A First-Person Account of the Sinking of the Bounty

What a fantastic piece of writing has come to light — a first-person reflection on what it was like to live on the Bounty, to watch her sink, and to fathom the depth of what had happened. 

*****

[This piece was written by Robin Beth Schaer for The Paris Review on November 2, 2012. Excerpt reprinted with Robin’s permission.]

“FALLING OVERBOARD

At first, I couldn’t sleep on the ship. At night, bunked beneath the waterline, I put my hand against the wooden hull and imagined dark water on the other side pressing back. I lay awake holding my breath, picturing the route I would swim through a maze of cabins and hatches if the ship went down. In port, Bounty had looked tremendous: one hundred and eighty feet long, three masts stretching a hundred feet into the sky, and a thousand square yards of canvas sails. But underway, with ocean spreading toward horizon in every direction, she was small, and inside her I was even smaller.

I want to look away from the broken ship with her masts snapped and hull submerged. I want to blur the crew lifted by helicopters from twenty foot seas. I want to veer from the Captain, washed overboard, and drifting alone in rough waters. I say the truth is unfathomable and the phrase snags in my throat, a trope already taken from the sea. I catch myself saying fathom again: a word that once meant embrace, and then the length from arm to arm of rope or water, and now means understanding. Bounty is on the sea floor and her Captain lost (my ship, my Captain gone); I don’t want to hold, or measure the depth, or understand this loss.”

[PLEASE read the full story here: (http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/11/02/falling-overboard/). It is very short (only a few more paragraphs than above) but well worth your read. When you’ve read it, come back.]

*****

It was a great story, wasn’t it? Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I can sympathize with a great deal of what she says — the things that she did, and the fact that she had to go to sleep believing that people she’d just barely met would keep her safe, and that she would do the same for them a few hours later.

On a ship — especially when you first start out and are both physically and mentally exhausted — it’s often all too tempting to stand a watch with only one eye open. We’re in the middle of a wide open lake, you think to yourself at 3AM. What could we possibly hit?

Selfishness. That’s all that is. The belief that you somehow omnisciently know that nothing will go wrong under your watch. I won’t lie — it’s easy to forget that there are others relying on you. Thirty other people sleeping below, hammocks rocking gently back and forth from their lashings on the ceiling — you can hear the creaking of the ropes, but it doesn’t remind you through the tired haze in your head that you are responsible for more than yourself.

But a ship is not a one-man show. You cannot survive on a ship without cooperation and without trust. Trust that you don’t need to watch the time because your mate will tell you when the watch is up, trust that another hand will grab the clew when it’s pulling back too hard, and the most difficult trust of all — trust that, when the ship really is reeling toward a rocky crash and you grab the lines for all you’re worth, you are making a difference.

I think that the way that she describes her activities, the furling of sails, the pinrail, and everything else, is a spot-on reflection of what I did on the Niagara, so hopefully now you have a glimpse of how I spent my time. She mentions her contemplations about how easy it would be to just slip off the ship or have an accident and just die. While I only felt that to a lesser degree, since we did not face the same storms on the Great Lakes that she did in bigger waters, that moment when Captain shouted to us from the bridge to brace the yards and whip the ship around shocked me into that mindset. We dropped out of the Tall Ships Race at that point in order to search for a boy missing in the waters since the previous night. That, for me, was the moment when I realized that it could happen. Not just in books, movies, or the meandering stories of older folk recounting their younger days. It could happen now; it could happen to me.

I was the one standing watch when we searched. If a person were to spot that six year old boy, it would be me, since that was my duty on the ship at that time. It’s a feeling that you can never forget — I can recall it clearly even after such a long time. Will I find him? Can I find him? If I do, what will I find? What if I don’t see anything?

This is nothing compared to the “unfathomable” feelings that Robin described as she climbed into the life raft. I have great respect for what she and the others went through; their experiences obviously far surpass my own.

I truly appreciate Robin for her work on the Bounty, for sharing her valuable perspective about what happened that day, and for giving me permission to use her work. As the survivors begin to speak out about what happened, I believe that all people can learn something not only of sailing and of its foreign way of life but also of themselves. 

*****

For those of you who may be wondering where this blog is headed in the future, an in-depth exploration of my time on the Flagship Niagara will be appearing in the next few months. If you’ve been curious about what happened during my time on the ship, stick around for the next few months as I finish my travel chronicles and transition into short stories that recount what happened to me each and every day on the brig. 

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