Imagine setting sail, looking back and seeing the land sink into the sea as you pass the horizon. Imagine the size of the sky above you, the depth of the sea below, the smallness of your ship in the vastness of the world.

I experience a kind of emotional vertigo when I think about being lost at sea. If you’re lost on land you can affect things, you can dig holes or climb trees or make marks to help find your way. Land stays essentially the same from day to day - you recognise features of the environment and become familiar with the places you have been before.

In water there is nothing. A constantly shifting, incomprehensibly deep, freezing cold network of seas and oceans encompassing the planet, with our tiny vessels precariously balanced on top. In the early 1800s, depending on weather conditions, it could take anywhere between six and 14 weeks to cross the Atlantic, and for the majority of that time crews would see no other ships and had only each other’s company to pass the time. From this uncertainty and isolation, from these often perilous voyages across the world, grew the great tradition of storytelling at sea, as much to remind sailors of their lives back home as to keep their mind off the dangers at hand.

Boat at sea
Boat at sea

Occasionally these stories bled into another great maritime tradition – the sea shanty. Originally sung to accompany manual labour, the shanty has its roots in folk songs and work songs, and provides a deeply atmospheric accompaniment to the sound of creaking masts and waves lapping against a wooden bow. This shanty, telling the dramatic story of a doomed ship named The Lady Lovibond, is a particular favourite of mine:

The bells rang loud and the doors opened wide 
And the groom burst out with his arm round his bride 
And the cheers of the witnesses filled up the streets
Sharing stories of all the new couple’s misdeeds.
For he was a captain and she a young maid,
He’d tamed the wild seas while in parlours she’d stayed.
The crowd told their tales and rolled down to the water,
Then toasted the health of their wives and their daughters.

Remember the Lady Lovibond,
Remember the crew within her,
Remember the Lady Lovibond,
And the terrible fate that befell her.

Our husband was sailing the very next morning,
He took his new wife and ignored the crew’s warnings
And boarding the ship with his girl on his arm
He assured every one they would come to no harm.
They sang and they drank as they loosed the ship’s moorings,
And all hands but one joined the revels and cheering.
This one man stood drinking some distance apart,
For he held such a secret could crush a man’s heart.

Remember the Lady Lovibond,
Remember the crew within her,
Remember the Lady Lovibond,
And the terrible fate that befell her.

The love of his life had just married another,
And the man that she’d married was right there beside her,
They boarded his ship and were flaunting their gladness
So he drank and he drank and he sank into sadness.
If only he’d fallen asleep in his stupor,
If only he’d been a more diligent suitor,
If only he’d drunk slightly less of the liquor
Perhaps he'd be now a less infamous sailor.

Remember the Lady Lovibond, 
Remember the crew within her,
Remember the Lady Lovibond,
And the terrible fate that befell her.

He got up and staggered and reached out his hand,
And grasped at a rope which would help him to stand.
Despite his condition he stayed on his feet,
With a look in his eyes that would turn stone to peat,
He took charge of the wheel and enacted his plan,
To steer the ship straight into the treacherous Goodwin Sands.
The revellers continued their merriment below,
The echoing shanties, the portholes aglow.

Remember the Lady Lovibond,
And the fate that she met on the waves.
Remember the Lady Lovibond,
And her crew in their watery graves.

Oscar Blustin, Artistic Director of SPECIFIQ

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