A master mariner

I suppose it is perfectly natural that my friends and heroes (sometimes they are both) should now be dying off like flies. This morning I note the passing of Marvin Creamer, at the tender age of one hundred and four. He was and is one of several in the class, “circumnavigators.” This includes a few technically failed, because they didn’t get home; usually because they were slain by natives. The intelligent circumnavigator makes ports of call, and does prefer the safe ones, but when exploring in exotic parts, you take your chances. It’s not just the natives; also tricky harbours and shoals.

The contemporary yachtsman has GPS and electronic sounding equipment, along with computer updated charts. For Magellan, this would have been cheating. I would like to credit Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque navigator, as I am slighting the Portuguese this week. The natives of the Philippines remain somewhat restive, and after they had caused Magellan’s demise, Elcano took the carrick Victoria, diagonally across the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and up the Atlantic, to the quaint old town of Sanlúcar. But first the restive crews of the shrinking expedition (which soon included a few impressed Timorese) had killed off two more captains, and abandoned another. Elcano was able to focus who was left on a fine cargo of nutmeg and cloves from the Moluccas. You see: trade helps pacify people.

But skipping forward four-and-a-half centuries or so, Mr Creamer did the rounding journey in a 36-foot yacht, with only such crew as would fit aboard. (Two, I think.) An American geography and oceanography perfesser, nearing retirement, he was a man of great backwardness after my own heart. Rejecting such newfangled contrivances as the mediaeval compass and renaissance sextant, along with wristwatches, radios, and other recent gizmos, he decided to do it by skill alone. He navigated by sun, moon, and stars, and when they were occluded, took hints from birds, natural flotsam, even the colour and temperature of the waters. He was never lost.

His belief, from careful study, was that the mariners of the later Middle Ages knew what they were doing, and apart from design of their ships, didn’t need technology to find their way around. By the late 15th century — the time of beloved Columbus — they were entirely comfortable with oceans, far beyond sight of land, and often, too, from land in places Europeans had never visited. They had got the hang of it, as it were, and while the best way to become a sailor was involuntarily, as a prisoner of some Crown (hence a recurring mutiny problem), the officers were masters of the sea. Having once hit a coast, they could fill in the charts a bit more, and soon the mapamonde was their oyster.

Upon returning to his (surprisingly unanxious) wife in 1984 — an unusual modern woman, she had confidence in him — Creamer declared, “One small step backwards for mankind.”

We walk to heaven backwards, as Saint Newman says, and I daresay Creamer is in sight of it now.