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On the water, then and now

An Outdoor View

Posted: February 17, 2012 - 9:57am

In the days of sail, ocean travel was dangerous. Thousands of shipwrecks from that era litter Earth's oceans and beaches. Sailing ships weren't for fun and games. If you were part of the crew, your work was hard and hazardous. Falling from the rigging or being washed overboard by a wave were common fatal accidents.

Passengers didn't fare much better. On the Atlantic during the 1800s, for example, most passengers were people emigrating from Europe to the New World, hoping to find a better place to live. The crossing from England to North America could take more than three weeks. In stormy weather, passengers were confined to primitive accommodations below-decks. Many didn't survive the crossing.

Today's Bering Sea crab fishing may be dangerous work, but it's a picnic compared to fishing in the 1800s, before the internal-combustion engine came onto the scene. There were few light houses and hazard-marking buoys in those days, and no radios, radar or depth-sounders. There were no weather reports, let alone satellite images of weather. There was no Coast Guard. If you were near land in a storm, your vessel might be blown toward shore and become grounded. When this happened, you stood a good chance of dying of exposure, drowning in the surf or being bashed to death on the rocks.

One of the most severe storms on record occurred on Oct. 3, 1851, when a nor'easter struck New England and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. Dubbed "The Yankee Gale," the two-day fury caught a large part of the New England fleet fishing for mackerel near the north side of Prince Edward Island. The destructive wind littered the island's north shoreline with cargo, wrecked schooners and dead bodies. Some 100 fishing boats and 160 lives were lost.

Flash forward to the present. We're still traveling and working on the water, but now it's nowhere near as dangerous. Few ships sink or run aground today. When one does, few lives are lost.

Not that we don't still die on the water, but now there's a difference. Now, most of us are out on the water for fun, not for work or because we're desperately seeking a better life. One hundred fifty years ago, we might've died a watery death while carrying a load of lumber across the North Atlantic to England by schooner, or by trying to sail a ship around Cape Horn. Now we might die because we don't wear a personal floatation device while halibut fishing from a skiff on Kachemak Bay. Now we're mainly dying for fun.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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