ERNEST K. GANN: Song of the Sirens

Song of the Sirens book cover

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the sinking of the Canadian school ship Concordia, a tragedy I will always relate to the controversial sinking just over 50 years ago of Chris Sheldon‘s school ship Albatross. This is a story that ties into a strong tide that has long flowed through my mind. It in fact first started flowing about 40 years ago when, at age 13, I found a paperback copy of Ernest K. Gann‘s Song of the Sirens stashed on the shelves of a lending library in a U.S. Army hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. The cover of the book (seen above) was so attractive I at once swiped it and quickly devoured it whole. On finishing it I swore to myself I would one day sail across an ocean. Fortunately (or not), I eventually kept that promise, and this had all sorts of consequences, one of which is the blog you are now reading.

What is immediately relevant about the book is that it mostly concerns Gann’s tenure as the owner of Albatros (he preferred the original Dutch spelling of the name, without the second “s”), which he sold to Sheldon in 1958. Interwoven with Gann’s evocative account of his “affair” with the vessel are vignettes of his dalliances with another 16 vessels with which he had significant relationships. Taken as a whole, the book thus forms a nautical autobiography that is a perfect counterpoint to another of Gann’s books, Fate is the Hunter, which recounts his career as an aviator and is much better known.

Gann in fact had several different careers during his life, including stints as a stage actor and director, a cartoonist, a newsreel cameraman, and a casting director for film studios. He experienced many personal financial booms and busts, and it was during one period of high prosperity that he took up flying as a hobby. Subsequently, after the movie studio he was working for went bust as the Great Depression got underway, he began flying professionally and worked for many years as a commercial airline pilot. During World War II, he also flew cargo all over the world for the U.S. Army’s Air Transport Command.

It was flying that first inspired Gann as a writer. His first book, Island in the Sky, a novel based on a wartime search-and-rescue experience, was published in 1944. During the 1950s, after a brief attempt to earn a living as a commercial fisherman (which is recounted in Song of the Sirens in some detail), he then took up writing full time. Several of his novels quickly became bestsellers, and six of these were made into movies, most notably perhaps The High and the Mighty, starring John Wayne, and Soldier of Fortune, starring Clark Gable.

High and the Mighty film poster

Soldier of Fortune film poster

It was during this period of high prosperity, at the peak of his success as a writer, that Gann acquired Albatros. In Song of the Sirens he describes their first encounter on a rainy day in Rotterdam:

I climbed to her main spreaders which were some 70 feet above the level of the canal, and looked down upon her sodden decks. Soon I knew that my staring had become myopic, as is usual with a man suddenly lost in desire. And it seemed to me this great dripping thing was the most beautiful of creations–a treasure to be rescued and reglorified before another day had passed. I could not define her charm, nor as yet conceive how in this age such a project would be realized. Yet I knew it was something that had to be done.

Appropriately, it was Sterling Hayden, famous schooner-man turned Hollywood actor, who had made the initial introduction. In A Hostage to Fortune, his most comprehensive autobiographical work, Gann described how Hayden kept detailed files on large sailing vessels that were available around the world. The actor, he wrote, showed him photographs of Albatros, then for sale in Holland, “with a leer I thought suitable to a sultan’s procurer.” And Gann confessed: “I was like a drunkard given the key to a saloon.”

Sterling Hayden
Sterling Hayden in an early studio publicity shot

Gann and Hayden obviously had much in common. They both were iconoclastic Hollywood outsiders who used the wealth they garnered from films to purchase large schooners and sail off to the South Seas. But at heart they were very different sorts of men. Hayden was a working seafarer who was lured into the film industry and despised himself for it. Gann was genuinely attracted to the business, but was far too restless to remain content within it. The differences between them are reflected in their accounts of their respective voyages. Hayden’s Wanderer, in which he tells of how he fled Hollywood, abducted his children in defiance of a court order, and sailed off into the Pacific, is a book of angst and tension. Song of the Sirens, on the other hand, is a work of romantic devotion. Where Hayden must flee to the sea as his last refuge, Gann compulsively embraces it out of sheer joie de vivre.

Ernest K. Gann
Ernie Gann in the rig of Albatros

Gann’s ownership of Albatros, from 1954-58, in fact marked out an important period in his diverse and crowded life. As mentioned, he enjoyed his greatest success during these years, and it was in Albatros that he embarked on his most ambitious voyages–from Europe across the North Atlantic, through Panama to the West Coast, thence out to the South Pacific, and eventually all the way back to Europe again. More intimately, it was on Albatros that he began to fall deeply in love with Dodie Post, a crew member who later became his private secretary and then his second wife.

Gann does not share this fact in Song of the Sirens, as then presumably he did not want to muddy the tale of his affection for his vessel. But later he did tell all in A Hostage to Fortune, where he described the moment when he brought his new ship home into San Francisco Bay for the first time–with Dodie Post at his side, his eldest son aboard as crew, the ship passing in the moonlight under the Golden Gate, a landmark valued in both his prior lives as a fisherman and an airline pilot–as the most fulfilling he could hope to experience:

My cup, I thought, is very full…. I could not understand how these diverse things could be, nor could I conceive how there might be more. When we broached the rum I raised my glass to Dodie Post, and said, ‘To whatever comes next. Good luck.’

