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Books : A Modern Sailor-Scientist Swept Away in an Ocean of Obsession

The Gulf Stream: The Domain of the Blue God by William H. MacLeish (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 233 pages, illustrated)

The scope of people’s interests and passions is a never-ending source of amazement. So it’s almost always a delight to read a comprehensive and lyrical introduction to a subject that you were only vaguely aware of before.

Of course I knew that there was oceanography before reading “The Gulf Stream” by William H. MacLeish. I even went on an oceanographic expedition once as a reporter. But, truth to tell, my knowledge of what oceanography is all about was slim.

No more. “The Gulf Stream” is a book about oceans and oceanography, a book full of salt air and waves as well as computers and instruments. It explains how oceanographers work and, more important, why they work, why they are enraptured by the sea and why they undertake to plumb its secrets.

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The Gulf Stream is the great natural current that arises in the Gulf of Mexico, flows up the East Coast of the United States and off into the Atlantic toward Europe. It is a great river in the sea, moving as much as 200 million cubic meters of water.

(Conventional wisdom says that the Gulf Stream makes it all the way to Europe, then flows south down to the coast and back across the Atlantic. MacLeish says no one can prove it.)

MacLeish, a writer with a spare, compelling style, uses the Gulf Stream as the skeleton for his study of the oceans. He writes effortlessly of his voyages on commercial tankers and freighters, sailing ships, Coast Guard patrols and research vessels on the surface and below it. He even flies over the stream on ice patrols from Newfoundland.

The ocean is a place for commerce and for pleasure as well as for science, and MacLeish gives a full account of all of these activities. Nor does he skimp on history. Columbus rode the ocean currents from Europe to the New World.

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MacLeish has spent much time at sea, and he remains awed by it. His sense of adventure and mystery energizes the science that he describes.

“There are a lot of things you don’t have to go to sea to do,” he writes of oceanography. “You can work and rework information. You can run laboratory experiments. You can teach. But in the long run, someone still has to get wet. The best oceanographers either love going to sea or they do it to preserve status or to assure themselves of particularly tasty data.

“Many spend a couple of months a year out there, some more. Personality traits have a lot to do with their success. It is no accident that sailors have survived so well as prisoners of war. Samuel Johnson was right: Going to sea is a bit like going to jail. Those who perform well adapt to the incongruity of bobbing around on the top of all that alien fluid.”

The study of the oceans uses the full range of skills in an instrument-maker’s bag of tricks. Devices must be able to endure long exposure to the hostile environment of waves and saltwater and still record what they are supposed to and even broadcast their findings to a satellite. This is a world of very sophisticated equipment.

‘Proxies’ for Man

MacLeish explains all this with just enough detail to clear what an accomplishment it is. These devices are called “proxies,” for they are left on the surface or the bottom to gather information in man’s stead.

Recovering them from the bottom is another story altogether. It’s one thing to toss expensive equipment over the side of a ship and another thing to get it back months later. Remotely triggered flotation devices are used.

“The Woods Hole buoy group now recovers more than 90% of what it sets,” MacLeish says, “but machinery still goes on strike . . . and the ship has to go hunting or leave hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, and the priceless data it is recording to the sea.”

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Romance of the Sea

In the midst of this are the rugged individualists who make up the bulk of oceanographers. They are not just sailors, but scientists to boot--a rare and likable breed who combine the romance of the sea with rigorous thought.

MacLeish likes the company of the people he sails with. Being at sea may be like being in jail for the body, but it is liberating to MacLeish’s mind. He looks over the waves to the horizon, and there are no limits to his thoughts. He is humbled by the expanse.

And in the end, as in so many other fields, what is known is dwarfed by what is unknown. Oceanographers use their skills and their instruments to study the sea in detail, but there is always so much more of it than they can examine.

“The ocean is largely unobserved,” MacLeish writes. As a result, all theories about it are very hard to prove, which makes the enterprise both challenging and frustrating. MacLeish conveys that too.

“The Gulf Stream” begins in wonder and ends in wonder. It’s a wonderful book.


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