Nautical Disaster Exhibit
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Kingston, Ontario is a military turned college town at the intersection of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The latter waterway defined trade, commerce and culture in Canada for nearly two hundred years. The lake, during times of both battle and bi-lateral trade, has separated the former dominion from the Empire to the South. Both waterways were essential to Canada’s early survival, and occupied privileged space in the Upper and Lower Canadian psyche.    

Kingston reaches out to the water. Her British fort, her 19th century open air market, and her most famous landmark –an imposing colonial penitentiary– are all teased by the Ontario tide. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that water imagery has become a favourite lyrical device of The Tragically Hip. 

Whether it is a literal reference or a metaphor, the sea and those who owe her a living have often appeared in song. 1989’s “Up To Here” featured Another Midnight, a lament which told us that the “the river don’t sleep as the water runs cold.” That same album reminded fans that the city of New Orleans is actually sinking. 2002’s The Dire Wolf brought us a pugnacious ship with an indefatigable crew. 2000’s Lake Fever took us back to Lake Ontario after 1994’s Daredevil had sent us “plunging over the falls.” But without question, the bands best-known sea chanty is the unlikely anthemic and perennial diehard favourite: Nautical Disaster. 

A murky guitar riff develops over a submerged bass line. Heated words and reconciliation unfold over the screams of men left to die at sea. The Tragically Hip created this sad, enduring and heroic rock ballad amidships. It developed in the middle of New Orleans is Sinking and its meaning became the most contested work in the Hip’s catalogue. Many fans were sure their analysis of events was being relayed within the song. Dieppe, the defining Canadian tragedy of World War Two was suggested, as were the Titanic and Lusitania disasters of earlier years. Gord Downie told the authors of the Can-Rock tome Have Not Been The Same that the songs nautical theme is in fact based on the doomed German battleship Bismarck. 

Nautical Disaster is a Freudian trip. It may have been a now defunct fan web page[1] that first explored the link between the Bismarck and the pain that seems to be influencing the songs protagonist. The song opens as our narrator finds refuge in sleep after suffering –as the song later reveals– a hurtful development is his relationship with Susan. As he begins to dream, our everyman is about to come face to face with the heartless reality of war at sea off the coast of France.        

The Bismarck was more than just a battleship. Adolf Hitler had named the 46,000-ton widow-maker after Otto Von Bismarck, the founder of the German Reich. It was an attempt to create a quasi-personal connection between the statesman and the madman.[2] The largest, most heavily armed and most heralded ship in the German fleet, the Bismarck was captained by Ernst Lindemann. 

A respected veteran of the seas, Lindemann insisted the Bismarck be referred to as a “He,”[3] the usual feminine description being unsuitable for his ship. Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, a survivor who was later held prisoner in Bowmanville, Ontario, recalled that the crew named the ships turrets Anton, Bruno, Dora and Caesar.[4] The ship was the only German vessel to travel with a full military band. From the moment she was laid down on Canada Day in 1936, to her vicious final battle on Victoria Day weekend 1941, the Bismarck was the Reich’s floating symbol of Aryan supremacy.              

Among the Allied navies, fear was afforded the Bismarck the instant she slipped into the sea. International fame arrived early and unexpected. After colliding with the lead tugboat on her maiden voyage, the Bismarck sailed into a far more distinguishing encounter with the British Battleship Hood on May 24, 1941. 

If the untested Bismarck already had a reputation as Germany’s flagship, the mighty Hood dwarfed her by comparison. The Hood represented the British Empire’s indestructible reputation at sea. After the briefest of encounters, amidst only six full minutes of firing, the Bismarck shocked her crew, her officers, and most assuredly the Allied forces, when she easily dispatched the legendary British battleship. 

