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A serious sinker
John Guy Gilpatric 1896-1950
Whilst living in the south of France in 1929, a New Yorker was the first man to become addicted to skin diving. He had intended to become a flyer and became briefly famous as a pilot prodigy, setting an altitude record of 4,665 feet over the Californian desert when he was only sixteen years old. In the following five years he became a qualified instructor, an exhibition flyer at air shows and then a test pilot.
At twenty-one he volunteered for the Air Service. Lieutenant Guy Gilpatric then joined the American Expeditionary Forces and was off to France for the last eighteen months of what was called `the Great War', as if all previous conflicts left something to be desired.
He returned a captain and, unlike many of his buddies, without a scratch. On being demobilised he decided that his flying days were over and he would become a famous writer instead. After all, Henry James and Jack London had recently died and there was a vacancy. His first step on the ladder was as a copywriter at an advertising agency, but he hated being cooped up all day in a tiny office scribbling stuff in which he had not the slightest interest. Although he had no pretensions about his literary skills and later confessed that `deficiencies were never known to deter me', he was convinced that he was a competent writer. So, peering through the splits in his infinitives, he became a freelance journalist. His articles were soon in demand and by 1920 he had earned enough to marry anddecamp to a villa at Antibes on the French Riviera.
Gilpatric had shown little affinity for the sea, but now he lived beside the Mediterranean where the water was so transparent that from the cliff tops it was impossible to tell how much of the bone-white rocks were under water. The sea beckoned.
Antibes was where the beautiful people, and those who thought themselves to be beautiful, came to play and pose. Film scouts prowled the coast looking for pretty girls and they didn't have far to look. Directors assembled twitterings of starlets and shot featherweight movies by the sea. Everybody was having a grand time, except for Isadora Duncan, whose scarf connived with a car wheel to garrotte her.
Gilpatric, one of the less beautiful people, hit upon the idea of writing stories about the misadventures of the SS Inchcliffe Castle, a fictional rust bucket of an English merchant ship. Although he knew little about the merchant navy, the stories were published in the Saturday Evening Post and its readers loved the tales of Mr Glencannon, the Scottish ship's engineer, and the rest of the dissolute crew.
The public clamoured for more stories, but the Post couldn't get them. Gilpatric's editor complained that `every Glencannon story had to be extracted under anaesthesia.'
Then a typescript arrived that held the clue to how Gilpatric had been spending his time. It was an article on diving. In I929 Guy discovered spear fishing and disappeared under water. Against the editor's better judgement, the Post decided to publish the article in the hope that it would allow their star author `to get octopuses out of his system and get back to Mr Glencannon'. It wasn't going to be quite as easy as that. Several other pieces on diving arrived — and the occasional Glencannon story to keep them quiet.
Back in France, Guy was diving every day, although his goggles leaked and the misaligned lenses gave him double vision. Lacking flippers and a weight belt, his diving technique was singular, but effective. `He filled his lungs and swept a cupped hand into the water, then he bounced out to the waist, blew the air from his lungs, and sank rapidly, feet first. Under water, he turned and drove with quick kicks straight for the bottom, with his lungs squeezed towards crushing point ...' In the early days he also wore a nose clip and stupidly plugged his ears against the pressure, which could have ruptured his eardrums; equalising the pressure, not defying it, is the secret.
His small group of `serious sinkers' were mostly expatriates, armed with harpoons ten feet long, propelled by a thick rubber band like a slingshot. They trained hard to be at peak fitness. Gilpatric had a particularly rigorous regime: `I had always lived the outdoor life when I wasn't in the house, never drinking anything stronger than whisky except vodka and rarely smoking more than one cigarette at a time.'
Hans Hass captured Gilpatric's hunting philosophy when he wrote: `You confront the fish in its own element, where every advantage is on its side. It can swim faster, stay under water indefinitely, never suffers from earache, and needs no nose clip. The goggle-fisher's harpoon and his intellect are his only strong points, but ... in battle with the great predatory fish of the sea the goggle-fisher has no advantage at all. Surely this is the height of fairness.'
After publication of the articles on diving in the Saturday Evening Post, Guy was inundated with letters from people who would like to learn to dive, and those who, until then, had thought they were the only ones that did. They caught the imagination of a group in San Diego who, in 1933, founded what was probably the first ever diving club, calling themselves The Bottom-Scratchers.
A teenage Hans Hass stumbled across Gilpatric hunting at Eden Roc, near to Cap d'Antibes:
It was a marvellous day. Not a breath of air quivered over the hot cliffs, the sea was tired and gentle. Every now and then a wave would grumble, having gone astray in a cave ...
