Alumni Spotlight: Strangely Doesburg

Alumni Strangely hanging off boat in the artic.
Srangely sitting in mast of boat in the Artic.

My time at Western afforded me the ability to develop skepticism as a reader.

Striding Along the Deep

Strangely Doesburg, 2021 WWU Graduate

For my entire adult life, I have enjoyed learning and sharing traditional sea shanties with people. I have always felt that my time aboard a variety of sailing ships added a dimension of interest to my nautical numbers, but my travels in the High Arctic in April 2022 proved there was infinitely more to experience. It is one thing to have sailed a time or two; it is quite another to play accordion while clinging to the mast of a tall ship, seventy feet above 30° water.

Ever since I was a child on family road trips, I have enjoyed reading up on the history of places I am about to visit. I continue to be compelled by the feelings I had at age 10, visiting the still-visible wagon ruts of the Oregon trail. What had previously been known only via words was rendered tangible, uncomfortable in its sudden proximity. It should come as no surprise that such interests led me to Western Washington University’s History Department.

My time at Western afforded me the ability to develop skepticism as a reader. Rather than hindering my decades-old love of anecdotes, it has allowed it to soar. When I encounter the rich experiential participation anecdotes of writers of popular histories like Craig Childs (House of Rain, Atlas of a Lost World), Neil Oliver (The Vikings: A New History), and Barry Lopez (About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory), it is now with an eye to their sources. A marvelous claim by an author need not be dismissed, if further documentation is provided. Thanks to Western I now find these searches a joy in their own right, allowing further trust in the value of some anecdotes: Childs’s and Oliver’s thoughts on sleeping in historical sites, or Lopez’s account of aiding the stoking of an Anagama Kiln. By verifying aspects of a narrative, I gain that richer perspective on history that is only available to those who have both studied and gotten their hands dirty (very literally, in Lopez’s case).

Literature, too, can benefit from such firsthand knowledge. Take for instance these lines from the 35th chapter of Moby-Dick, describing one’s perch upon the highest platform of a ship’s mast: “There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea.” The image is striking, majestic even, in its sense of wonder at this natural marvel, and yet still seasoned with the fairground levity suggested by the presence of stilts. I would argue that it is precisely firsthand experience which allowed Melville to evoke such rich imagery.

And so it was that in April of 2022, in search of my own experiential insight into nautical songs written at the edge of the world, I joined an interdisciplinary expedition to the High Arctic aboard the tall ship Antigua. In the hope that I could add something experiential to my reading, and spurred by a recollection of Moby-Dick, I asked the expedition’s coordinator if I might spend some time at the masthead.

I have spent time aloft in the rigging of several tall ships over the years, but I had never done so in cold weather, encumbered by the weight of gloves, parka, and polar boots, and the sting of windblown ice particles. The first climb was exhilarating; in temperatures well below freezing, I scrambled up the ratlins and managed to reach the foretop. This triangular platform, little bigger than the seat of a park bench, sits roughly halfway up the mast. Subsequent climbs saw me reach a further point some 25 feet above that to the masthead, or crosstrees, a slippery collection of planks similar in area to the seat of a kitchen chair. 

During our month-long expedition, I spent nearly 24 cumulative hours observing the Arctic Ocean from that lofty vantage. I witnessed icebergs calve from glaciers, humpback whales diving beneath our keel, and the arrival and subsequent departure of a whiteout blizzard during which I could not see more than ten feet in any direction. I got to be high in the rigging during that crucial first sighting of land after a three-day passage across the open sea. Grand adventures all, but it was the smaller details that contributed more to my understanding of what we colloquially call “sea shanties.” Whenever I assisted in raising and lowering the sails, or coiling loose rope on deck, I marveled at how much more difficult they were given the cold, the necessity of gloves, and the omnipresent light that rendered sleep difficult. Despite my best efforts I managed to contract frostbite in the two smallest fingers of “I witnessed icebergs calve from glaciers, humpback whales diving beneath our keel,” my right hand. Small wonder that the gentle climate of Hawaii was an oft longed-for reprieve for the singers of the traditional sea song, “Rolling Down to Old Maui.”

Naturally, I was compelled to eventually bring my accordion aloft. As I played a few tunes into a wind that carried the music away before anyone else aboard could hear it, I reflected. Had all my prior research enriched this moment? Perhaps. But thanks to organizational research practices I developed while studying at Western, I am confident I put my best foot forward into the opportunity. And more importantly, I knew this experience would enrich any future reading I did, especially regarding polar exploration, maritime music, or frostbite.

Strangely Doesburg is a writer, magician, accordionist, carpenter, and sailor, with a degree in history from WWU (2021). He is currently spending a year in Trøndelag, Norway studying traditional, clinker-built boat construction at Fosen Folkehøgskole.