The sinking of the Hood bolstered a dangerous new confidence in Hitler and his followers. For the first time, His Majesty’s reign over the sea had not only been challenged, but severely undermined. Winston Churchill now had a new public enemy, a supreme nautical vendetta. Hitler considered the Bismarck an instant idol.[5] 

In order to refuel and repair damage sustained in the battle with the Hood, the Bismarck set a course for the French port of St. Nazaire. Her return voyage would be anything but routine. Churchill, a former head of the admiralty, had deployed four battleships, two battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, three heavy cruisers, ten light cruisers and twenty-one destroyers to find the Bismarck. It was a seek and destroy mission unlike anything in history. A lethal game of cat and mouse set across more than a million square nautical miles.[6] 

On May 26, a squadron of British Swordfish torpedo planes broke through the Atlantic fog that had been concealing the Bismarck. One of the aircraft, flying at less than 50 feet above the water, dropped a 1,600-pound, 18-inch torpedo armed with 450 pounds of TNT.[7] The projectile struck the Bismarck’s Achilles heel, the only part of the ship not encased with double thick armour: her twin parallel rudders. The attack did not harm the ship itself, but the Bismarck was now unable to steer, and headed straight into enemy fire. 

By the morning of May 27, with no ability to alter her direction, low on fuel and helplessly headed towards an inevitable attack, Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Reader wrote in his diary: “Given these circumstances, the ships situation is hopeless.” Hitler personally wired a message to the ship telling the crew that all of Germany was with them, and no matter the circumstances, the Fuhrer expected them to fulfill their duty to the end. At 8:54am, the British Heavy Cruiser Norfolk spotted the Bismarck and opened fire from 20,000 metres away.[8] 

While her steering capabilities were non-existent, the guns that made such short work of the Hood were still in perfect working order. A ferocious naval battle ensued and lasted more than ninety minutes. By 10:40am, British ships Norfolk, King George V, Rodney and Dorsetshire had blasted the Bismarck with torpedoes, aircraft fire and 2,876 shells. The firing became so intense that the paint on the Rodney began to blister; the vibrations of her guns ripped her deck.[9] The British became frustrated with the Bismarck’s stubborn refusal to sink. Finally, it was the Dorsetshire –a boat that will play an important part with our dreamer– which fired the last torpedo into her side. 

As the Bismarck sank, many sailors dove headfirst over the rails, breaking their necks on the lower decks or the frigid, unforgiving Atlantic itself. While the song references the crew being “picked, in order” as part of a disciplined scuttling, this is pure poetic license. In reality, chaos reigned on the Bismarck as she sank. Some Luftwaffe pilots, armed with military issue pistols, shot themselves in mid-jump rather than face the icy waters below. Other soldiers saluted the flag and sang the national anthem before leaping from the hulking wreck. 

Once in the ocean, the Bismarck’s men found themselves immersed not in salt water, but in gallons of oil which had been spewing from the ship for over an hour. Some choked; others expended too much energy trying to find open water and simply drowned. At 48o ’09 north, 16o ’07 west, Captain Lindemann, thousands of his loyal seamen, technicians and soldiers, all fell into the Atlantic on board their ship. It took thirty secretaries, three full days to notify all the next of kin.[10] 

It’s at this point where Nautical Disaster begins. Our dreamer finds himself among the few sailors who managed to successfully commandeer one of the Bismarck’s lifeboats. He remarks: “I relished the fray/and the screaming filled my head all day.”  

The Dorsetshire immediately approached to rescue the Germans who’d been lucky enough to survive the onslaught but were still left struggling in the water. The Dorsetshire steered for the thickest concentration of survivors[11] and let fly with lifelines, docking ropes and nets. Some Germans came achingly close to safety before being bounced off the Dorsetshire’s sides or losing their grip on a lifeline. Eventually, a small raft was lowered into the water. Men used it as a base, a spot to catch their breath before giving all their energy to one last ascension. 

Then, in what many consider an unnecessary and uncaring act; action which German historians still vociferously condemn, the Dorsetshire began to pull away. Men screamed for one more chance at the lines. Sailors desperately scratched and clawed at the hull of their departing savior. Nautical Disaster sums up the simple and inconsiderate manner in which the condemned were doomed for a second time: “and those left in the water/got kicked off our pantleg/and we headed for home.” 

A U-boat sighting was given as the official justification for the desertion of the men at sea. Records would later show that no U-boat’s were in the vicinity at the time. Given the circumstances, the hazy weather conditions, the fresh memory of a sunken Hood among the British fleet, and the German and British souls now at risk aboard the Dorsetshire, survivors such as Mullenheim-Rechberg consider the movement justified.    

So what could bring about a dreamscape of such horrific consequence? Well, a woman of course. 

