the story of why sailors sing at sea
Half my Twitter is suddenly obsessed with sea-shanties and I simply do not understand why! Perhaps people find them calming in these difficult times. In my personal experience sailors are not very soothing people (the stories I could tell you! but I will wait until we can meet up again in a scruffy little dive bar rather than commit other people’s felonies to print), but to each their own. I have never actually heard a sailor sing a shanty in my limited time at sea, although once when I was working last summer we had a day trip with a group of old codgers who had taken up amateur a cappella shanty-singing in their retirement. They were pretty fun until they got drunk and sang the same shanty on repeat for four hours.
Anyway, here is a little story for you about singing sailors.
The Story of Why Sailors Sing at Sea
As most of you know already because I never shut up about it, two years ago I got to sail around a bit of Svalbard* on a tallship for a couple of weeks as part of an artist residency in the Arctic. This was exactly as magical as it sounds! All day we sailed about looking at beautiful things, and usually as often as twice a day the endlessly patient crew ferried the artists from ship to shore to walk around and look at beautiful things close up. Incredible! I still cannot believe I was lucky enough to get to do this!
Our story concerns a day the artists had been dropped off to investigate the remains of an old overwintering hut at Polhem, the leftovers of a failed expedition to the North Pole. (The expedition was aborted not, for once, because everyone died and/or ate each other, but because the reindeer who were supposed to pull their sledges sensibly ran away at the first available opportunity.)
Fig. 8. Nordenskiöld's 1875 chart of Svalbard, showing his route from Sjuøyane southwestwards to Nordaustlandet and back to Mosselbukta, where the Polhem hut is located. (Source.)
Fig. 9. The expedition hut at Polhem.
The hut is at the furthermost point of a long, narrow peninsula, and after we took a good look around we had a nice wander along the shore. People got out their drawing-paper and their watercolors and their nontoxic silicone mold-making kits and their interactive performance practices. I put my feet in the water and then picked plastic garbage off the beach with another artist and one of the guides. I spent a lot of that trip crying about plastic garbage on the beach in the Arctic.
The sky was dense with white-spun clouds and everything looked like a black-and-white picture. White snow, grey stone, grey water, grey light. “Hey,” someone said after a long while. “Isn’t that a polar bear?”
We looked. Yes, it was.
Fig. 10. Yes, it was.
The First Rule of the Arctic is that if the majestic liege of the north is loping towards a bunch of fucking idiots dicking around on a beach you get the fucking idiots off the beach immediately. The ship was radioed, the deckhand and second mate dispatched in Zodiacs to evacuate us from the scene. The polar bear lumbered close enough for us to see that it was very large and did not look cross, only curious. I don’t know, maybe it wanted to borrow the nontoxic silicone mold-making kit for a craft project. The artists babbled nervously. Even the guides looked worried. The polar bear sniffed thoughtfully and continued in our direction. The Zodiacs drew closer. Rescue was at hand!
But there was a problem! We had ambled far away from our pleasant and easily accessible landing spot to a rocky and inaccessible area. The weather was rising! The waves heaved against the slippery stone! The second mate, a stringy, choleric fellow, muttered curses under his breath as his Zodiac bumped against the rock and he tried valiantly to hold it in place long enough for a bunch of fucking idiots to scramble aboard. But the deckhand, an immensely tall, stoic, Viking-like personage (the artists referred to him as Thor behind his back), remained calm. I knew enough about trying to land little rubber boats on dicey beaches in rough water to know that we were in a bad spot. But Maik the deckhand’s face was impassive. If Maik’s not freaking out, I’m not going to freak out, I thought. The first batch of artists slipped and tumbled into the second mate’s Zodiac. A few people more or less just fell in backwards. The polar bear, intrigued, clambered into the water and swam ever closer. The waves heaved! The Zodiacs pitched and jerked! Fright thrived amidst the populace! Everyone stumbled and tripped, discoördinated by terror!
And suddenly Maik the deckhand, who had said I think a sum total of four words up until that point in the trip, burst into song.
