Category Archives: science

Capetown & St. Helena, 1842

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 159-160:

Cape of Good Hope is always hailed by the home-bound sailor with as much delight as Cape Horn is with fear. Here we found much shipping lying quietly at anchor. The view of Cape Town from the ship’s deck is indeed novel. On either side of Table Mountain are seen the crags of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. The broad, flat top of Table Mountain is always overhung by a great cloud, and when the cloud spreads out and covers the whole town with its broad shadows, it is then termed by Jack before the mast “the devil’s tablecloth.”

To the south, on the hill, stands the world-renowned observatory, where Sir John Herschell discovered the planet which once bore his name, but is now called Uranus.

Cape Town is an old Dutch settlement, and everything wore a Dutch look. Almost all the people we met were Dutch. Both men and women were short and stout, with full, rosy cheeks. They all dressed in the old Dutch fashion.

On the 17th we got under way, and took our departure from the Cape of Storms, shaping our course for the island of St. Helena.

On the morning of the 19th Joseph Sylva, a Portuguese boy, who had shipped at Oahu, died. In the afternoon his body, with two roundshot, was sewed up in his hammock, and committed to the deep. Brave little Joe is now sleeping beneath the blue waters with others of the ocean’s heroes.

After a run of thirteen days, we came to anchor in the roadstead of the Valley of Jamestown, island of St. Helena. Here we found six American and two English ships, one from Sweden, and a Dutch sloop-of-war, at anchor. The island of St. Helena is nothing but a large, barren rock, uprisen from the sea, and so steep that only a short distance from the shores soundings cannot be obtained with a deep-sea line. The only landing place was Jamestown. The population, at this time, including the garrison, … numbered about four thousand, and all lived in the Valley of Jamestown. Meats, vegetables, and fruits we found very scarce and extremely dear. Rum, however, was plenty, and quite cheap. It was not made here, but was sent out from New England, America!

St. Helena is celebrated only because of its being the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement and death.

 

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Filed under Britain, France, military, Netherlands, science, South Africa, travel, U.S.

Antarctic Dangers, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 69-70:

January 20. At two o’clock this morning the sun and moon appeared above the horizon at the same time, but in opposite directions. The moon was full. The effect of the sun shedding his deep golden rays on the distant icy mountains and the surrounding icebergs was beautiful beyond description. We witnessed a sea-fight between a whale and one of his many enemies, a killer. The sea was quite smooth. A short distance from the ship was seen a large whale, lashing the smooth sea into a perfect foam, and trying to disengage himself from his enemy. As they drew near the ship the struggle became more violent. The killer, which was about twenty feet long, held the whale by the lower jaw. The huge monster seemed to be in great agony, and spouted blood. Suddenly the whale threw himself out of the water, at full length, the killer hanging to his jaw; but all his flounderings and turning flukes were useless, as the killer still maintained his hold and was getting the advantage. He soon worried the whale to death. After the battle, the ship appeared to be floating in a sea of blood. During the last few days we saw many beautiful snow-white petrels either up in the freezing air or on the ice-floes.

January 22. Weather foggy. This morning we found bottom with eight hundred fathoms of line. The arming was covered with slate-colored mud. In the afternoon we took a second cast of the lead and found bottom at three hundred and twenty fathoms. The bottom same as before — slate-colored mud. The Peacock, while boxing off the ship from some ice under her bows, made a stern board which brought her in contact with an iceberg with such force as to crush her stern and larboard quarter boats, and carry away her bulwarks to the gangways. While getting out the ice anchor to heave the ship off, she gave a rebound which carried away her rudder and all the stanchions to the gangway. This second shock caused the ship to cant to starboard, when both jibs were given to her just in time to carry her clear of the iceberg. She had not moved more than a dozen lengths before a huge mass of ice fell from the iceberg in her wake. If this had happened twenty minutes before, it would have crushed the ship to atoms. As soon as we gained the open sea, Captain Hudson very wisely put the ship’s head for Sydney, where she arrived in a shattered and sinking condition. For several days the weather had been foggy.

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Doubling Cape Horn, 1839

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 33-34:

On the 30th of January a strong land-breeze began to blow, which obliged us to get under way and beat out to sea. The weather now began to grow cold, the thermometer ranging from 50° to 45°. Our ship glided through the water like a thing of life. For several days many whales, seals, and porpoises showed themselves on the surface of the water. The porpoises differed from any I had ever seen before, in having a stripe around their necks. We captured several of them, and this made a fresh mess for all hands round. The next night at midnight we had a view of the rugged peaks of Terra del Fuego, and at twelve o’clock we entered the Straits of La Maire. The land here presents rather a dreary appearance. The high peaks on either hand are covered with snow, even in midsummer.

At sunset we passed the straits and again entered the open sea. We doubled Cape Horn in our shirt-sleeves, with studding sails set on both sides, below and aloft, and left it under close-reefed top-sails, with our pea-jackets on. We had but just rounded the cape and arrived in the South Pacific, or summer seas, when the wind suddenly shifted to the south, blowing a perfect gale from the regions of perpetual ice and snow. The change of temperature was sudden and keenly felt, and made us hug our pea-jackets closely about us. Such is the life of a sailor — from one extreme to another. Cape Horn is in latitude 55°48′ south, and sometimes vessels are driven as far as 60°, in order to get round into the Pacific. Cape Horn is called the “stormy cape.” It takes its name from the peculiar hornlike shape of its rocky mountain heights, which terminate the land. Be it fair or foul, rain or shine, in all weather and at all seasons, Cape Horn is a terror to the sailor, and many a long yarn is spun in the forecastle by poor Jack as this much-dreaded point is approached.

