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Muscles and waves

March 8, 2018

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, who plays The Mountain on Game of Thrones, just set a world record of 1,041 pounds, in the deadlift.

Novelist Philip Alan retells the tragedy of the Royal George, which went down while anchored in a calm harbor in August, 1782, with 900 hands lost. Despite the valiant and futile efforts of the ship’s carpenter. An early etching of the loss is shown left. Alan then repeats a common — but I think wrong — explanation of why sailors then did not much swim:

Most contemporary sailors could not swim, because they chose not to learn for reasons that made perfect sense to them. It was an age still dominated by strong notions of fate, and few professions seem to have been more fatalistic than sailors.

The assumption there is that most sailors of that time actually made a choice on the matter. As if swimming were an elective they refused during their high school curriculum, right after signing up for maritime studies. My own suspicion is that most sailors of the time exercised no choice in the matter at all. The reason most sailors then didn’t swim is that they came from a time and place when few children were taught to swim. I have seen no evidence that sailors had that skill any less than others of that time and social class. After they became sailors — that not always a matter of choice — they were busy and rarely had the opportunity then to learn. I agree that “any writer setting their work in the 18th century needs to try and get into the minds of their subjects.” It is even more important to understand their cultures. Individuals are wondrously varied. But none escape that.

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