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, history's most famous dream weavers, agreed that moving experiences and emotional trauma could evoke vivid dreams. Freud believed that the unconscious would link up to the day’s residue once an individual had left waking life.[12] Jung hypothesized that dreams were a projection of the soul, our deepest innermost feelings that could only be expressed by our unconscious.[13] For our man to have dreamt such a dreadful scene, his waking moments must have been imprinted with some unforgivable deed.    

Freud wrote that in dreams, hallow objects on water such as ships, often-represented women and the womb. Our woman, the Susan dismissed in the last verse, must have deeply scarred our dreamer.  

A disturbing or unpleasant experience in everyday life often projects itself through similarly unpleasant imagery in dreams. The person responsible for this ugliness is often represented by a symbol that displays disproportionate evil.[14] A ship, abandoning her position with chilling neglect for men left in the water, could easily represent Susan for our jilted narrator.         

Just as the dream reaches its point of chilling, outstretched hands, it is interrupted. “Then the dream ends/when the phone rings.” It’s her, and Susan wants to talk. As she speaks, visions of a nautical disaster remain fresh in our man’s head. He realizes that his pain can’t compete with the hardships of a previous generation. Infidelity and heartbreak are among the smallest of injustices and tragedies that can take place in a world capable of war. He knows that life hands out hell at times, but for all its sham, drudgery and broken promises: it’s still a wonderful world.[15] Being heart broken sure beats being abandoned at sea. 

Our man interrupts his lovers appeal with a curt “Anyway, Susan…” Having been illuminated by a tragedy, he has a new perspective. But just why exactly has he interjected, what does he have to say? The interpretation of the final lines in Nautical Disaster has drawn many Hip Heads into interpretive arguments. He has obviously been hurt, the nature of his dream tells us that, and now he’s ready to speak his mind. 

Some see the “…if you’d like/our conversation is as faint a sound/in my memory/as those fingernails/scratching on my hull” passage as proof that our man has decided to forget whatever was said, throw the past overboard, move full steam ahead with his relationship.  

I’ve always heard a more unreceptive tone in the lyrics. My reading has our protagonist realizing that he’d be better off without Susan. Her voice is like fingernails on his hull and he's fully prepared to leave her in his wake. But my interpretation may simply be due to the striking and aggressive image of finger nails scratching a hull –coupled with Downie’s angry delivery– breeding a hostile explanation of the lyrics.  

Regardless of whether you find an anchor or a casting off at the end of Nautical Disaster, you’ll invariably notice Bobby Baker’s mourning guitar. The strings cry out in despair as the band constructs an instrumental finish that evokes images of the Bismarck’s final stand and her sailors last gasps.  

Gordon Sinclair’s bass line charges the entire song with a steady introspection, a sad souvenir of that misty morning in 1941. Johnny Fay’s drums beat a cannonade of thudding shells and crashing symbols. Gord Downie’s voice etches the song with both the panic below deck and the fear above water. Paul Langlois’s guitar charts a course for this intelligent tune with his unmistakable rhythm.  But it’s Bobby Baker’s guitar which brings the story of those neglected warriors back from the depths. This collective effort makes Nautical Disaster a genuine musical masterpiece.

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[1] The once must visit site for Hip Heads was located at http://www.burningchurch.ca It was the inspiration for this site.

[2] Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismark, A Survivors Story. Pg. 23

[3] Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismark, A Survivors Story. Pg. 29

[4] Ibid. Pg. 37

[5] David J. Bercuson and Holger H Herwig, The Destruction Of The Bismarck. Pg. 266

[6] Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismark, A Survivors Story. Pg. 172

[7] Ibid. Pg. 208

[8] Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismark, A Survivors Story. Pg. 248

[9] Ibid. 260

[10] David J. Bercuson and Holger H Herwig, The Destruction Of The Bismarck. Pg. 296

[11] Burkard Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismark, A Survivors Story. Pg. 280

[12] Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams. Pg 573

[13] James A. Hall. Jungian Dream Interpretation. Pg. 16

[14] Ibid. Pg. 16

[15] Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Speaking on the CBC after his election loss, May 22, 1979.





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Lyrics are provided for reference, education and personal use only.