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Of Penguin Worms and Hairy Water

Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island by Ernest Shackleton and his men, April 1916

As the ongoing silence in Tonguesville no doubt suggests, I’ve been a little busy, mostly trying to whip The Penguin Book of the Ocean into shape. I’m pleased to say that it’s finally beginning to take shape (indeed I’d go so far as to say it’s looking really good) and I’m not going to reflect too much on the irony that I’ve been so busy reading about the bloody ocean I’ve barely visited visit the beach all summer (admittedly the three month old baby may also have something to do with that, but it sounds better if I blame the book).

My irritation at being kept from the beach aside, I think it’s safe to say the real joy of putting this book together has been the reading it’s involved. Some of it’s been achingly beautiful, a lot of it’s been fascinating, and some of it’s been deeply chastening in its reminders of the sheer dangerousness and brutality of life at sea.

That being the case, I thought I’d share two snippets from the masses of books and documents I’ve worked my way through that have really stuck with me.

Both are from records of almost unimaginably dreadful struggles against the elements (there have been moments in the making of this book when I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t just retitle it The Penguin Book of Truly Appalling Journeys by Open Boat and be done with it). The first is from Hakluyt’s account of the journey of Captain John Davis and his men aboard the Desire in 1592. Separated from the rest of their fleet in the Straits Of Magellan they made their way east to the Falklands, where, mad with hunger and thirst, they fell upon the local penguin population with a vengeance, killing 14,000 in the space of a few days. Without salt they could only attempt to dry their haul, which they did, and so, on a boat piled to the gunwales with rotting penguin meat they set sail for England, and home. The trip was difficult, to say the least, but eventually, after managing not to die of thirst or go mad while becalmed they reached warmer waters.

Which is when things got really bad:

“After we came near unto the sun, our dried penguins began to corrupt, and there bred in them a most loathsome and ugly worm of an inch long. This worm did so mightily increase, and devour our victuals, that there was in reason no hope how we should avoid famine, but be devoured of these wicked creatures: there was nothing that they did not devour, only iron excepted: our clothes, boots, shoes, hats, shirts, stockings: and for the ship, they did so eat the timbers, as that we greatly feared they would undo us by gnawing through the ship’s side. Great was the care and diligence of our captain, master and company to consume these vermin, but the more we laboured to kill them, the more they increased; so that at the last we could not sleep for them, but they would eat our flesh, and bite like mosquitoes.

“In this woeful case, after we had passed the Equinoctial toward the north, our men began to fall sick of such a monstrous disease, as I think the like was never heard of: for in their ankles it began to swell; from thence in two days it would be in their breasts, so that they could not draw their breath. . . . For all this, divers grew raging mad and some died in most loathsome and furious pain. It were incredible to write our misery as it was; there was no man in perfect health, but the captain and one boy. The master being a man of good spirit, with extreme labour bore out his grief, so that it grew not upon him. To be short, all our men died except sixteen, of which there were but five able to move.”


The other, much shorter snippet is from Shackleton’s account of he and his men’s extraordinary journey from Elephant Island, just off the coast of Antarctica, to South Georgia in April 1916 (if you haven’t read South, do: it’s one of the more amazing books ever written).

After more than a fortnight alone in an open boat in the waters of the Southern Ocean they came into sight of land, only to discover the seas were so huge, and the shore so hazardous they couldn’t land. At which point they:

“stood off shore again, tired almost to the point of apathy. Our water had long been finished. The last was about a pint of hairy liquid, which we strained through a bit of gauze from the medicine-chest”.

My OED’s in storage, so I haven’t had a chance to check whether “hairy” has an archaic meaning I’m not aware of, or whether it’s just poetic license on Shackleton’s part, but the notion of “hairy liquid” certainly isn’t one I’ll be forgetting in a hurry.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barbara #

    James, I completely forgot and you have reminded me. Have you got anything about Pelsaert & Co (and the legendary Wiebbe Hayes) and their incredible voyage from the Abrolhos Islands off WA to Java/Batavia in Indonesia after the wreck of the ship and massacre of the survivors of the VOC ship Batavia (1629). There are heaps of references. It is legend around these parts, an epic voyage! Let me know if you haven’t got anything and I’ll point you in the right direction.

    February 10, 2010
  2. Adam G #

    The ocean is a beautiful bitch.

    I’ll be recommending your book to a mate who was shipwrecked with three others on the way to Fiji about 10 years ago. He said there was nothing romantic about it at all – just 7 days of sandflies, darkness and wondering if they were going to die.

    February 11, 2010
  3. In heaven’s name, what were those omnivorous worms from the Hakluyt account? What is there that eats wood, flesh, and cloth?

    February 15, 2010
  4. Barbara #

    Shades of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow … gotta watch those worms!

    February 16, 2010

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