Raise One To the Ships

I guess the worst thing about famous ships is that we only ever hear about the ones that ended up on the bottom of some body of water. We know the Lusitania and the Terror and the Edmund Fitzgerald. Nobody is reading a history book about the passengers who had a week-long binge fest on the Mauretania and who all ended up in New York a week later with dyspepsia and a negligible hangover. No, we hear about the ones that went down, the ones that were blown up, or the ones that burned on Lake Erie. If your name is somehow connected to a ship, there’s a solid chance you died on it.

There is of course the mother of them all, the one that hit the iceberg. There’s nothing much to tell you about the Titanic that James Cameron didn’t already show you. And he had Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to help him out, not to mention that Celine Dion. You know it hit an iceberg, you could probably guess that around 1500 people died, and you’ve maybe heard some tidbits like they’d skimped on lifeboats and they sent out the wrong distress signal. (The signal they sent actually said ‘steer clear’, which might be the exact opposite of what you want to do when your boat is sinking in the Atlantic.) You’ve heard the folkloric stories of men bravely staying aboard, other guys dressing as women to get on lifeboats, the band playing until the ship went under. You may have heard bittersweet stories such as Ida Strauss almost getting on a lifeboat, but in the end deciding to perish with her husband, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus. They lay in bed together until the sea swallowed them. Then there’s the myths and legends, the heroic Newfoundland dog, the premonitions, the mystery ship nearby, the captain was drunk (no evidence for this, but it was 1912 and he was a sailor, so it’s a natural assumption). A book regales the ‘true’ story of a pig that lived through the Titanic, but as far as the evidence shows, the only pig on board was on first class dinnerplates.

The very thought of being on a sinking ship (i.e. the current Republican Party) is terrifying. Imagining the sea closing in on violently as you curse the owners for not providing more lifeboats sends chills down my spine. And yet as awful as that thought might be, there are few things more fascinating and evocative than a shipwreck resting peacefully at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps part of that is the effect of the sea and part because when a ship goes down it becomes an instant time capsule, perfectly preserving life at that time (you know, skipping over the mindboggling terror of the passengers and sailors in the last minutes of their lives).

Salvage divers turn out some seriously interesting and straight up weird artefacts from wrecks. Tins of cheese, musical instruments, watches, people, and boxes of love letters. Since for the thousands of years before DHL boats and ships were the primary way of trading and shipping mercantile goods, jars of olives, jugs of perfume, and loads of other goods have been found on shipwrecks as well. And then there’s the booze.  

Some of the world’s oldest wine, beer, and champagne have all been recovered from the bottoms of seas. Near the Aland island chain in the Baltic Sea, a shipwreck was discovered which relinquished 200 year old champagne as well as the world’s oldest beer. In 1999, the Mary Celestia, a sunken confederate blockade runner which hit a reef and sunk in 1864, was uncovered by hurricanes. Archaeologists found wine onboard. In 1916 off the coast of Sweden, the Swedish cargo ship the Jönköping was delivering enough booze to Czar Nicholas II of Russia to get him though the rest of WWI when it was torpedoed by the ocean’s little haemorrhoids the German U Boat. The Jönköping’s alcoholic cargo was enormous -17,000 barrels of burgundy, 3,000 bottles of champagne, and ‘tens of thousands’ of bottles of cognac. In 1999, 2,000 bottles of the champagne – a 1907 Heidsieck & Co. Monopole – were recovered and tasted. They were found to be delicious.

The key seems to be the cold water and the depth. The Jönköping and the shipwreck near the Ailand chain were both in deep, very cold water, factors which helped preserve the alcohol. Additionally, because the contents are pressurized, champagne is bottled in thick glass to avoid exploding, and it’s this glass that can withstand the stronger pressure at the bottom of the ocean. Conversely, the wine found aboard the Mary Celestia was foul, probably because of the warmth of the Caribbean waters and their relative shallowness. Though admittedly, bad wine was probably the least of John Virgin’s concerns as the boat hit the reef and sped towards the bottom.  

The Titanic was found in 1985 and in the subsequent visits champagne from Moët and Heidsieck & Co. was found fully corked and eventually tried by a bunch of zillionaires. Evidently it paired well with the unicorn steaks they raised from Atlantis earlier in the year. If finding relics from a shipwreck brings us back in time, then drinking wine from the Titanic or the Jönköping brings you closer to those who would have drunk it. For we do not know a time, until we know what their hangovers were like.

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