“O soooooooooole mioooooo,” he boomed in a resonant baritone. “Sta ‘nfroooooooooooooonte a teeeeeee! O SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLE miiiiiooooo!”
The artists were so startled they fell silent at once and meekly ceased their panicking. The guides relaxed. Even the polar bear looked sort of impressed. And then everything was fine and the rest of the artists were safely collected and the guides flung themselves into the Zodiacs and we zipped away, the polar bear swimming after us for some time as if to politely provide everyone with the opportunity for photographs.
Fig. 11. “Perhaps I could make use of your nontoxic silicone mold-making kit?”
Later that evening one of the artists said admiringly, “I must admit, I was absolutely terrified! Both for us and for the bear!** I really didn’t think we were going to get out of that! But then Maik started singing, and I thought, ‘If Maik is singing, everything must be fine’!” Yes, yes! Hooray for Maik singing to let us know all was well in a sailor-y sort of way! everyone agreed, and raised their glasses to Maik the deckhand, who was somewhere busy still working while a bunch of fucking idiots sat around on deck toasting him.
Fig. 12. Maik.
After the trip had ended, on our last night at a little bar in Longyearbyen, I related this story to a burly Norwegian fellow and longtime sea-person who was friends with one of the guides.
“…and we all agreed that if Maik could sing, then it wasn’t really a dangerous moment! So everyone was relieved!” I said, starry-eyed***.
The Norwegian fellow began to laugh. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” he bellowed Norwegianly. “Let me tell you a story! My first ship was a Russian fishing boat in the North Sea, I was just a teenager, I didn’t know anything! One day the biggest storm comes, the waves are crashing over the deck, my life flashes before my eyes, I’m certain we will all die, and then the crew starts to sing! And I say to the first mate, ‘Well, this can’t be so bad if everyone is singing!’ And he turns to me and he says, [DRAMATICALLY EXAGGERATED RUSSIAN ACCENT] ‘Malenkiy malchik, when crew begin with singing is when you reach for lifejacket! Don’t you know? The sailor, he never sing unless ship is completely fucked!’”
And that, dear friends, is the story of why sailors sing at sea.****
So! On top of the rolling horrorshow that was the last week I got some unexpected and crushingly bad news about future sailing adventures. I am not ashamed to say I spent most of a day lying on the floor sobbing like a toddler and feeling very sorry for myself. For fuck’s sake! Can we get a break! Can something good! please happen! for someone! I am terrified and sad and homesick and fucking tired! As, I am sure, are you! Appropriate to be singing shanties after all because this fucking ship is going down!
But today I am somewhat recovered and licking my wounds and looking up sailing schools and bits of land in the Pacific Northwest and sailboat advertisements. When I get a little boat and learn how to sail it we can go away to the Arctic together if you like, and we won’t bother any polar bears either, I promise. After all, they were there first*****.
I keep forgetting to say that if you have any questions about sailing you are welcome to ask them and I will do my best to answer, although I can barely tell a halyard from a hole in the ground and honestly do not know very much. The older I get the more I think I do not know very much about anything at all. Oh well.
Hang in there, dear hearts. I am thinking of you.
* where Iorek Byrnison is from, and yes it is a real place
** it is uncommon but not unheard-of for polar bears to attack tourists on Svalbard; these encounters generally do not end well for the bear, which was a major contributing factor to the general panic, as absolutely nobody wants to see something bad happen to a polar bear because of a bunch of fucking idiots who honestly have no business tramping about its domicile in the first place, but this is a story about singing sailors and not my complicated feelings around how much I would like to return to a place it is, in my opinion, fundamentally unethical to tourist in
*** I should mention that I was absolutely smitten with Maik the handsome stoic deckhand
**** PLOT TWIST: Maik, the handsomest and kindest and most stoic deckhand/social worker (yes, really) in all the land, is the boyfriend heretofore referred to as “M.”! yes, it is a very romantic story! anyway, I asked him this morning to confirm this piece of intelligence, and he thought about it for a moment and said “I don’t know, sometimes when the sailor is stressed he will whistle?” so please take this anecdote with a grain of salt
***** Svalbard has no indigenous human population, unlike many other areas of the Arctic