Wooden sailing ships from centuries ago required extreme endurance and fortitude from those men who endeavored at sea for many weeks or months. The hardships endured on long sea voyages are too many to be described here. An accurate account of that life is detailed in the book “Two Years Before The Mast,” in which Richard Henry Dana Jr., as a common sailor, wrote about his two-year sea voyage starting in 1834.
Deprivation, lack of comfort, constant toil, and danger were the common man’s lot in former centuries. Some may now look upon those as long-ago feats with dispassion, disconnecting from the sweat and tears of the time. Yet, we still find people drawn to those former eras with nostalgia, even though some understand well the deprivations of the past. Both men and women enjoy hobbies of reenacting civil war battles, frontier life, knights and ladies, and the sailing of tall-masted ships from the past. In a life of ease, it is hard to imagine the simple pleasure of respite from a period of adversity that comes to those who live with daily hardships and misery.
I have experienced deep sea longing myself during a trip with my wife to Galveston. We toured the Texas Seaport Museum, where the 1877 tall ship Ellisa, a fully restored iron barque, was docked. Just the sight of her from the pier brought a strong emotional response from me. I walked the decks, touching the lines, spars, railing, masts, and other parts of the working ship. I felt a kinship, hard to describe. It was as if the vessel was imbued with the spirit of some living thing. My wife soon became seasick each time the ship’s motion sharply tugged at the end of the mooring lines and departed for dry land. I was quite excited to remain aboard. My exploration below decks was equally thrilling. Some might have felt trapped by the small cabins and tiny bunks tightly nestled in the forward spaces. For me, it felt familiar and comforting. Knowing as I did the hardship and deprivation of life on these actual working ships, why would I feel nostalgia for life aboard such a vessel?
The answer is simple. My first tour of duty after basic training in the U.S. Navy in 1966 was aboard the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. Commissioned in 1942, she was considered quite old. Flight operations went on 24/7 for months at a time, jets taking off from the decks all day and night, a harsh duty she was not designed for. We routinely worked 16 – 20 hour days, with no more than four hours of sleep each night, to keep that old lady running. One sailor on my watch asked me to wake him every hour so he would have the pleasure of going back to sleep, which he did quickly each time. That may sound crazy, but it was restorative for him.
What of the sailor of old, after months at sea, catching the first sight of land, or seeing the sun come out after a storm, with an array of rainbows, or a beautiful night with stars bright and moonlight on the surface of the deep water, dancing with the waves? I imagine they were filled with wonder and awe. What of the satisfaction of surviving a violent storm due to the skilled work by him and his shipmates? What of the camaraderie developed during those long voyages? I’ve had those deeply profound experiences myself.
Humans can withstand suffering and toil for an occasional glimpse of heaven and the hope that attends it. I believe the memory of those simple pleasures binds us to a past and not the hardships we have endured.