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New book records maritime calamities

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Extensive research: Graham Faiella delved deep into the archives of Lloyd’s List journal

Mutiny, murder and cannibalism are just a few of the cheery topics in Graham Faiella’s new non-fiction book, Ate the Dog Yesterday.

The Bermudian author extensively researched all manner of maritime dramas for his latest release, delving deep into the archives of Lloyd’s List shipping journal and the Lloyd’s Register directory.

Although sailing today may conjure images of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and the America’s Cup, historically the ocean proved a far more perilous place for seafarers.

“Life at sea was hard, often fatal. It was fraught with dangers,” said Mr Faiella, speaking to The Royal Gazette from his home in Wimbledon, Great Britain.

The Somerset-born writer began his investigation in 2007, intending to pen a book about the two wrecked ships at Black Bay, Southampton.

However, during his time sifting through microfilms at London’s Guildhall Library, Mr Faiella found himself distracted by the casualties recorded in Lloyd’s List.

“Some of them were just so dramatic,” he said.

“Collisions between ships, collisions with icebergs, men being washed overboard in storms.

“I began transcribing anything that had drama about it. If it didn’t have at least three or four corpses, I wasn’t interested.”

To narrow down his research, the 64-year-old picked a timeframe from 1869 to 1906 — a nod to the lifetime of the Black Bay boats.

One chapter of the book concerns messages in bottles which had washed ashore and been reported in Lloyd’s List.

“The vast majority were from sailors writing their last words, as the ship was sinking,” said Mr Faiella. “Some were absolutely pitiable and some were really plaintive.”

The book’s quirky title is taken from one of these messages.

It was written by a castaway sailor travelling from Liverpool to Jamaica in 1873, whose vessel hit “a reef of rocks about 1,000 miles from land”.

Found on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico two years later, the bottle message began with the words “Ate the dog yesterday ...” and concluded “God save us!”

“This book is really about what happens to seamen when peril strikes in a most dramatic way,” said Mr Faiella.

“Sailing was like the coal industry of the day. People, by and large, didn’t choose to do it for the adventure.

“A lot of seamen were the down-and-outs, the lowest of the low, and they were desperate to earn a living.”

This is not Mr Faiella’s first book about the ocean, having previously written works including Moby Dick and the Whaling Industry of the Nineteenth Century and Fishing in Bermuda.

Asked what fascinates him about the subject, he replied: “There are an infinity of answers.

“The sea is a place where the laws and social norms of humanity are challenged.

“It’s primitive and isolated, and there’s always the possibility of danger.”

Ocean of motion: the sea is a place where the laws and social norms of humanity are challenged, says Graham Faiella, whose new book catalogues maritime disasters