Worse Things Happen At Sea by John McCrystal
Humans have a penchant for sea travel. Like a beacon it draws us. For centuries international travel relied on the ocean and the sea bearing vessels that traversed it. With any form of transportation comes a chance of dread and disaster. Cars have their minor to major skirmishes; the train had the Times Square derailment; the aeroplane had the Concord, even the blimp had the Hindenburg. But it is the ship that has caused so many tales over the years, from the Titanic to our own Tararua and Wahine. Even the infamous Bermuda Triangle with its mystique is centred around the sinking of ships.
It is the premise of the famous and infamous ship troubles (aptly referred to in the book as ‘mishap, misery and mystery’) that drives the narratives of this book Worse Things Happen at Sea by John McCrystal. Not quite marine archeology - but pretty close - McCrystal retells the stories of over 20 nautical dramas that have unfolded over time, both locally and internationally. Obviously a master of his craft, he puts the reader back in the moment through vivid imagery and remarkable detail.
The text is split into three broad sections covering the three ‘M’s, ‘mishap’ which discusses issues in and around sea including the ‘Indianapolis’ mishap of 1945 where survivors of this one still meet even now; ‘misery’ which captures the Tararua, the Titanic and the Wahine and makes for phenomenal reading; and finally ‘mystery’ which contains some remarkable stories of the unknown and the unexplained. This final section has everything from the spooky to the surreal to the plain stupid (it’s a shame that this didn’t come out a couple of years later as, to be sure, the Panama Canal blockage by the Ever Green container ship would have received at least a couple of pages!)
It’s not so much the stories themselves that capture the imagination in Worse Things Happen At Sea - they are fascinating in and of themselves - but it is the way they are told. The enthusiasm for sharing their stories, the depth of the research and the painstaking detail that McCrystal has included makes for a thorough and all the more entertaining read. It’s the presentation of the story that surrounds the event that draws you in. The way McCrystal draws out the experience, and presents the imagery in full that makes the stories fascinating.
As someone not well versed in the nautical history of problems on the briny blue, it was both entertaining and enjoyable to learn more about events in our own history in New Zealand that have shaped a lot of what we know and do still today. While obviously drawn to the standout favourites like the Titanic and Wahine initially and finding them highly enlightening, they served more as a gateway to the world of ship travel and drama. And what a world to get into. The tension and the resolve of these sailors is something to be behold.
McCrystal has compiled a thoroughly entertaining, relevant and detailed narrative around some of the great nautical mishaps, miseries and mysteries - and while a little macabre at times, is a wonderful read.
Reviewer: Chris Reed