April 28, 2011

Keep a sharp lookout, mateys

ONE OF THE MOST enduring myths concerning sailors and the sea is that of the mermaid. The fact that nobody has ever produced a mermaid, dead or alive, for all to see and be astonished at, doesn’t seem to matter. Sailors, both professional and amateur, are incurable optimists, and hope springs eternal in the nautical breast. Well, in the male nautical breast, at least. I can’t imagine that too many women sailors would be over-excited at the appearance of a mermaid, no matter how unexpected.

There are certainly those who have claimed to have seen a mermaid, and there are others who scoff at such alleged sightings, claiming rightly or wrongly that too long a separation from the fair sex causes men to see what their fantasies would like them to see. Still others blame the sightings on manatees, those blubbery bewhiskered mammals so common in Florida in the winter; but how anyone could mistake them for mermaids is beyond me, particularly when you realize that the manatee's closest relatives are the elephant and the South African dassie.

One sighting that caused great interest was reported by a 16th century English sea explorer and navigator whose name lives on in New York, among other places. Here’s what Henry Hudson had to say:

“This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men.

“A little after a sea came and over-turned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her, but her body as big as one of us.

“Her skin [was] very white, and long haire hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.”

So keep a sharp lookout next time you go sailing, willya? You never know. Maybe Hilles and Rayner were on to something.

Today’s Thought
According to the constitution of mermaids, so much of a mermaid as is not woman must be a fish.
— Charles Dickens

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #192
As near as dammit:
1 knot = 33 yards a minute
2 knots = 66 yards a minute
3 knots = 100 yards a minute
4 knots = 130 yards a minute
5 knots = 165 yards a minute
6 knots = Exactly 1 nautical mile every 10 minutes.
Incidentally, a boat’s speed in knots equals the number of hundred yards it travels in three minutes.

“Care to join me in a glass of champagne?”
“Sorry, but I didn’t bring my swimsuit.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

jrraines said...

My wife was a bit frightened after recently reading your digression in Small Boat to Freedom about shining a light down into the water and the possibility of attracting the attention of a giant squid.

This piece has helped her put that into proper perspective.