On the 18th of February we came to anchor in Orange Harbor, Terra del Fuego, or, as the name implies, the “land of fire.” This is the first harbor on the western side of Cape Horn. The cape was discovered by Magellan in the year 1519. It was at this spot that the celebrated circumnavigators, Captains Cook, King, Fitzroy, Laplace, d’Urville, and others used to make their rendezvous and lay in a supply of wood and water. The harbor is land-locked, and is the safest on the coast. It has many small bays, the best of which is Dingy Cove. Here boats may enter to obtain wood, and from its banks game and fish may be taken in great abundance. Everything about has a bleak and wintry appearance and is in keeping with the climate, yet the scenery is pleasing to the eye.

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Filed under Argentina, Chile, Pacific, science, travel, U.S.

Wilkes Expedition Departs, 1838

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 16-17:

I was first sent to New York with a draft of men to join the receiving-ship Fulton. In a few days, however, I was transferred to the brig Porpoise, Captain C. Ringold commander, and we sailed the next week for Norfolk, Va. Here we joined the exploring expedition just setting out on a voyage of discovery round the world. This was the first and only expedition sent out by the United States, and such a chance to visit the various quarters of this huge globe was never offered before or since. I liked our captain very much. He treated the crew like men; and as for the brig, she looked more rakish than ever, and I must acknowledge that I was more than ever in love with her. The squadron consisted of the sloop-of-war Vincennes, the flag-ship, Charles Wilkes commander; the sloop-of-war Peacock, Captain William L. Hudson; the ship Relief, Captain A. K. Long; the brig Porpoise, Captain C. Ringold; the schooner Sea Gull, Captain Reed; the schooner Flying Fish, Captain Samuel R. Knox; together with a full corps of scientific men, consisting of philologists, naturalists, mineralogists, conchologists, botanists, horticulturists, taxidermists, draughtsmen, etc., and a complement of six hundred and eighty-seven men. The entire equipment of the squadron was generous and complete, and could not but reflect honor upon the nation whose public spirit could thus plan and execute a noble project the value of which to the cause of science could not easily be estimated.

Everything being ready, we dropped down to Hampton Roads. Commodore Wilkes inspected all the vessels and their crews. As he passed me at muster, “old Adam” came up, and I could not raise my eyes from the deck, for it was Commodore Wilkes at whose command I had been flogged. The following day we were honored by a visit from the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, and his cabinet. All the vessels had their yards manned, and a national salute was fired. The next day, the 17th of August, 1838, a gun was fired, and signals were made that the squadron was under sailing orders. Soon after, the commodore’s gig came alongside, bringing orders for me with my bag and hammock. It seemed to me that I should sink through the deck. I felt more like jumping overboard than sailing with my worst enemy, and one on whom I had sworn to be revenged. I begged Captain Ringold to let me remain on board the brig. He said he wanted me to stay, but that he must obey orders, and told me to get into the boat. As we neared the ship, another gun was fired, and signals were made for the squadron to get under way. Shortly after we arrived on board, the capstan was manned, the anchor catted, and we were soon off, with an ebb tide and a light air from the sou’west. At five P. M. we anchored at the Horseshoe, in consequence of its falling calm, but at nine A. M. the wind freshened, and we tripped and stood down the bay. At four P. M. on the 19th we passed Cape Henry Light, and at nine A. M. we discharged our pilot and took our departure.

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Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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Ending Satsuma Isolationism

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 172-173:

Like his great-grandfather, Shimazu Shigéhidé, Nariakira was a patron of foreign learning. Shigéhidé had become daimyo at age eleven, in Hōreki 5 (1755). For generations before Shigéhidé’s reign, Satsuma had isolated itself from the rest of Japan, sealing its borders and setting up checkpoints to bar entrance by outsiders (i.e., anyone not from Satsuma). Kaionji writes that Satsuma’s isolationism derived from its fear of Bakufu animosity for the Shimazu’s opposition to Iéyasu at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. But more than two centuries had passed; what’s more, Shigéhidé’s daughter was married to Shōgun Iénari. Shigéhidé concluded that isolationism was a greater threat to his domain than the Bakufu; and that as a result of their being cut off from the rest of Japan, his people had grown stubborn, narrow-minded, lacking in social graces, ignorant of the outside world, and distrustful of outsiders. In short, they had fallen behind the other powerful feudal domains.

Shigéhidé abolished the isolationist policy of his predecessors and set out to gentrify Kagoshima. He invited teachers from other parts of Japan. He built schools, including a medical school, and an astronomical observatory. He encouraged the opening of theaters, restaurants, and inns—none of which luxuries had ever before existed in Satsuma. He even allowed pleasure quarters, populated by geisha and prostitutes. A lover of the Chinese language, he edited a Chinese dictionary and conversed with his vassals in Chinese. He often traveled to Nagasaki, where he associated with Chinese traders and maintained close relations with successive chief factors of the Dutch East India Company. He was particularly close with Siebold, before the Prussian was banished from Japan.

For all of his progressiveness, Shigéhidé pursued personal extravagance to an extreme. The cost of reforming Satsuma combined with his personal extravagance depleted the treasury. He borrowed money and imposed severe taxes upon the peasants. All of this was met with disapproval by many of Shigéhidé’s samurai vassals, who prided themselves on their masculine strength and the simplicity and austerity of their lifestyles, and who despised what they viewed as the feminization of Satsuma.

I find Hillsborough’s gratuitous use of accents over e in romanized Japanese irritating. Anyone who is going to read this much detail about Japanese history is going to know that e in Japanese is never silent or reduced to schwa.

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Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

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Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:

It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

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