Struggling to hear a man shout six inches from your ear in tropical storm-force winds at sea; desperately trying to control your pounding pulse and weakening bowels as dead-faced pirates come alongside your ship off Colombia; laboring to mentally calculate the distance to a ghost-like vessel you're pursuing under sail in the moonlight along the shadowy coast of Cuba; staring mesmerized at a massive brown fortress rising ominously out of a jade-green, powder-blue horizon in the Dry Tortugas.
All these are vivid, emotional scenes-and far away from the writing room in my quiet old bungalow on Matlacha Island, Fla. I wrote those words from my own memory of those experiences.
"What!" you may say. "From memory? Those are from a hundred years ago. Just how old are you?"
Well, I'm not that old.
Tasting the Flavor of History
Everyone knows that sifting through documents and conducting background research is important to all writers, but let me tell you, actually going out there is crucial to accurately painting the scene in words. Not from imagination only gained from a book, but from personal memory.
I call it adding the "flavor" of history, and I use these sea experiences in my non-fiction work and in my novels. Flavor is just as important as the facts, since it lets the reader know what the people felt, sensed, thought. And how could you understand that unless you did what they did, where they did it?
It is surprising, really, how many experiences at sea or along the watery fringes of land have not changed in centuries. A sailor from the 19th century would instantly understand and appreciate the scenes described on the previous page. He probably lived through some of them.
And as amazing as it seems, sailors nowadays also can experience them-I've been doing it for over 30 years. Of course, it's part of my work as a writer, but I've got to admit it's a thrill too. Very few venues allow you to feel what men centuries ago felt. The sea is the greatest and most awesome of them all.
Emotions from the past.now
Just recently, I was aboard a freighter battling a force-nine gale in the Caribbean, trying to hear the German second mate as he yelled into my ear about a fishing vessel periodically disappearing in the troughs of the 20-foot waves off to starboard. On that same voyage all hands turned to and repelled some pirates attempting to board the ship during a monsoon rainstorm off the Pacific coast port (a true scum-hole) of Buenaventura, Colombia.
Real pirates? Yes, it's a big problem in the world today and getting worse.
In 1987, I was aboard a sloop desperately trying to catch a competitor (we never did) along the moonlit coast of Cuba while racing to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Back in 1985, I stood on deck fascinated as Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas slowly appeared on the horizon, illuminated in the crisp morning sunlight.
Every one of these experiences was timeless for seamen, as valid in 1855 as in 2005. The intriguing thing is that you don't have to go off to far-flung parts of the sea to see and feel what seamen felt a century ago. Right here, on the lower Gulf coast of Florida, among our islands and bays and rivers, you can experience what they did.
Feel the History
Sail along the bay shoreline of Sanibel Island in the southern end of Pine Island Sound. As you look to the west along the Sanibel bayou country, you are seeing the exact sight the early settlers did in the 1830s. In 1836, a small sloop sailed through there loaded with escapees from the Indian attack on Useppa Island. All they saw was tangled mangrove, too. Think about it. Where would you land to seek help escaping from the enemy?
Some December morning, quietly drift off Cape Haze in Charlotte Harbor. Look north and west, and you will view what the sailors on the U.S.S. Rosalie saw in late December 1863 as they drifted help-
lessly without wind, while the Union wounded from the Battle of Myakka River moaned and cried on the deck. The nearest doctor was eight miles away, aboard a naval vessel at Boca Grande, but the Rosalie couldn't reach it.
Can you hear the wounded? Can you feel the desperation of the crew?
What Would You Do?
Head down to the Ten Thousand Islands and gaze on a shoreline unchanged in centuries. You'll be seeing what Lieutenant McLaughlin, U.S.N., looked at as he led joint Army-Navy efforts to find and battle the elusive Seminole in 1841 in a 20-year jungle conflict unlike any other in our history to that date.
Where would you begin your search in that maze of green islands? Can you sense someone watching you from the mangroves?
Go a little further south to the Shark River and venture up that beautiful and eerie pathway into the Everglades-just as the famous Captain David Porter did aboard the U.S.S. Shark in 1821 while searching for pirates and renegades on the newly acquired Florida coast.
What are you thinking about this strange new American territory, so unlike anything anywhere else in our nation? And what would you do to find them?
Off Marco Island's Cape Romano, some evening turn off the boat's engine and turn facing the west, away from the lights and sounds of the city.
Sit there and think about the men of the U.S.S. Annie, a naval schooner (and former blockade-runner herself) that mysteriously exploded off the Cape a few days after Christmas 1864, while en route from Key West to her patrol station at Sanibel Island.
No one from the ship was ever found-not even a body-and no explanation for the obliteration of the ship was ever decided upon. It's a mystery to this day.
Are you feeling a chill come over your spine as you sit there, knowing what happened?
And someday make the voyage to the Dry Tortugas and watch as that huge fortress (that took 30 years to build) comes up out of the horizon. It was a dreadful sight for thousands of men during and after the Civil War, for they knew that hundreds would die there of diseases they
didn't understand, already debilitated by thirst and hunger under the brutal tropical sun.
Variously described as the Gibraltar of the Gulf and the Devil's Island of America, it is a haunting place.
Can you feel the tightness in their guts, hear the nervous pitch of their voices, see the fear in their eyes, as the prisoners and guards alike saw their future death rise from the middle of the sea like a monster savoring new prey?
Understanding Who They Were
These moments of reflection help us understand far more than merely the facts of what happened in his-tory of this coast-they let us appreciate what people felt in their minds and hearts. Giving us an idea of why they did what they did, these experiences also allow us, in "sophisti-cated" 2005, to be far more sympathetic to those brave souls who have gone before us in Southwest Florida.
So take the time to go out there on the water. Turn off that noisy engine, sit quietly, breath in the salt air, look around and listen. You'll be surprised what you can learn...and feel.
Robert N. Macomber is a nationally recognized maritime writer and speaker, and the author of the award-winning Honor Series of naval fiction. Visit www.robertmacomber.com to learn more.