Shipwreck, 1854, by Ivan Aivazovsky (Armenian-Russian, 1817–1900)
Unless one is an atheist, it seems natural for people facing imminent death in a tempestuous sea to turn to God for help. Colonel Archibald Gracie, a graduate of the United States Military Academy and surviving passenger of the Titanic, was one such individual. He wrote in his 1913 book ‘The Truth About the Titanic’:
Prayerful thoughts now began to rise in me that my life might be preserved and I be restored to my loved ones at home. I weighed myself in the balance, doubtful whether I was thus deserving of God’s mercy and protection.
[Gracie’s book can be downloaded here]
In the following pair of poems, faith comes to the fore as humans grapple with their mortality in a stormy sea.
Song of the Red War-Boat
by Rudyard Kipling (English, 1865–1936)
Shove off from the wharf-edge! Steady!
Watch for a smooth! Give way!
If she feels the lop already
She’ll stand on her head in the bay.
It’s ebb–it’s dusk–it’s blowing–
The shoals are a mile of white,
But (snatch her along! ) we’re going
To find our master to-night.
For we hold that in all disaster
Of shipwreck, storm, or sword,
A Man must stand by his Master
When once he has pledged his word.
Raging seas have we rowed in
But we seldom saw them thus,
Our master is angry with Odin–
Odin is angry with us!
Heavy odds have we taken,
But never before such odds.
The Gods know they are forsaken.
We must risk the wrath of the Gods!
Over the crest she flies from,
Into its hollow she drops,
Cringes and clears her eyes from
The wind-torn breaker-tops,
Ere out on the shrieking shoulder
Of a hill-high surge she drives.
Meet her! Meet her and hold her!
Pull for your scoundrel lives!
The thunders bellow and clamor
The harm that they mean to do!
There goes Thor’s own Hammer
Cracking the dark in two!
Close! But the blow has missed her,
Here comes the wind of the blow!
Row or the squall’Il twist her
Broadside on to it!–Row!
Heark’ee, Thor of the Thunder!
We are not here for a jest–
For wager, warfare, or plunder,
Or to put your power to test.
This work is none of our wishing–
We would house at home if we might–
But our master is wrecked out fishing.
We go to find him to-night.
For we hold that in all disaster–
As the Gods Themselves have said–
A Man must stand by his Master
Till one of the two is dead.
That is our way of thinking,
Now you can do as you will,
While we try to save her from sinking
And hold her head to it still.
Bale her and keep her moving,
Or she’ll break her back in the trough…
Who said the weather’s improving,
Or the swells are taking off?
Sodden, and chafed and aching,
Gone in the loins and knees–
No matter–the day is breaking,
And there’s far less weight to the seas!
Up mast, and finish baling–
In oar, and out with mead–
The rest will be two-reef sailing…
That was a night indeed!
But we hold it in all disaster
(And faith, we have found it true!)
If only you stand by your Master,
The Gods will stand by you!
The Wreck of the Hesperus
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (American, 1807–1882)
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtér,
To bear him company.
Blue were her eyes as the fairy flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.
The Skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.
Then up and spake an old Sailór,
Had sailed the Spanish Main,
“I pray thee, put into yonder port,
for I fear a hurricane.
“Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!”
The skipper, he blew whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.
Colder and louder blew the wind,
A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
And the billows frothed like yeast.
Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable’s length.
“Come hither! come hither! my little daughtér,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow.”
He wrapped her warm in his seaman’s coat
Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
And bound her to the mast.
“O father! I hear the church bells ring,
O, say, what may it be?”
“ ’Tis a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!” —
And he steered for the open sea.
“O father! I hear the sound of guns;
O, say, what may it be?”
“Some ship in distress, that cannot live
In such an angry sea!”
“O father! I see a gleaming light.
O say, what may it be?”
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.
Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.
Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
That savéd she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave,
On the Lake of Galilee.
And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
Tow’rds the reef of Norman’s Woe.
And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf,
On the rocks and hard sea-sand.
The breakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.
She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.
Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
Ho! ho! the breakers roared!
At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.
The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.
Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!
Free to download:
Compiled by Barista Uno, this illustrated pamphlet contains six beautiful prayers to inspire seafarers, whatever their faith, and give them the fresh courage to face the challenges of life.