Becalmed: changing terrors of the Sargasso Sea

Bring to mind ocean journeys, and you might well imagine high seas, rogue waves, ships dashed on rocks – tales of human resilience pitted against a wild and omnipotent ocean. But what of places where the elements relent, leaving boats to flounder in a windless sea?

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There is one such place renowned for its disquieting calms – the Sargasso Sea, a shoreless oval of water in the North Atlantic measuring some 2,000 by 700 miles. Bounded by ocean currents on all sides, the water rotates clockwise in an ocean gyre, slowly revolving like the eye of a hurricane. The area has struck terror into the minds of sailors for centuries. It was once known as the Horse Latitudes, after becalmed Spanish ships were forced to throw their horses overboard to save drinking water. Tales of ghost ships abound, their skeleton crews left to starve or go insane while their sails hung listlessly.

Despite its fearsome reputation, this singular place plays a vital role in the wider North Atlantic ecosystem, renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle calling the Sargasso Sea ‘the golden rain forest of the ocean’. A knotted mass of free-floating sargassum seaweed covers the surface, picked over by crabs, shrimp and curious fish. Young sea turtles shelter in the thick mat of vegetation, and most of the world’s freshwater eels are spawned here.

Sadly, these revolving ocean currents also pull in vast amounts of ocean plastics, which knot together with the sargassum to form so-called windrows: long rafts of free-floating debris. Even more disturbing, below the surface a fog of microplastics is steadily making its way into the marine food chain. The most terrifying ocean journey of all is one of our own making.

The Smog of the Sea chronicles a one-week journey through the remote waters of the Sargasso Sea; thesmogofthesea.com

The strange world of bee etiquette

Treat these complex insects with the respect they require and they will reward you with an abundance of honey. At least, that’s what the superstitions would have you believe…

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

When an otherwise amenable honey bee harpoons you before tumbling to the earth in her death throes, it’s commonly accepted that you must have done something to deserve it. Wasps are vindictive sods, horseflies are stealthy vampires, and hornets are psychopaths jacked up on insect steroids, but most of us have a vague notion that bees are honourable little souls who don’t sting unless offended somehow.

Delve into British and international folk culture, and you soon realise there are an awful lot of ways to offend a bee. My well-thumbed The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (Steve Roud, 2003) contains five pages on the subject, opening with the observation that “the key characteristic of bees [...] is that they are very sensitive and censorious creatures. ” They object to bad manners and domestic discord, they like to be introduced to visitors, and there are formal protocols in place for major events, such as weddings and funerals.

If it seems odd to behave so deferentially towards such miniscule creatures, consider that bees have commanded respect for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed bees were formed from the tears of Ra, while on Minoan Crete and in Phrygia they were associated with the great mother goddess. Greek philosophers admired their industry, and Virgil waxed lyrical about their moral character in The Georgics, noting that “beneath the shelter of majestic laws they live”. Germanic warriors likened them to tiny Valkyries who would bring them luck in battle, while Arabic writers in the 11th and 12th centuries valued their fastidious and loyal nature.

Bee respectful

Rulers throughout the ages have often felt kinship with the regal bee, and in some Norse, Celtic and Saxon cultures, honey or mead was considered valuable enough to be presented as royal tribute. The 5th-century Frankish king Childeric I was buried in a ceremonial cloak studded with 300 golden bees, and Napoleon adopted the same motif for his coronation robe. The 17th-century English apiarist William Butler sawbee society as a model for the perfect ‘Amazonian’ commonwealth, gushing that “they work for all, they watch for all, they fight for all [...] and all this under the government of one Monarch. ”

Humans have kept bees for millennia, and perhaps the abundance of bee-related etiquette is an attempt to understand the seemingly irrational intricacies of insect behaviour in our own terms. If your bees abandon their hive, it’s not really because you forgot to introduce a house guest. If they sting you, it’s not retaliation for a careless obscenity, and if they die off inexplicably, they haven’t done it out of spite because you didn’t bring them a bit of your communion wafer one Sunday. Bees swarm, sting or perish based on complicated environmental and internal factors that make little sense to all but the most knowledgeable entomologists. Much easier to think of a bee as a sort of kamikaze Jiminy Cricket, who will lay down her life without hesitation just to teach you a thing or two about good conduct.

