Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The Sea's Bounty

Bella Bathurst began her inquiry into the history of wrecking in the British Isles when she stumbled on a mention of the practice while researching Robert Louis Stevenson, whose family were noted lighthouse engineers in the hayday of construction of these aids to navigation. What she found was that due to their proximity to the most active and treacherous shipping lanes in the world, the coastal communities of Great Britain were--for roughly three hundred years--largely dependent on the spoils of shipwrecks for their livelihoods. In only the latter half of that era were they also involved in the new industry of lifesaving; prior to that they were engaged in everything from salving to extortion to piloting to plunder.

Bathurst's book, The Wreckers, provides an interesting history of these villages and the hardy, seafaring people who inhabited them, but what I found most enthralling were the detailed descriptions of the geologic and maritime factors that contributed to the colossal tonnage of flotsam and jetsam on the shores of Scotland, England, Cornwall, and Wales, not to mention the Orkneys and Hebrides. In fact, one of her discoveries was an account of a near disaster involving George Orwell and his children when they capsized their small boat in the Hebrides islands while on a sunny outing near where he was holed up at Barnhill writing his famous novel 1984.

One of the features of Jura Sound, where Orwell was nearly drowned, is known as Corrievreckan, the largest whirlpool in European waters and the second largest whirlpool in the world. Due to the strong, bottleneck, tidal currents, vertical underwater rock stack obstructions, and a 219 metre deep aquatic pit that creates pulsing vortices rising as much as 30 feet above the surrounding sea level when the whirlpool runs in fullest spate, Corrievreckan's roar can be heard ten miles away.

But the physics of this maelstrom account for only half the confusion. As Bathurst recalls,"I look at the land, and I realise that some parts of it are higher away from the water than others. The water is not all at the same level...This particular patch of ocean has hummocks and contours, and a one-in-four gradient...a pit had opened up in the water minute he was sailing across level water and the next minute he was staring into a 10-metre abyss."

Imagine a sea captain coming off the rolling regularity of the North Atlantic on his way to Belfast or Glasgow or Liverpool in a heavy fog and encountering such abnormal conditions.


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