“And yet I have known the sea too long to believe in its respect for decency,” says Joseph Conrad- a Master Mariner himself- in ‘Falk’. “An elemental force is ruthlessly frank.”
Those two lines play repeatedly in my mind whenever some new snippet on the disappeared Malaysian flight 370 comes out. And, although I believe that we will never hear the whole truth there, I probably speak for many seamen when I say that it is only a landlubber’s surprise that such a thing can happen. For the world usually forgets that three quarters of its surface is water- much of it thousands of feet deep.
I wonder if I am the only one who wonders why it is that when ships disappear nobody seriously looks for them. Those bulk carrier disappearances of the eighties come to mind, of course, but ships- many ships- sink even today. The initial search after a disappearance or sinking- usually conducted only by other ships in the area if mid-sea and additionally by aircraft or other assets sometimes- peters out very quickly. This may be because rescuers know that continuing the search is pointless, especially in cold waters. Everybody is presumed dead and there seems to be no point in trying to locate the wreck. What for?
What for then, is the world trying to locate the wreck of MH370? Why are the families of the casualties of the Malaysian flight more important than the families of seamen who disappear every year? Why are billions of dollars being spent? Why the multinational search- reportedly the largest in history? Why the underwater submarine?
Why am I asking so many stupid questions?
Perhaps the security angle has something to do with it. Regardless of whether it was a terrorist incident or not (like I said, we will never hear the whole truth), I bet you that a bunch of guys is sitting around with their AK47’s somewhere in the world right now and saying, wow. An entire 777 can be made to disappear without a trace from one of the busiest airspaces in the world, and for weeks nobody even knows where it is. Nobody knows what happened. Imagine the possibilities. Wow.
It is about five weeks since MH370’s disappearance as I write this. The pings from the downed aircraft’s black box batteries are now reported to be dead. The tragedy’s impact on the families of the flight’s passengers and crew continues. Many will be hoping that the plane never went down in the Southern Indian Ocean; that their loved ones are not dead and that a miracle will happen. Every seaman can imagine that feeling without much effort. Even the most hardened sailor’s heart will go out to each of those families. There, but for the grace of god, go I.
But even the most hardened sailor will wonder why a ship’s disappearance is reduced to just mystery and marine folklore and tales of Bermuda triangles and excuses of rogue waves. Why it is that a ship’s disappearance is rarely described as a tragedy. Why it is that a ship’s sinking- actually, even the possibility of a ship sinking- spews out fears of pollution, liability and commercial losses, with the crew’s deaths more or less ignored. Why it is that the families of dead seaman have to- so many times- even fight for the niggardly financial compensation that is their due after the death of their breadwinner.
Even the most cynical sailor will wonder why he is the child of a lesser god.