I noticed a human body among the rocks. It floated motionless on the surface, the head hanging under the water; at first I thought the man was dead. But then the head rose; the swimmer took breath. He wore rubber goggles over his eyes and in his right hand he had a long stick.
I now watched the man disappearing from time to time beneath the waves. He ... sank away absolutely without a sound, so that no waves betrayed where he had vanished. Each time it would be astonishingly long before he reappeared, somewhere, at quite another spot, as noiselessly and unexpectedly as he had gone, and never a sign of being out of breath.
He had dived again ... a big brown creature below the waves ... He swam remarkably carefully and cautiously, and pointed his stick at a coloured bunch of seaweed ... A brief gleam in the water, then the man came to the surface. On his spear gleamed a fish, pierced through the middle!
The man finally came ashore ... His skin was tanned by water and sun, his hair like a bundle of straw.
`A harpoon?' was his ready answer to my question. `The best man to make you one is Martin the mechanic at Antibes. He wants three hundred francs. But don't go swimming alone in deep water, because sharks sometimes come over to the Cape here. And watch out for octopuses too!'
Then he thrust the knife with which he had killed the fish back into its sheath, pulled the goggles over his eyes, and vanished again into the sea.
In 1938 Gilpatric expanded the diving articles from the Saturday Evening Post, added tips from his readers and produced the first ever book on sports diving. `If a few years ago anybody had predicted that one day I would write a book about catching fish for sport, I'd have scoffed ... although I had ... dangled a hook in many waters, I realised that the result was due neither to intelligence nor skill on my part, but only to the appetite of creatures I couldn't even see ... Was fishing a sport? I had my doubts ... And then I took up Goggling!'
The title page of his book says it all:
The Compleat Goggler
Being the First and Only Exhaustive Treatise
on the Art of
That most Noble and Excellent Sport Perfected and
in the Mediterranean Sea
Setting Forth the Proper manner of making the
GOGGLES, SPEARS and other Needful GADGETS
Descriptions of Many Marvels Witnessed
BOTTOM OF THE SEA
And Fully Exposing the Author's Cunning Methods of Spearing Fish & Octopi
The title was, of course, a nod to Izaak Walton's classic text on fishing, published in 1653: The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man's Recreation. Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing, not unworthy of the perusal of most anglers.
Although both books instruct in the art of fishing and use it as a vehicle to describe the landscape and local natural history, they could not be more different. Walton rambles not only along the river bank, but into the world of gentle philosophy. He contemplates sticklebacks and scripture, perch and poetry, minnows and mythology and milkmaids' songs. Although his facts are sometimes erroneous, his imaginary companion was right to claim, `Your discourse seems to be music and charms me to an attention.'
In contrast, The Compleat Goggler is a slick, slangy rollercoaster ride, `an epic written as a vaudeville sketch'. One chapter is entitled: `Garglings of a garrulous goggler, witnessing wonders, telling lies, exploring wrecks and hunting treasure'. There is even a chapter of recipes. Octopus à la Niçoise begins unpromisingly: `When the octopus is dead, which he rarely is, he doesn't look much better than he looks when he's alive.' The provenance of some dishes is uncertain: `Fish à la Monte. I don't know the real name of this style of cooking fish, but my dog likes it this way as much as I do, so I have named it after him.'
The book is best taken in small doses, yet it undoubtedly captures those swashbuckling days when even those who were to become serious divers were diverted by the bloodthirsty pleasures of underwater hunting. And the book inspired them. Philippe Tailliez gave a copy to Cousteau and for decades it sailed in the Commandant's cabin on the Calypso.
Let us follow Gilpatric as he dips his aviator's eye into the sea for the first time:
Then, suddenly, there came strange rumours. Somebody, somewhere, had evolved a radical and super-sportsmanlike manner of fishing — or, at least, so he claimed. His name ... olde Guyzaak Gilpatric. His method, they said, was called goggle fishing ...
First, because so many fish go through life handicapped by names like scrod, chub, guppy and squid, I must explain that goggle fishing doesn't mean fishing for goggles ... Goggle fishing is fishing with a spear and watertight eye-glasses — going down like McGinty to the bottom of the sea ... I made my first pair myself from an old pair of flying goggles, plugging up the ventilating holes with putty and painting over them.
In goggle fishing the spear is thrust like a sword and is never thrown, for you cannot throw a spear much farther under water than you can throw a motorbus on land ...