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Putting hives in mourning

One of the most complicated portions of beehive etiquette concerns inheriting a colony of bees. Bees must be officially informed of the death of their previous owner, and must be formally put in mourning. Often the new owners are required to make a speech introducing themselves, and to present the bees with offerings of food. Flaunt these rules, and the bees are apt to leave the hives and follow their former master into the afterlife.

Writing in the 1890s, a country parson called J. C. Atkinson recounted one such episode from his boyhood in Essex, when the local rector died and the whole family trooped out to the beehives with “weird solemnity”. Each hive was bound with a strip of black ribbon, then tapped three times with the house key and informed that the master was dead. This sort of practice was once widespread, both in the UK and further afield. France and Switzerland had parallel traditions, and there was a rather fine variant from Guernsey, where it was an encouraging sign if the bees answered with a buzz when you knocked on the hive.

Ever-sensitive to change, bees also demanded certain formalities on wedding days. In Lancashire,
a simple marriage announcement to the bees would suffice, while in Brittany, newlyweds had to festoon the hives with red ribbon. In some areas of Croatia, meanwhile, a bride’s first job on entering her new home was to dab honey on the door lintels as a gesture of friendliness towards her new insect comrades.

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Sacred rituals

A 13th-century Welsh legal document called the Gwentian Code claims grandly that “The origin of bees is from Paradise and because of the sin of man they came thence, and God conferred His grace on them”.

As you might expect for creatures straight out of Eden, bees are especially hot on matters of religious observance, and they will soon abandon an owner who isn’t devout enough. Various British and European traditions over the years advised giving the bees a consecrated communion wafer every now and again, and more imaginative beekeepers would sometimes recount opening up the hive to find their bees reverently building ornate wax altars on which to place the sacred host.

Significant occasions in the church calendar often merited more elaborate offerings. In some parts of Germany, bees were provided with a special meal on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and were treated to a sprinkling of holy water and a waft of incense on Epiphany and Christmas Eve. In northern England, the bees seem to have participated more exuberantly during the festive season. As early as 1794, the lawyer and historian William Hutchinson recorded that Cumbrian bees in Bootle were “heard to sing” on Christmas Eve, while William Henderson’s Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879) mentions Northumbrian bees assembling promptly at midnight to “hum a Christmas hymn”.

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Bad behaviour

“It is a very general belief,” writes Hilda Ransome in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937), “that you must not swear at bees. They will either die or sting those who use bad language”.

Bees expect the highest levels of conduct from their owners. They will not stay in a quarrelsome home, nor will they tolerate avarice or promiscuity, often going on strike in protest. In his early beekeeping volume, The Feminine Monarchie (1609), Charles Butler advises that “thou must not be unchaste and uncleanly; for inpuritie and sluttishness [...] they utterly abhor”. Bees are especially attuned to ‘inpuritie’, and there are stories of canny country girls walking their boyfriends past the beehives, knowing that bees will attack a cheater.

Bees value scrupulous fairness and generosity in their owners. They appreciate morsels from your table on special occasions, and there’s an old British custom that when you harvest the honey from your hive, you’re supposed to give some to your neighbours, since the bees have undoubtedly plundered nectar from their flowers.

Even many modern apiarists are convinced that bees pick up on the characteristics of their human companions. My mother boasts about how tidy her honey bees keep their hive, while an acquaintance attributes his ‘chilled out’ bees to his own even temper. To my delight, I was once informed at a village fair that bees from my native Yorkshire are hardier and more industrious than the slothful Italian bees imported by some rookie beekeepers.

