Whirlpool Story


(This 726th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 27, 2005.)


For those of you who, like me, are beset with a severe case of cabin fever and who cannot join your neighbors on trips to Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean, I offer a favorite sea story about sunnier climes. If you follow it closely, perhaps it will warm you up vicariously through a few of these final days of winter.


Because, when I was only ten years old, I read that fearsome tale by Edgar Allen Poe, "A Descent into the Maelstrom," I long harbored a fear of whirlpools. In Poe's story a Norwegian fisherman tells of his 70-ton fishing smack being blown by a storm into the Moskoe-strom whirlpool. At one point Poe's narrator tells us, "The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around." He finally escapes by lashing himself to a barrel, on which he is whirled back out from that deep whirlpool center, but his boat carrying his brother is lost in the abyss.


Shortly after reading that story I dreamed of being caught in a whirlpool myself and, despite frantic efforts, being inescapably drawn toward its down-sucking center. Just as I reached that center, my dream ended by my falling out of bed. Upon awakening, far from being embarrassed, I was immeasurably relieved.


Now skip forward ten years. It is 1947 and I am serving as assistant navigator on the Donner, a Navy ship posted to the Mediterranean. The Donner is big -- 450 feet long. That's about the distance in the Bisons' ballpark from home plate to the center field fence.


We are in Naples preparing to sail to Athens and our captain, a fine gentleman but not an especially good seaman, has invited a local pilot aboard to review our charts to determine our best route. Our engineering officer, Lou Terricone, is acting as interpreter.


Most of the trip will be straightforward. The war is over and we need only avoid well-marked areas from which mines are not yet swept. But as the three men examine the chart of the Strait of Messina, the passage between the toe of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily, the pilot calls attention to a number of spirals marked along the sides of the channel. Lou doesn't know the Italian word being used to describe the markings and the pilot tries to describe what he means by spinning his hands. Finally the captain intercedes. "Whirlpools," he says and the others immediately agree.


That gains the captain's full attention and he carefully notes where each of these whirlpools appear along the channel.


Now skip forward once again. After an overnight trip down the west coast of Italy, it is the next morning and we are entering the Strait of Messina. It is a glorious day: bright sun, hardly a breath of wind, the sea smooth as glass, the open countryside on either shore lush and green even in March. It is a wonderful place to be while western New York is buried under snow.


The channel is twenty miles long and at its narrowest point two miles wide so our slow-moving ship should take about an hour and a half to get through.


Not this time, however. We're not heading straight down the middle of the channel. Instead we're carefully maneuvering back and forth from side to side of the strait to avoid those whirlpools that we can see in the distance, their slow circular motion roiling the otherwise smooth waters.


During most of our passage we are alone in the channel but, just as we reach the southern end that will lead us to the Ionian Sea, a group of a dozen sailing boats appear sailing toward us. Each is no more than 15 or 20 feet long.


And then it happens. The entire fleet of tiny boats sails right through one of those whirlpools.


So much for all those maneuvers. No Scylla and Chrabdys here.


Now, of course, I live in western New York where we have our own whirlpool in the Niagara River a short distance below the falls. Whenever I visit that part of the river I relive that episode in the Mediterranean and chuckle.


Our Niagara maelstrom always looks to me to be as benign as those in the Strait of Messina, but in this case it is bounded by far rougher waters.-- Gerry Rising