I was unprepared for the breathtaking sensation of free flight which swimming with goggles gave me. It wasn't at all like flying in a plane, where you are conscious of being borne by something tangible ... The bottom was fifteen feet below me now, but every pebble and blade of grass was distinct as though there were only air between. The light was a soft bluish-green — even restful, and somehow wholly appropriate to the aching silence which lay upon those gently waving meadows ...
[On] the underside of a shelf, anchovies and sardines — thousands of them — were swimming around eating the foliage. But — I rubbed my goggles — they were swimming on their backs! ... I dove right under the ledge, where it was dark and cold, and shoo-ed the whole crowd out. As soon as they left the shadow and saw the sunlight above them, they turned right side up and went their ways like any self-respecting fish ... those fish were not aware that they were on their backs. They thought that the ceiling was the floor, being in practically the same fix as the old-time aviators who, lacking instruments for flying in clouds and fog, used to lose all sense of direction and turn upside down without realising it until loose objects, such as bottles, commenced falling upwards out of the cockpit.
I had the sensation of flying in the chasm of a New York street. Below me I saw vague forms moving — fish ... I hovered in suspense which they didn't seem to share ... Suddenly, I found myself staring into the eyes of what looked like a German U-boat — a three-foot loup [bass] in a fine state of indignation, his dorsal fin jutting up like the bristles of a bulldog. Without stopping to think, I cut loose my right and pasted him square on the jaw.
I came to the surface, gulped some air, and pondered on the sorry state to which I had fallen in being unable to knock out a three-foot fish ... I filled my lungs, swam down a way and indulged in some experimental shadow-boxing. I soon found the trouble. Being lighter than water, my punches simply pushed me backward, and the harder I walloped, the faster I shoved myself away from what I was aiming to hit. Also, I was using a lot of energy in resisting my tendency to float to the surface. I blew out my air, sank down farther, and uncorked a couple of rights and lefts. Now, I felt that my blows really had a little steam behind them. My body being heavier than water, my punches had something to react against ...
As I swam towards the beach I thought of what I'd learned — namely, that some fish are not afraid of swimmers, and that to exert power under water you have to empty your lungs. It occurred to me that in these discoveries might lie the basis of a new sport. Still, I didn't feel that socking fish in the jaw was quite the way to do things, so I determined to buy a spear ...
My first spear was a trident with piano-wire teeth forged into barbs. The handle was the handle of a hay-rake ...
I spotted a school of slim, streamlined mullets ... their sides flashing silver through the cloud of sand which their fins fanned up. Before I could get down to them, they spotted me and darted away ... fish are more wary in the shallows than in the depths. Diving is their instinctive means of escape, and when this avenue is closed to them, they won't take chances.
I headed for a submerged rock and deep water ... on the far side were dorades [giltheads]. Blowing out my air I sank down a way and then swam towards them: one lazed away from the group ... I lunged — and missed him by a yard!
Well, the lunge had been short because I hadn't bided my time and come close enough to the fish ... The dorades were still there. One of them — he looked as big as a guitar — was tearing mussels from the side of the rock and chawing them horsily. I sank towards him. The nearer I approached the more greedily he ate, as though fearing that I intended to horn in on his meal. Ten feet — eight feet — six. There were the whites of his eyes. Now — zippo — I let him have it!
The spear was yanked out of my grasp. I grabbed it with both hands and tried to kick my way up to the surface. I had to have air ... and as I shot upwards I saw the dorade heading in the other direction. The heavy teeth of my trident were bent and twisted like hairpins ...
Next day I put to sea with a spear which would have held a walrus ... I saw a grey fish with dark tiger-stripes ... I sank to meet him. Our paths crossed just as he came within range. I lunged and caught him fair and square ...
Well, my return to the beach with that mourme [marmora bream] saw my stock rise considerably in Juan-les-Pins ... Next day, when I brought in a two-foot sargue [white bream] and a dorade weighing seven pounds, a considerable portion of the summer population sprouted spears and goggles ...
All summer long we'd had priceless sport ... we goggled for six hours a day ... We had learned things about fish and their habits which certainly no fisherman and perhaps no scientist had ever known ...
We began to realise that certain individual fish spend their time in fixed neighbourhoods and that others, like some migratory birds, come back to the same spot at the same time year after year ...
