by David Leone
WAKE FOREST — Last month, during a Neck of the Woods performance series presentation at Wake Forest Coffee Company, author Stephan Platzer showed up with a slide projector.
Then, in place of reading from his 2008 book Bringing E Home: Transatlantic Voyage of Schooner Ernestina (1982), he showed slides from the trip and talked about his adventures aboard.
The lecture was a hit with the crowd.
That’s because Platzer’s book — though dryly written as a diary of the voyage to sail an historic vessel across the Atlantic — is full of interesting anecdotes and semi-perilous situations. And Platzer’s wit comes through both in the material and his retelling.
For instance, an audience member asked how they preserved freshly killed hog on a boat without refrigeration.
“We didn’t preserve it, we just hung it up,” he said. “We’re still alive. Some of us.”
The story is about an international crew united by a common love for a historic vessel overcoming obstacles of language, culture, calms, and squalls to bring the Ernestina back from Africa to the U.S., where she was originally built in 1894 as a fishing boat.
Built in Gloucester, the 105-foot long, 108-ton ship is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark. It has had several incarnations: as an Arctic explorer and training ship for privileged college students; as a World War II Navy ship bringing scientists to Greenland; as a South Pacific cruising vessel; and as a Cape Verdean packet ship carrying immigrants and goods between the Cape Verde Islands and New England.
Ansel Adams, et al
So what was Plazter, a chemist, doing on board the schooner?
He had unique qualifications. He was a photographer and they needed one to document the voyage. And he had sailed the seas in ancient vessels before.
Platzer was born in Germany, and emigrated to the Massachusetts with his parents at age 4. As an undergrad, he studied under several famous photographers, including Ansel Adams and Minor White. He earned a PhD in photographic chemistry, which has translated into a career in the photographic plate field. That’s what brought him to Wake Forest — he now works for Southern Lithoplate in Youngsville.
“Anything that’s light sensitive, I’m the expert on it,” he said with aplomb.
He was less sure of himself under Adams’ tutelage.
“He was a little bizarre,” Platzer recalled. “He would wait all day to take one photograph.”
Platzer could tell early on he was never going to have a career as a photographer. But, one truism he did learn from Adams is, “to look at things, study them, observe them, appreciate them. You want things to last a long time. People don’t take the time,” he said. “To me, that’s why photography is so important. That’s one reason I took the trip.”
The other is he loves to sail. When he graduated high school, his parents gave him a Sunfish sailboat, an 11-footer. He sailed it everywhere. It got into his blood.
Later, and this is where the story takes an odd turn, when Platzer heard about a Canadian man who had replicated a Viking longship in Norway who was going to sail it down the coast of Europe. Platzer signed on as the trip’s photographer.
“He was basically a lunatic. He just wanted to relive the sagas of the Vikings,” he said.
In another adventure, Platzer and some German friends went up to Greenland, but their boat got stuck in the ice. They had to basically pole their way out over the course of days. In another, he joined another historic ship traveling around Cape Horn, South America.
So, he was qualified to travel with the Ernestina, as sailor and photographer.
They made him the radio operator.
Much of the first 50 pages of the book deal with organization, and in many cases, disorganization, of the voyage as the American members of the crew join up with their counterparts in Cape Verde in the Portuguese islands, 350 off the coast of Africa.
Platzer, who had taken leave of his company, took a crash course in HAM radio operation and goes into great detail in the text about the difficulties of relaying signals and getting the antenna up at the right angle to send and receive.
Daily, during the 41-day voyage he climbed the main mast to its dizzying heights to raise and lower the antenna. Since his duties were so important — calls had to be made uninterrupted at exact times — he had fewer night watches and more free time to himself.
He used that time to work out and make entries to his future wife in his journal.
In those entries, he describes the state of the ship, pays homage to the dolphins and sea birds and describes the personalities and functions of the crew.
They brought pigs and chickens with them for slaughter, which was done on the deck. Manure was everywhere and had to be cleaned. Eventually, he described, even the water began to taste like chicken droppings.
The crew ate pork liver for lunch, pork ribs for dinner and blood sausage for breakfast. “The deck was slippery from pig fat. The whole place smelled of pig.”
Not all his descriptions are so blunt. Without lights, for instance, the stars filled the sky.
“It was very quiet night with a lot of stars. … After supper, we played a tape of Reggae (Jimmy Cliff), on Michael’s tape recorder. It was very romantic even without the moon. Periodically, the silence was broken by the sound of black fish breaking the surface.”
In another, he tells about how the crew caught their first fish:
“We usually have a fishing line out during the day. The only fish we get are the flying fish which land on the deck.”
In the middle of the voyage (around page 77), the sea was becalmed and they actually drifted backwards for several days.
“Yesterday, was miserable. The sea was almost perfectly flat. 92 degrees F in the shade. We just sat and rotated around.”
Worse was weathering a squall: “The boat shakes when the mainsail, especially the gaff, pulls taut after a wave hits the boat broadside, causing the boat to roll.”
There are close calls — one cargo vessel same close to look them over and nearly swamped the boat, missing by a scant 50 feet.
The next close-passing ship was upon arrival on the America coast, whose passengers throw cans of beer to the crew. Near to the end of the journal, Platzer makes an observation, one of his many in the telling he observed with dry wit.
“The last pig is about to be killed. He has been hiding for the last couple of days. It’s been cold and lonely for him. The life of a pig.”
Platzer looks fondly and nostalgically on that voyage, though some of its participants have since passed on.
“I met some very wonderful people,” he said. “I feel privileged to have been a part of it.”