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Acquiring bees

Another of the most common bee superstitions is that they don’t like to be bought or sold like domestic animals. In some parts of the UK you can trade bees for gold or barter them for chickens or whatever, but buying a colony for actual money is a big no-no. One Victorian source from the Dartmoor area suggests half a sack of wheat as a reasonable trade, urging that “bees must not be bought, [for] they would thrive as ill as if they were stolen. ” It goes without saying, of course, that no good can come of stealing bees, and they will usually express their outrage by dying en masse.

The best way to acquire bees is to inherit them, or even better, to have a swarm deliberately decide to take up residence with you. The sight of a swarm without a home has always been an exciting prospect for a beekeeper, and there are all kinds of elaborate charms for encouraging passing clouds of bees to stay. In Roman times, people attempted to attract itinerant swarms with bells and tiny cymbals, believing that they found the sound appealing. Somehow, this refined practice evolved into the rather rowdier British custom of ‘tanging’ bees, in which villagers chased a swarm down the street banging pots and pans. It’s not clear whether this was to announce the presence of the swarm, to attract it, or to lay claim to it, but whatever the case, it must have been fun.

Words: Joly Braime

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now

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A bitter revival

While we may think of bitters as just being one ingredient in a cocktail, the scraps of available evidence suggest they were and continue to be an integral part of the creation

Illustrations by Bett Norris

Illustrations by Bett Norris

The craft cocktail movement has blossomed over the past decade; gone are pitchers of Long Island iced teas, replaced by the Negroni, crowned the ‘trendiest’ drink of 2018. A rise in speakeasy bars and artisan spirit making has created a boom in cocktail originality, led by a new genre of highly respected creative; the mixologist.

Not content with just serving the classics, bartenders are selecting their spirits with care, blending flavours with lashings of originality, and finding ways to add their own signature flair. And at the heart of this movement? A rediscovered appreciation for the humble bitter.

Surrounded by a hundred different types of craft gin, suddenly the diminutive bottle of Angostura that’s spent 10 years lurking at the back of the drinks cabinet doesn’t quite seem to cut it. Enter a new wave of bitters, determined to make their mark in the cocktails of the modern quaffers.

Representing the UK is Bitter Union, a husband and wife team that crafts bitters in small batches in Hampshire. Inspired by the resurgence in bitters Tom and Lucy saw in the US and Canada, they began making their own bitters at home, infusing botanicals in high proof alcohol for around four weeks. They grow many of the ingredients such as rhubarb and thyme themselves, starting with robust flavours and then refining the taste.

The importance of bitters in cocktails shouldn’t be underestimated: “It’s almost like salt and pepper for drinks,”Tom explains.“Bitters are special in that they are able to enhance existing flavours in the overall drink while also adding a delicate aroma that then takes it up to the next level in terms of sensory experience.”

Here’s our guide to four key bitter cocktail ingredients:

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Gentian (root)

Growing across Europe, gentian is one of the most commonly used plants in medicinal and cocktail bitters. Considered a ‘cooling’ bitter, its root is used to treat everything from indigestion to skin conditions. In the cocktail world it’s also indispensable, found as a core ingredient in both Campari and Angostura bitters.

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Wormwood (leaves)

An aromatic bitter, it’s known for helping with appetite loss and indigestion, as well as for its anti-parasitic properties. Before hops became widespread, it was used to add bitterness to beer, and is an essential ingredient in absinthe (the latin name for the plant is Artemisia absinthium). It is often blamed for the drink’s hallucinogenic reputation.

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Cinchona (bark)

Growing in South America, this tree held an important historic role that bridges the worlds of medicine and cocktails.The source of quinine, a natural anti- malarial, led to the creation of a medicinal ‘tonic water’, consumed widely by British officers in India. Many found the tonic water too bitter and added gin to make it more palatable and a classic drink was created.

