Matt Heath: Shipwrecks and negative visualisation might help in lockdown


Things are bad at the moment, but they could be worse. Like many Kiwis, I enjoy tales of ye olde shipwrecks. I’m also a fan of negative visualisation. Put these two things together, and you have a sure-fire recipe for contentedness.

Imagine, if you will, it’s 1884, and you’re a 17-year-old sailor by the name of Dick Parker. He set sail from Southampton bound for our part of the world on the yacht Mignonette.

Around the Cape of Good Hope, a gale blew up, a wave broke on deck, and everyone went overboard.

Parker ended up in a tiny wooden dinghy with three men, a turnip and no water. They ate the turnip in the first few hours. Twenty days later, still 1600 nautical miles from land, the crew ate Parker. He didn’t have a wife or kids back home, so he became dinner.

Captain Tom Dudley snuck up, whispered, ‘Richard, your time has come’ and stabbed the teenager in the throat. Dudley collected Parker’s blood and drank it in front of him.

Auckland’s endless lockdown is rough, but at least your workmates aren’t eating your liver. Not yet anyway. Next time you feel hard done by, remember the plight of Dick Parker, and you might feel a little better.

The story of the Mignonette and 22 other tales of nautical mishap, misery and mystery feature in “Worse Things Happen at Sea”, a book by author John McCrystal. The wrecks take place here and around the world.

Three of them are on the Auckland Islands, 465km south of the South Island, one in the Bay of Islands, and another in the Manakau Harbour. It’s a riveting read that provides all the negative visualisation you’ll ever need.

Take the USS Indianapolis. There were 1195 souls on board the Indy on July 30, 1945, when a Japanese submarine fired six torpedoes at her 200 nautical miles from the Philippines. Three hundred and forty-five died immediately, 850 ended up in the ocean. Some died of thirst; others went crazy drinking saltwater and drifted off. The lucky survivors lasted three days covered in oil before the sharks turned up. I often think to myself, “I’d much rather be here than floating around dehydrated and freezing to death in the dark watching my friends get picked off by sharks.”

“Worse things Happen at Sea” is the type of book you read and immediately order copies for your Dad, brother-in-law and best mate (I got my copies from The Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden).

About 10 years ago, broadcaster Graeme Hill (who provides the foreword) reached out to McCrystal, and together they made the radio series “Shipwreck Tales”. It ran for two years and proved so popular fans harangued McCrystal until he wrote this book.

I read it in an afternoon. The next day I went back and read my favourite chapters again -“Madmen and their gold: General Grant (1866)”; “Curiouser and curiouser: Mystery Wreck (c.1810)” and”Epic show-off fail ll: Costa Concordia (2012)”.

The Wahine (1968) isn’t the worst disaster in the book, but for me, it’s the most heart-wrenching. Many of these tales happened so long ago they have a romantic feel. 17th-century misery is one thing, but there are people around now who lost loved ones in the Wahine disaster.

Shirley Hick had three children under six on the boat with her while pregnant with another. She lost two of them, Alma and Gordon. On hearing of the disaster, heroes Jim Toulis, his mates Bill Bell and Colin Athier jumped in a little runabout and headed out into the brutal storm to help. They picked up six survivors and towed 85 back to Seatoun.

“As they proceeded, themselves overloaded and with their outboard motor struggling with the wind and the dead weight of the lifeboat, they passed people in the water who called out to them. There was nothing they could do to help them.”

The Wahine wasn’t on an epic journey across the world, this was a routine ferry ride to Wellington.

Everyone loves a mystery, and none is better than that of the Mary Celeste (1872). She was found sailing by herself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 1100km from Gibraltar.

“There was plenty of food and fresh water aboard; there were no signs of a fire.” The entire crew just disappeared without a trace, leaving the boat intact. Was it aliens? No.

A few months back, I asked the author if a lifetime of studying horrific shipwrecks had made him wary of going to sea. He answered, “Nah I’m sailing a yacht to Tahiti tomorrow.” I hope he made it.

“Worse Things Happen at Sea” by John McCrystal is a fantastic read. It might just make you feel better about your current situation.

Worse Things Happen at Sea -Tales of nautical mishap, misery and mystery from New Zealand and around the world by John McCrystal – Bateman Books.

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