I’m an ocean-going, Tall Ship addict. Ever since my mother recited the sea-faring poems of John Masefield to me, I’ve been hooked – as Masefield was himself. The mere sight of a billowing sail, the sound of wind in the rigging is sheer poetry as far as I’m concerned.
‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.’
The way I found Water and Ice was through another mode of transport altogether, in the middle of France, as far from the sea as you can imagine, when a man stopped us from driving over a suitcase (mine actually) in a hotel parking lot. We bumped into him later in a bar and offered to buy him and his wife a drink and discovered that he wasn’t French at all, but an American motor-cyclist on holiday and, not only an author, but an e-author at that.
Art Mattson is a local historian specialising in the maritime history of Long Island and when he mentioned that he’d written a book about two historic shipwrecks, the Bristol and the Mexico, bound from Liverpool to New York in 1836, packed with mainly Irish immigrants, I couldn’t wait to get hold of a copy.
It was obvious talking to Art Mattson that he took pride in presenting books as professionally as possible. Water and Ice is beautifully designed and illustrated – there’s the occasional glitch where illustrations and captions have been put out of position by the e-pub process, but I know from experience that this happens when you try to produce a non-standard book for different e-platforms. When the e-reader alters the size of the text, the illustrations remain the same size and it throws the lay-out haywire. The technology simply isn’t good enough yet.
The story is a gripping narrative of two ships who set sail from Liverpool in 1836 only days apart, and were both wrecked on the shoals of Long Island in separate incidents, creating one of America’s worst maritime disasters. It was so famous that several artists painted the scenes and Walt Whitman, who may have stood on the shore among the watchers, wrote a description of the wreck of the Mexico in his poem ‘Sleepers’ which appeared in Leaves of Grass.
The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind – the wreck-guns sound,
The tempest lulls – the moon comes floundering through the drifts.
I look where the ship helplessly heads end on – I hear the burst as
she strikes – I hear the howls of dismay – they grow fainter and fainter.
I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,
I can but rush to the surf, and let it drench me and freeze upon me.
I search with the crowd – not one of the company is wash’d to us alive;
In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn.
Of the two stories, the Mexico is the most compelling – having all the components of a classic disaster movie. It’s a story of incompetence, corruption, greed, hubris, and callous disregard for what the ship-brokers referred to as ‘white cargo’ – human beings who could sink or swim as far as they were concerned so long as they could collect the insurance. It’s a tale of a nightmare voyage in an overloaded, leaking ship with an exhausted, inexperienced Caribbean crew, through Atlantic winter storms; the owner’s 15 year old brother on his first voyage, unable to challenge a ruthless captain whose only thought was for his share of the profits and who was willing to abandon his passengers to freeze or drown in order to save his own life. Several of the crew were black and, although they risked their lives on board alongside their white workmates, they were buried in a segregated grave on Long Island.
Most of the passengers were Irish immigrants who had scraped together enough money for the passage to what they hoped would be a better life in America. They were willing to suffer the privations of several weeks in appalling conditions and risk death at sea, rather than stay in Ireland. There were restrictions on how many passengers could be carried by a cargo ship, but the owners got round it by counting small children in twos and threes as equal to an adult and very young children not at all. An adult was allotted one square yard of space. On the Mexico, conditions were as cramped as any slave ship and, when the immigrants’ own food ran out because the voyage was prolonged because of bad weather, they almost starved and had to beg for food from the crew.
The real horror was that they all died so close to the shore, watched by a crowd of onlookers without the means to rescue them before they froze to death on deck, crying for help. Whole families perished – husbands, wives and small children. The temperature was only 5 degrees fahrenheit – a long way below freezing. Those who took refuge below deck drowned in ice-cold seas as the ship settled deeper into the shoal.
One good thing to come out of the disaster was the stricter regulation of Pilot vessels in and out of New York. If a Pilot had been available to come out to guide the Mexico and the Bristol into harbour, the disasters would not have happened, but none of them were willing to leave their cosy bars in bad weather. As a result of this double tragedy, new lighthouses were built, coast guards were given responsibility for rescuing the victims of shipwreck and, eventually, the Plimsoll line restricted how much cargo a ship could safely carry.
The stories are told in vivid prose. But this is not just a story – the book is also a valuable piece of historical research – there are cargo manifests, crew lists and passenger lists for both vessels, paintings and drawings of the ships, as well as newspaper cuttings and contemporary reports of the tragedy. Some people will want to skip these and carry on with the story, but I found them fascinating. But then, when it comes to Tall Ships, I’m a nerd!
For Art Mattson, there was a more personal motivation behind the desire to tell this story. Water and Ice is dedicated to his sister, a marine archaeologist, who drowned, age 23, with 7 others when her tall ship Lefteria was rammed in the night by a French weather ship going to the aid of Sir Francis Chichester in the Bay of Biscay. Going to sea in sailing ships was, and still is, a dangerous business.
Reviewed by Kathleen Jones
Available in Kindle format and in Hardback.
Find out more about Arthur S. Mattson