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Bitter orange (peel)

The peel of the bitter or Seville orange is believed to improve digestion and reduce constipation.You will find it as an ingredient in Angostura bitters and Triple Sec, and the addition of a few drops of a bitters blend based around this will elevate a gin and tonic to another level.

Words: Steph Wetherell

This is an extract from a feature in issue eight of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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Adrift in the Atlantic

French biologist Alain Bombard was so convinced that castaways could survive purely on the sea’s natural provisions that he set out to prove it on a most extraordinary voyage

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In the spring of 1951, French biologist and physician Alain Bombard was asleep in the residents’ quarters of a hospital in Boulogne-sur-mer when he was woken by a call: the trawler Notre-Dame-de-Peyragues had missed her course in the mist and broken up on the outer breakwater of the harbour. Bombard arrived at a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life: 43 men piled up on top of each other “like dislocated puppets”, their feet bare and lifejackets intact. The doctor and his colleagues failed to revive a single one of them.

Bombard thought about how one simple error of navigation had caused the deaths of 43 men and orphaned 78 children. He thought of the 150 fishermen killed each year just in his region of France, and the 200,000 who suffered the same fate every year around the world. More than a quarter of them made it to a lifeboat, only to die in prolonged agony from lack of food and water, or the well-documented perils of losing one’s mind at sea.

Bombard became convinced that castaways could survive for long periods of time by feasting on what the sea could provide, and that countless lives could be saved if lifeboats were fitted with a few simple pieces of equipment: fish hooks, fine nets for collecting plankton – a source of vitamin C – and presses for squeezing fresh water out of fish. He even argued that drinking small amounts of seawater – a maximum of one and a half pints per day – could prolong life, contradicting centuries of evidence to the contrary. But how could he prove such a thing?

To demonstrate his point, in 1952, Bombard embarked on a singular voyage. In the hope of saving thousands of future castaways, he determined to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a 15-foot (4.5m) inflatable dinghy, using only the sea for sustenance. Onboard the aptly named l’Hérétique, he would have a sextant and a watch for navigating, his fishing kit, and a tarpaulin for shelter and catching rainwater. Emergency rations would be sealed within the craft, and checked by officials once he reached the other side of the Atlantic.

He set his sights on the West Indies, plotting a course between two dreaded dangers: the Doldrums and the Sargasso Sea. The former was an area of low pressure, where two powerful trade winds “meet in a tremendous conflict in a no-man’s land of violent storms, unpredictable turbulence and disquieting calms” (Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story, 1953). The latter was far more frightening.

On 19 October 1952 Bombard set off from the Canaries, cheered on by friends and accompanied by a “veritable convoy” of yachts. Even though the stiff breeze that sped him away from the harbour abandoned his lifeboat shortly after and left him drifting, he slept well that first night, tucking his tarpaulin up to his neck like a blanket and dropping off under a “lovely, luminous sky”.

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It didn’t take long for the reality of his solo voyage to sink in, however. After two more nights drifting aimlessly, a light breeze, which soon became a tempest, pushed l’Hérétique further into the Atlantic where it tossed the inflatable craft about like a cork. Confident in the lifeboat’s stability, Bombard decided to sleep it out, waking soon after to find himself completely surrounded by water. He began frantically bailing, scooping water out with his hat for the next two hours while more waves broke over the boat.

Being only a few days into his voyage, Bombard felt confident in his ability to weather the storms. But as October wore on, l’Hérétique continued to be buffeted by gales. The sail ripped; if he managed to sleep at all, Bombard did so shivering, encrusted with salt. When not bailing water or stitching up his sail, he mused on the nature of fear and despair. Above all, he was afraid of fear itself, recognising that increasing tiredness and exhaustion led him to expect the worst.

To keep his growing melancholia at bay, Bombard busied himself with catching fish, squeezing water out of the small ones using a makeshift press and cutting slits in the larger ones and drinking straight from their bodies like some Gollum of the Atlantic. He trapped seabirds and ate them raw and netted two daily spoonfuls of plankton to top up his vitamin C levels and keep scurvy at bay.

