By Philip Hoare
Eighty-five-year-old twins from Brooklyn are setting off on what they say will be their final voyage. Their plan to die at sea has an undeniable romance
The endlessness of the sea offers an eternal alternative. Perhaps if we just pushed off into it, we could escape death itself – as if its amniotic waters might be a return to a universal womb. After all, the sea is where we came from in the first place. There’s a definite romance to saying goodbye to the land, and setting sail for that last adventure.
Van and Carl Vollmer, 85-year-old twins from Brooklyn, certainly think so. The brothers are about to embark on the handsome 158ft, three-masted barquentine, the Peacemaker, on a round-the-world voyage in search of remote islands and sunken galleons, from the Panama Canal to the Great Barrier Reef, the Philippines, and on to the Mediterranean.
In order to get there, the pair – who currently live on a powerboat moored on City Island – have bill-posted Brooklyn’s hipster district of Williamsburg with an enticing proposition: “Brooklyn sea captain seeking crew!” They’re advertising for a 12-strong, able-bodied crew of men and women, including a mechanic, deckhand, cook, nutritionist and an aquaponic gardener to grow vegetables on top of fish tanks – a kind of hip 21st-century version of Ahab’s crew on the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. They’ll even get suitably retro uniforms of old-fashioned sailor pants with 13 buttons and yellow-and-white striped shirts. I’m guessing they’ll all have beards already.
But instead of a demented captain suicidally spearing a great white whale, the Vollmer twins are instructing their shipmates that when the time comes, they’ll be glad to go over the side. “To swim with the fishes for eternity”, as Van Vollmer says. “We want to spend the rest of our lives on this boat”, Carl adds. “We want to get thrown overboard”. Melville, who lived and died by the New York waterfront, would approve of such wild ambition. Having ended his own life as an ageing customs inspector on the Manhattan wharves looking out longingly to sea, the great writer probably wished he had done the same. Indeed, it’s a scene reminiscent of his last, elegiac seafaring tale, Billy Budd, whose protagonist ends up consigned to the deep: “…roll me over fair! / I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”
But not everyone is happy about the Vollmers’ intentions. At least one crew member, Steven, chosen by the twins as their first mate, is equivocal about this duty. “Van kind of brings it up and he’s like, ‘I want to teach you everything I know so when you dump me into the sea you can take over.’ I’m hoping that’s just some kind of expression. It’s not something I really want to think about.”
Not going gently into the good night but raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas recommended, has a long maritime tradition. It is an ambition peculiarly suited to the sea – particularly in our fractured archipelago of the British Isles. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Mr Peggotty, the Yarmouth fisherman, says of his brother-in-law Mr Barkis as he lies dying: “People can’t die, along the coast … except when the tide’s pretty nigh out … He’s going out with the tide. It’s ebb at half-arter three, slack water half-an-hour. If he lives till it turns, he’ll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide.” Nowadays, anyone hoping to swim with the fishes in eternity without going to the bother of sailing into the blue yonder can opt for burial at sea off the Isle of Wight, in a designated zone.
Meanwhile, the modern Odysseus takes to the ocean liner. Wealthy wanderers of a certain age have sold up on land to live at sea in permanently rented suites. A somewhat ominous-sounding company called Utopia caters to those who intend to spend the rest of their lives on the briny, while US websites discuss the practicalities, pondering, “Is cruise ship retirement cheaper than assisted living?”.
Beatrice Muller thought so. After her husband died on the QE2 as it sailed out of Bombay in 1999, she announced her intention to live on the liner till the end of her days, paying £3,500 a month for the privilege. Unfortunately for Mrs Muller, she outlasted the ship; it went into retirement in 2008. And although the stalwart senior citizen continued to defy the land – “I’ll keep on staying at sea”, she said, aged 89, “I don’t want to go back to housekeeping” – sadly, she seems to have ended up in a retirement home in New Jersey.
As someone who swims in the sea every day, I’ve often considered it as my last resting place; that like Barkis, I might be taken out with the tide. After all, I wouldn’t be using up valuable land space, or contributing to climate change. It sounds almost idyllic. “Full fathom five my father lies”, as Ariel sings in The Tempest, “Of his bones are coral made”, transformed “into something rich and strange”. But then I think of how lonely it might be, nibbled away by crawling slimy things where “the very deep did rot”, as the fated Ancient Mariner saw it. And would I really want to be recycled by lobsters, to end up in the food chain? Perhaps it’s not such a reassuring thought after all.
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