`I have often heard fish conversing in grunts like pigs,' Gilpatric boasted, `and listened to clicking as of fifty telegraph keys in flat, calm water when there were no pebbles or any visible cause. I have met fish supposed not to exist within miles of where I saw them, and seen others which I was politely, but authoritatively told did not exist at all.' Maybe so, but neither he nor his colleagues were immune from divers' tales. One of the group, Alec Kramarenko, speared a mullet. He brought it ashore, removed the spear and dropped his catch on the sand. The stunned fish came to, flopped into the water and swam rapidly out to sea. But clearly his compass had been knocked awry for he turned around and shot back, `hit the sand at full speed and slid right up onto dry land at Mr Kramarenko's feet'. Then there were the Blanchet brothers who wrestled a big grouper for two hours before landing him. When they got him home, he too sprang back into life, `wrecked the kitchen, chased Mother Blanchet three times around the parlour and ate a framed chromo-lithograph of the battle of Austerlitz ... before they could calm him with an axe'. Divers' tales indeed or, as Shakespeare put it, `Full fathom five thy father lies'.
Gilpatric and his companions rediscovered the snorkel and invented the dive mask. Kramarenko made a cast of his face so that he could mould his device to its contours. He constructed a face mask out of celluloid, dissolving photographic film in acetone and painting it layer by layer on to the cast. Then he made a lead mould into which he poured molten rubber. In 1937 he marketed the device, but his neighbour, Maxime Forjot, patented a mask that covered the nose as well as the eyes and thus obviated the problem of pressure squashing the mask against the face. The diver only had to snort into the mask to relieve the discomfort.
Kramarenko also produced a spring-loaded harpoon gun that could propel a four-foot spear several yards under water. Guy disapproved, for now `any novice can hover on the surface and make a kill without even getting his hair wet.' The Serious Sinkers shifted location every day and rested a fished site for at least a week before returning. But now they had been joined by many `Johnny-dive-latelys' armed with pitchforks and ski poles and Kramarenko's gun. An English yachtsman bought two guns and went hunting followed by a loader in a dinghy. He even employed beaters to drive the mullet towards him as if they were grouse. He caught seven hundred fish in a day. `We were vastly cheered,' Gilpatric admitted, `to learn that one of the gunmen had shot himself in the foot.'
Their favourite reef had been dynamited so the fish became timid and scarce, and on the crowded beaches, according to Cyril Connolly, `fetid waves of sunburn oil lapped tidelessly on the sand.' Antibes became crowded with `tarts, gigolos and motor car salesmen'. The idyll was coming to an end.
In 1939 the chill mistral wind came early. It ruffled the sea, rattled the awnings over the cafés and lifted the skirts of the palms. Everybody knew that a great storm was coming.
Gilpatric returned to the United States and was drafted into the intelligence service. After the war, he and his wife, Louise, to whom the Compleat Goggler was dedicated, settled in Santa Barbara, California. His stories were still selling and he was averaging a new Glencannon book every couple of years. Action in the North Atlantic, a tribute to the courage of the Merchant Marine, was filmed in 1943 with Humphrey Bogart as the lead. Guy was nominated for an Oscar.
Izaak Walton had lived to be ninety, but Gilpatric was to shun that option.
In 1950 Cousteau brought the first aqualungs to the United States for them to undergo trials with the American navy. He asked to meet Gilpatric, but he was too late. Guy's beloved wife had developed breast cancer. The physician told them of the diagnosis at 2.30 one afternoon; two hours later Guy shot Louise in the temple then placed the gun in his own mouth,
He left us few mementoes, but The Compleat Goggler was discovered by a new generation of divers when it was republished in 1957.
And on the Côte d'Azur, Eden Roc at Cap d'Antibes, now sadly bereft of fish, will be for ever Gilpatric's, the place where it all began.
|Before you submerge||1|
|The way of the native||7|
|A serious sinker. Guy Gilpatric||9|
|Dress informal, buckets will be worn||25|
|Armed only with a pickaxe. Henri Milne Edwards||27|
|The very nearly man. Roy Miner||43|
|The delights of dangling. William Beebe||55|
|Running on treacle. Jack Kitching||81|
|Thinkers and sinkers||97|
|The absent-minded professor. John Haldane||101|
|The cuddly cactus in the chamber of horrors. J. B. S.|
|Boom! Cameron Wright||145|
|Shots in the dark||159|
|A cultured pearl, Louis Boutan||161|
|The man with the amazing tube. Ernest Williamson||177|
|Diving to adventure. Hans Hass||199|
|Down to the past||217|
|The silent partner. Frédéric Dumas||219|
|The finder of lost ships. Peter Throckmorton||239|
|Coming up for air||265|