Sea-fearing

But fear kept creeping in and, come late October, Bombard had become fixated by the condition of his boat. Each day, he inspected the inflatable craft meticulously, noting where friction had worn the rubberised canvas thin, prising barnacles off to keep its undercarriage in tip-top condition, and putting his ear to the material to check for sounds of rubbing like a doctor with a stethoscope.

So imagine his horror when, in the middle of the Atlantic, he began to be hounded by swordfish. By now, Bombard had become a dab hand at batting away sharks, but he was defenceless against swordfish, fearing that he would enrage them if he engaged in conflict (swordfish were, he had read, prone to fits of fury). He described “12 hours of terror” fending off “a large swordfish of undeniably menacing aspect … seemingly in a rage, his dorsal fin raised like hackles”.

It’s worth noting that, by this point, Bombard was also completely lost. “[I] can no longer determine my longitude with certainty,” he admitted on 26 October. “I shall just have to guess it from the time the sun reaches the meridian”. Stubbornly, he pushed on, but his body was beginning to show the effects of his journey. He started to lose toenails and developed a rash. Losing weight, he found it impossible to get comfortable; every position he sat or lay in caused him pain.

By November, having failed to read an accurate longitude for weeks, Bombard was convinced that he was approaching the end of his journey, unaware that he hadn’t yet passed the Cape Verde Islands. Expecting to see land each new day, and being sorely disappointed, his mood dwindled. And as the days wore on, he started to become increasingly superstitious: he became obsessed with seabirds, which teased him to despair with their promise of land; Wednesdays took on a special meaning; and he believed that he could calculate wind speed by simply listening to its note against the sail.

The only tangible presence being his own, Bombard began to take comfort in the creatures around him, documenting his encounters with all the drama and character you would expect from someone who hadn’t had human contact for months. He was visited at four o’clock each day by the same petrel and was kept company for almost the entire journey by a shoal of ‘dolphins’ – actually dorados, a large type of fish, which jostled around his boat. “I began to share their sensations and reactions,” he wrote, “eating the same food and catching the same flying fish”.

Between the horror of swordfish attacks and the creeping onset of paranoia, Bombard also experienced moments of pure wonder – a half-eaten shearwater carcass illuminating the sail with a ghostly phosphorescence – and at times, he became overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, writing long eloquent odes to the ocean. Staying awake one evening to check the time of the moonrise, Bombard was overcome by the feeling of what a strange and formidable element the sea is, writing:

It seems to form part of a system so entirely different from normal existence that it might belong to another planet. But there it is at my feet, alive yet inscrutable. Here and there lights appear in the depths... They look like stars half hidden in a cloudy night sky. The fish around me leap and swim to and fro, protagonists of an unseen and mysterious existence. Life at the surface is only the thin upper layer of another world.

Approaching desperation

Around mid-November, time began to weigh heavily on Alain Bombard. He suffered a 14-day bout of diarrhoea and would go days without sleep. To top it off, the skin on his feet had started to peel away in strips and he was down to his last couple of toenails. Towards the end of November, the wind disappeared entirely and our castaway drifted for over a week, his mood ebbing, his eyes aching from straining on the horizon. Unbeknown to him, he had reached the edge of the Sargasso Sea.

Stewing in his own thoughts under a terrible sun, Bombard soon fell “prey to every emotion”. His paranoia became overwhelming; he believed the clouds were deliberately avoiding the sun so as to deny him shade. He decided that he would not attempt to fight the next storm, trusting his fate to God. “What have I done to deserve all this?” he wrote, dictating his will and final wishes, and holding the authors of his castaways’ handbook accountable for his inevitable death.

But just as Bombard was falling into despair, a miracle happened – and it did, in fact, fall on a Wednesday. He ran into the Arakaka, a passenger cargo steamer out of Liverpool. At first he was reluctant to board, fearing it would invalidate his experiment, but when the captain shouted his location over the tannoy – and it was 600 miles (966km) further east than he thought – Bombard scrambled aboard shouting: “This is it. Fifty-three days, I give up”.

