Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shipwreck Is Everywhere

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Shipwreck Is Everywhere

Article excerpt

Si recte calculum ponas, ubique naufragium est.

(If you reckon correctly, shipwreck is everywhere.)

-Gaius Petronius Arbiter

I came to explore the wreck.


the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

-Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck"

I. Scale of the Winds

Some of the most ravishing descriptions of the sea being whipped up into a tempest are contained in an empirical scale of wind force as encountered on sea and on land, the modern Beaufort scale. Escalating from zero, "Calm" ("Sea like a mirror; smoke rises vertically"), up through "Fresh Breeze," "Gale," "Storm" and so on, it goes on to a hurricane force of 12, where the "Sea is completely white" and "debris and unsecured objects are hurled around." The observations have the keen-eyed perceptions of a poet: "well marked streaks of foam are blown along the direction of the wind," "small flags extended," "dust and loose paper raised." The scale is in fact a favorite with poets, Don Paterson's "Scale of Intensity" being perhaps the most successful homage. Alongside the stranger symptoms in Paterson's scale, such as the change in weight of ordinary objects, or reversed vortex in the draining bath, Paterson makes sure to begin "Sea like a mirror" and to end on that paradoxical phrase of howling violence and visual stillness (one imagines a Turner painting), "Sea white."

While the Beaufort scale is still named after Sir Francis Beaufort, upon whose 1805 scale the modern one is based, his observations had a nautical briskness and reflected not the wind's effect on the sea, or the land, but on the sails of a British Navy frigate, from calm and "or just sufficient to give steerage way" to hurricane, "or that which no canvas can withstand" (poetic phrases which incidentally tend to natural iambic pentameters). Because this was wind force as experienced by a ship at sea, there was no reason to go higher than this-above this force, the ship would not survive: 13 is shipwreck.

Beaufort's effort was part of a more general movement to make observations of the weather less subjective and more widely transferable as scientific measurement. In 1802, a pharmacist named Luke Howard delivered a lecture in London on the classification of clouds. Moving away from the openly whimsical, "a cloud that's dragonish," he proposed a Latin taxonomy which had perhaps its own poetry: "cirrus"-"a ringlet of hair"- "cumulus," ("heaped"), and "stratus" ("strewn"), as well as hybrids thereof, vocabulary that still informs the contemporary International Cloud Atlas.

The original Beaufort scale itself has a literary connection, going back a century to Daniel Defoe's "Scale of Winds" of 1704. (Defoe probably was also working from some sort of existing definition of wind force.) Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, probably the most severe storm to hit England in recorded history, and wrote a book, The Storm, on the event, which included firsthand accounts from numerous witnesses. On land, the lead tiles of Westminster Abbey were blown off, and 2,000 massive chimney stacks in London toppled. Scores of ships were wrecked, including 40 merchant vessels and 13 Royal Navy ships, with some 1,500 seamen drowned at Goodwin Sands alone; some ships were blown hundreds of miles out to sea, others inland to end up beached twenty miles from the water. The ferocity of the storm beggared description. Defoe wrote: "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it."

Defoe had experienced it, however, and collected and published the firsthand experiences of others. He had been so shocked at the depth to which the mercury plummeted in the barometer at the outset that he thought at first that his kids must have meddled with the instrument. He was moved to produce a numbered scale for the winds themselves, the 12-toned "Scale of Winds," ranging from zero ("Stark Calm") to 11 ("Tempest"), with intermediary steps such as "a fresh gale" (5), or "a fret of wind" (9). …

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