Sea. This summer whether you’re sailing to the Caribbean or trekking to your backyard, tip one back for those daring and grimy pirates of the Caribbean. Just be careful not to spill your drink for, as Benjamin Franklin said: “A little thirst is a dangerous thing.”
By now everyone on the planet including sharks knows about Shark Week. For many in the media that means propagating fear and myths that serve no one any good.
Did you know there is a data bank that keeps all kinds of statistics on shark attacks dating back to the late 1800’s? Statistics from the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) no doubt creates a tidal wave of skepticism for nonbelievers, but the facts don’t lie.
Consider the following. According to one statistic, you have less than one chance in seven million of being attacked by a shark. Another puts it as high as eleven million. Your chances of drowning are about one in three million. Roughly ten people a year die from shark attacks. Fifty people a year in the United States alone die from bee stings.
No one likes to hear that their favorite vacation spot is one of the more popular sites for shark attacks so it’s hard to share this next bit of news. Not considering hot spots around the globe like Australia, South Africa, and Brazil, the epicenters for shark attacks according to the ISAF are California and parts of Florida and South Carolina.
Before throwing in your beach towel and heading to your room, remember a higher number of shark attacks doesn’t mean a high level of threats around the clock. If that were the case, no one would venture into the water. Put another way, you have a far greater chance of getting into a serious automobile accident or plane crash on your way to your favorite resort than you do of being bitten by a shark.
So what is a swimmer to do? First, throw aside the notion that sharks are amassing in huge numbers offshore waiting to devour you. That’s just not happening. Second, accept the fact that the ocean is the home of sharks, whales, tuna, jellyfish and a host of other creatures, scary or not. Finally, follow a few basic guidelines experts from around the globe pretty much agree with.
… Don’t swim near fishing piers. Fishermen and women are throwing all kinds of juicy things into the water to attract some big fish. While these tidbits might not appear on your breakfast table, they may be just the tempting morsel sharks are looking for. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to give fishermen on a beach a wide berth. Sharks get hungry like humans and may accidentally bump into you while going after that sea bass.
… Be alert to schools of fish swimming nearby. Gulls circling in large numbers over the water are often a telltale sign of a school of fish. Sharks with their sense of smell have even less trouble tracking these guys.
… Don’t swim alone. You are more or less painting a bulls eye on your body if you do. This is one instance where it really is better to follow the crowd. If a shark attack is going to happen, you don’t want to be the lone swimmer. Like wolves and other predators, sharks like to single out their victim for easy assessment and attack. Besides when you’re swimming with a crowd, a shark is less likely to confuse your thrashing for a fish or wounded dolphin or turtle.
… Your jewelry may make you look hot to your husband or boyfriend; maybe both, but to a shark you’ve just made yourself an object of curiosity that prompts a closer look. Scientists theorize the shiny reflection reminds the shark of glistening fish scales.
It’s hard to realize we are celebrating two hundred and thirty-nine years of our nation’s Independence. Call it independence, liberty, or freedom, it’s something that rings true for people across the globe whether they live in the United States, a Caribbean island, France, India, or Greece. There breathes not a human whose heart does not beat faster at the thought of freedom.
But freedom shouldn’t just be a political peg we hang our patriotism on. It’s the feeling that sweeps us away when we think of the sea or step on a ship about to carry us far beyond the sight of land. Freedom is the passion that stirred the first mariner to contemplate a place beyond the sight of land. It was that same sense of restlessness Melville confessed to when he admitted to the urge of running down the street knocking hats from the heads of civilized people on a cold November day.
Pirates have been no different. Those who plied their trade in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy nurtured that very feeling. We may think of pirates as disgruntled, rum swilling outlaws who suffered miserably under their leader, but the fact is most pirates actually enjoyed freedom. They signed Articles much like the colonists signed the Declaration of Independence. Rules, regulations, and responsibilities were clearly spelled out.
Their counterparts on a British ship had no such document. Sailors often found themselves aboard a British ship for months if not years either through force or trickery. Press gangs operating near the docks were more than eager to rob honest sailors of their freedom, and once aboard there was nothing they could do about it.
Discipline was strict, life was harsh, and whippings were common. In contrast, life on a pirate ship had the earmarks of a true democracy. Pirate captains could be voted in and out of office. Beatings and whippings could not be readily handed out at the whim of a temperamental captain.
Though life under the jolly roger was easier, it didn’t mean any and all bad-boy behavior was tolerated. Thieves were duly punished. The penalty for killing a shipmate was being tied with the corpse in their hammock and thrown overboard.
As we celebrate our own freedom, it’s good to remember the mystery of the sea has symbolized freedom for many a man and woman. What child has not stood on the shore and dreamed of far away places where he could travel. Children grow into adults and the yearning only grows deeper.
Rare is the child that asks for a toy canoe for Christmas. But sailboats abound under the tree on Christmas Day, beckoning the wonderer to untold visions of freedom and adventure. Continue reading →