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 →
We owe an incredible debt to mariners whether they answer the call of the sea for money or adventure. Include in that group commercial fishermen, members of the merchant marines, ferry and tugboat operators, workers on cruise ships, and many more brave men and women who know what the demands of life on board a ship entails.
And make no mistake about it. The men and women who serve in the United States Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines and around the world are a special breed of mariners. Along with the aforementioned, they willingly put themselves in harm’s way for their country not only in war time but in times of crisis when life, limb, and property hang in the balance.
Much has been made of the dangers from pirates these past several years. With more than one sailor losing his life to these ruthless cutthroats, they are a force to be reckoned with. The luckier ones have been held ransom while loved ones a world away wait for years in dread and uncertainty.
But pirates aren’t the only peril mariners face when the last vestiges of land disappear. As stately and rugged as they are, ships today still must face the ferocity of storms at sea. How many men and women lost their lives just in this past year because of storms? Only the other day, a Russian trawler went down within minutes with fifty-four dead and fifteen missing. The death toll would have been far worse if not for nearby sailors risking their lives to save those in the frigid, choppy waters.
Old or poorly maintained ships are yet another hazard many mariners around the world must deal with. Alas, it’s a fact of life that for some companies the bottom line supersedes the lives of those who serve on their ships.
Ask any mariner working on a fishing boat or cargo ship about the dangers they face on any given voyage. It’s not a reflection on the captain or crew. It’s the nature of the job. Equipment doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. Long hours and weariness take their toll, making it easier for accidents to happen.