“Water, water, every where/not any drop to drink”, is an oft quoted phrase from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, told by an old salt, tells the story of a long ago voyage. The sailor heedlessly killed the albatross that had led the ship safely out of raging Antarctic seas. The sea spirits retaliated and blew the ship to the becalmed doldrums where there was no wind, clean water, or fresh fruit and vegetables to be had. This makes for a great story for young kids to tell their Boomer grandparents who don’t appreciate kale smoothies. The Mariner’s crew credited their cursed luck on a sailor’s avian crime against nature. The punishment rendered was to wrap the dead albatross around his neck. Weeks passed as the crew’s teeth rotted, skins blistered, and souls withered.
There are a lot of takes on Coleridge’s poem including one that it’s a tale about scurvy. When Magellean and Cook explored the seas discovering new worlds that had always been, more sailors died of scurvy than all the soldiers who perished during the Civil War.
There’d be no Moby Dick if Ismael had listened to the Nantucketeer who warned, ““Go out with that crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.” More pirates died from disease than from cannon balls. Their breath reeked, necks rattled, bones crackled, and vivid nightmares purloined their sanity. Yet, none among them cried out “I’ll trade my silver, gems, and rum for an equal weight of cranberries, lemons, and brussel sprouts.”
We are sailing a turbulent time locked in the irons of a wind that is confounding life on land and sea. Scurvy-stricken 18th century sailors felt better when they could smell land and feel the sold earth beneath their feet. This led to the healing strategy of “earth bathing”. It was a simple, pragmatic cure; get the stricken sailor home, relax him in a box of clean dirt, and feed him well. Folks believed that scurvy wasn’t really a seasickness is was homesickness. The stricken were believed to suffer from a deep longing to be safe, on dry land with their loved ones. And lo, with the pleasures associated with warm beds, hot meals, and time to reconnect with family, health was restored.
Common sense holds true today as around the globe people are being asked to avoid crowded harbors and ships bound for distant ports via air and sea. Take Dr. Semmelweis’ 19th century life-changing advice to the medical world, “DOCTORS, FIRST WASH YOUR HANDS – THEN DO NO HARM!” He was the first physician to understand that fevers are contagious. One way to stop an illness from spreading to others is to wash your hands!
The second, similar bit of advice comes from the captains of sailing ships, swab your decks – keep them clean! And if you are sick, stay put for a bit. Being home sick is better than being homesick for a place you’ll never reach. Take an earth bath or at least wash your hands. If your body is blown from icy waters to scorching seas – don’t panic – be prudent. Don’t wait until the end of April to call in a May Day. Avoid scurvy too, stay home, put limes in your rum and read a good book.
Why should any of us defy the wisdom of the Ancient Mariner, a practical whaler, or brilliant Dr. Semmelweis? Who wants to take the chance of waking up next to a scurvy pirate with a bloody albatross around his neck? Not, I.