He accepted a shower and a light meal: a fried egg, spoonful of cabbage and a slither of liver. He knew he would be held accountable for his self-imposed rule breaking, but his need for human contact was too great and accepting this hospitality, arguably, saved his life. The encounter gave Bombard the morale boost he so sorely needed, and he set off with renewed vigour on 10 December, having been taught how to read longitude.

On Christmas Eve 1952, the French biologist staggered on to a Barbados beach, 65 days after setting out from the Canaries. He had lost 55 pounds (25kg), was severely anaemic, and found it hard to walk, but he was alive. And, crucially, he had proved his point, at least in his own mind.


This story featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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For more extraordinary tales of remarkable journeys, pick up a copy of our latest book The Odysseum: Strange journeys that obliterated convention (Chambers, 2018)

Newspapers from the edge of the world

Born out of trouble and strife in the world’s most inhospitable places, handmade newspapers were essential for passing the time and boosting morale and comradeship in the bleakest of circumstances

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The Wipers Times (1916)

Beneath the bludgeoned Belgian city of Ypres, accompanied by nothing more than a printing press, a dusty gramophone and a piano (played full blast to mask the sound of German shells), two British soldiers – Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson – published the first 12-page edition of what became the ‘unofficial’ newspaper of the Western Front. The Wipers Times (a phonetic pronunciation of Ypres by British soldiers) contained a mix of tales from the trenches and bawdy British satire lampooning senior allied officials. Needless to say, it was a welcome reprieve from the horrifying realities of the First World War. Twenty two editions were published before the war came to a close.

The Bullfrog Miner (1905)

Finding its feet at the end of the Gold Rush, The Bullfrog Miner was one of many short-lived periodicals providing news for mining communities. According to folklore, the initial rush to the Bullfrog district caused a heated battle between two editors, CW Nicklin and Frank P Mannix, who each claimed rights to the eponymous and irrefutably catchy namesake. After heated exchanges, the dispute was eventually settled when Nicklin renamed his paper The Beatty Bullfrog Miner (far catchier).

The Vernon Guard (1890)

Legend has it that the wildest of the Wild West were, in fact, the editors of the frontier newspapers that circulated throughout the Cattle Kingdom. Never afraid to put their opinion to paper, they were considered by many as unofficial community orators, chronicling the lives of their readership. So outspoken was the editor of the Vernon Guard, he once met with the threat of suffering a “sufficient number of holes” by the local sheriff. Sources suggest the editor did meet an untimely end; the pen is not, it would seem, mightier than a gun.

The Snowbound (1890)

The Snowbound is the stuff of journalistic legend. The story goes that in 1890, during a perilous Nevada winter, 600 passengers were stranded in Reno on the Southern Pacific Railroad. George T McCully took it upon himself to relieve the distress of his freezing companions by printing a paper. The Snowbound, “issued every weekday afternoon by S P Prisoner in Car No. 36”, was a four-page daily with the outside pages written in blue ink and the inside written in pencil. Sources suggest the publication wasn’t entirely successful, possibly because the editor charged the princely sum of 25¢ per issue.

The Antarctic Sun (1997)

Serving scientists, explorers and polar gardeners alike, The Antarctic Sun reports on all manner of news from this remote part of the world, funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the US Antarctic Programme. Expect to find stories on procedure for budding physicists on the search for neutrinos, comic strips, musings on the ‘utilitarian’ beauty of research station architecture and the cold hard facts of life in a sub-zero climate. The current editor, Mike Lucibella, publishes weekly during the austral summer, with the occasional mid-winter special.

Words by Matthew Iredale

These stories feature in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, alongside a fascinating article about the history of polar newspapers, written by Professor Elizabeth Leane. Pick up a copy of issue 8 today.

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