But Gann understood better than most that bad luck must come with the good, and that neither are subject to the command of human intelligence. He felt keenly the cold hand of fate passing him by to land on the shoulder of another. Indeed, this is the primary theme of Fate is the Hunter. In his account of his aerial life, he repeatedly marvels at and is humbled by the fact that other pilots, some much more competent than he, must be sacrificed to their profession while he is allowed to survive. This same sense of pagan fatalism informed his reaction to the news that his beloved Albatros, along with six crew members (including Christopher Sheldon’s wife Alice, but not Sheldon himself), had been lost in a sudden squall in the Gulf of Mexico not long after he sold her.

Clearly, Gann empathized deeply with Sheldon. As he wrote in Song of the Sirens:

Now I longed to reach out and touch his hand, for how many times had I crept into the same after cabin and secretly whispered for mercy. There was, I knew, no wrath so dreadful as a storm at sea. It confounds the best of men, perhaps because in the wastes of the ocean he is so alone. I had flown through the interior of thunderstorms many times and my bowels were therefore accustomed to restraining one of man’s primary reactions to fear, yet always we knew that the ordeal would not long endure and most of the time our radios could reach for our mental comfort to men who stood vigil in peace and quiet. At sea the nightmare of almost any storm seems to continue forever and the total massing of cruelty may be divided by the size of the vessel.

And in A Hostage to Fortune Gann also made it clear that Sheldon’s fate gnawed at him just as corrosively as had those of pilots he had known:

Now, rationalizing to the limits of my ability, I could not discover a satisfactory explanation for my repeated evasion of doom. Why Sheldon? Why all the many others I had known? Where was the balance?

But nowhere (to my knowledge) did Gann ever openly entertain the possibility that he might have been culpable in the tragedy. Yet as Dan Parrott makes clear in his book Tall Ships Down (published in 2003), it is very likely that modifications Gann made to Alabatros in fact contributed directly to her foundering. As he describes in some detail in Song of the Sirens (and also much more briefly in A Hostage to Fortune), Gann made all sorts of changes after he got the vessel to San Francisco. He converted her rig from that of a simple schooner with just one yardarm on her foremast to that of a brigantine (or hermaphrodite brig) with a full set of four square sails forward. In the middle of the deck he added a house to accommodate the ship’s galley, and he also erected a large gallows six feet above deck to house the two ship’s boats.

All this, inevitably, raised the ship’s center of gravity. As documented by Parrott, inclining tests were performed after the work was completed and these confirmed this fact and established beyond doubt that the vessel’s stability was significantly degraded. Yet no corrective measures (such as increasing ballast) were ever taken.

Brigantine Albatros
Albatross sailing under Sheldon’s command, after her conversion to a square rig

Parrott’s conclusion, that the changes to Albatros, and most particularly the conversion to a square rig, had seriously compromised her and was a major cause of her loss, is neither novel nor recent. As early as 1966, as a result of the Albatros disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard conducted important research on the stability of large traditional sailing vessels with a direct eye to developing regulations for the nascent sail-training industry. By the time he published Song of the Sirens in 1968, and certainly by 1978, when A Hostage to Fortune came out, Gann must have had some knowledge of this.

Was he unwilling to admit culpability on any terms? Or simply unwilling to raise the subject with his readers? It is hard to say. It is not too difficult for vessel owners and other concerned parties to engage in some denial in situations like these. For those who must believe, for whatever reason, that a vessel caught in such circumstances was sound and well managed, it is relatively easy to blame its loss on a “microburst” (or a “white squall” as they were known in Gann’s day). This, you may recall, was exactly what happened with Concordia. Initial reports stated very affirmatively that she was overwhelmed by extreme weather, but later, after an investigation, the blame was laid squarely on those handling her.

In Song of the Sirens Gann certainly entertains the possibility that it was a “white squall” that killed his ship. But he does not explicitly embrace or endorse this explanation. He also admits afterwards, as a result of the loss, “I was so disenchanted with the sea that I could think only of its discomforts and dangers, and even the very deck upon which I stood represented a tremendous waste of time, energy, and fortune.” This seems a stronger, much more negative reaction than any he ever admitted to having after losing so many of his comrades to the vagaries of flight.

Perhaps Gann’s disillusionment was the product of guilt. There is, however, slim evidence on which to hang such a conclusion. I confess I lost some respect for Gann as a writer after I read Parrott’s book and learned more of the back story to the loss of Albatros. It would have been much more impressive if Gann had acknowledged and confronted the fact that he played a hand in killing the ship he loved. In spite of this, however, I still admire Song of the Sirens immensely, and each time I read it I find in it some new bit of kindling to help stoke the fire of my own love of ocean sailing.

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5 Responses
  1. John

    Am going next week to inspect Strumpet, for sale quite nearby in Virginia. Gann’s stout little Benford Friday Harbor cruiser (“drinks for six, dinner for four and sleeps two”) has always been a vaunted vessel for me since reading an early article, seeing the plans decades ago and falling for the little ship.

    I was aback when I saw the listing for (still christened) Strumpet in top operational condition not 30 min distant from where I sit. I’m looking forward to stepping aboard the vessel in person – hell, one of the current broker photos displays the entire Gann canon neatly aboard. Geez, has fate now found me?

  2. Conrad Gann

    Great Article – Ernest Gann was my grandfather and I recently read Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer. I knew that my grandfather knew Sterling but your article ties their history together nicely. Regarding Johns comment on Strumpet – I knew that boat – she was a charm.

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