Once, a long ways back, a wealthy client complained to me. It was about his family member. “All he does,” he snarled in indignation. “All he does, is sit on a beach and read.” He was behind his desk, golf-course casual with the bumper’s edge of a six-figure car peeking beneath the blinds behind him. He was rolling a shiny shackle in hands, wanting some convivial concurrence from my side. It didn’t come because I don’t do fake well.

Sit on a beach and read? For %uck’s sake, where can I sign up for that package? If your beef with a fellow boils down to the guy reads too much, things ain’t bad. Plus, and respecting anonymity here, living with the pedal flattened is no recipe for gently maturing into a respectable old age. I told him what I thought and laughed at him for thinking anything wrong with such a program. Sometime not too long later, I quit. Told him to find someone else. I’m not a yes man.

Reading is what saved me. I wasn’t ever interested in school or my classes, but I read and could remember how those words were used and assembled. Reading gave me an unintentional apprenticeship in wordsmithing and once you can write something that sounds decent, well, it helps.

My point here is I read all the time. I read the mailer to the airline menu to the cookbook left open on the counter. I’ll read volumes of case law chasing one legal point and an hour later find myself having unfolded quite another. On my own nickel recently, I waded into the waters of how the courts describe sailors. It’s good stuff. t made me laugh for its unabashed generalizations. Here are some unattributed quotes lifted from the case law:

The life of seaman is different than the life of an ordinary employee.

Sailors lead a rough life and are more apt to use their fists than office employees.

[W]hat will seem to sedentary and protected persons an insufficient provocation for a personal encounter, is not the measure of the ‘disposition’ of ‘the ordinary men in the calling.

A ‘sailor’s brawl’ is confined to the use of fists without any attempt to use a dangerous weapon.

And like an afternoon sail with no particular voyage plan aside from an evening back on the mooring, I went from reading the bemused language of the courts writing of sailors to the darker waters of murder. (It wasn’t me . . . the fact patterns in these old cases suck you in better than any social media.) These maritime horrors pertain to lifeboats and the unfortunate early exit of some of their occupants. The legal issue is whether murder is permitted in instances of necessity and, well, there sure are a lot of maritime cases crowded around this topic.

The number one case in this macabre maritime genre involves the ship William Brown and an iceberg. It’s pre-radar days and so you’ll have guessed correctly that the ship holes itself on the ‘berg and there’s a mix of passengers and crew in two lifeboats; one of which is leaking. After a full day of rowing and bailing in freezing rain, a ship’s officer orders his crew to toss some passengers out of the lifeboat with the excuse that their disembarkation might allow the others to survive. The next day rescue arrived and the mate was ultimately tried for his actions. Known since then as the “lifeboat” case, the mate wasn’t excused of a murder conviction because of an alleged necessity. It wasn’t that the court didn’t appreciate that necessity might excuse a murder (read: saving the greater number sort of situation), it was that the crew was doing the tossing and only passengers were tossed. The court didn’t like that scenario underscoring the principal that “a sailor’s duty is the protection of the persons trusted to his care [passengers] and this protection rests on him in every emergency of his calling.” Similarly, an English court found guilty two shipwrecked sailors who killed and ate their companion aboard a lifeboat for ‘nourishment’. I’ll stop there . . . trust me, they get worse.

Tough stuff. These cases involving such unenviable situations make great fodder for those philosophically minded and there are so many of them. The ocean is a murderous place. The tales of
passenger vessels foundering in winter weather are so gruesome that it’s hard to conjure up images. Even the weakest internet search will reveal newspaper reports of passengers washed ashore on Long Island in a frozen state from steamers sunk by the hazards of the era.

I don’t know how to end this column. Cheerfulness seems misplaced, but history shows it’s the elixir for such things. You can’t wallow in the world’s horrors. Read about them (maybe) and understand (try to) what went wrong and what lesson sings out from the past. For now, I’m comforted by the thought that sometime, long in the future the fates of sailors and passengers on the high seas of this world may be unfolded and relived in travels aboard ‘ships’ deep into space. Maybe a random thought, but it is one that I sometimes think about my future maritime legal counterpart.

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.

Underway and making way. (Spring prep is almost here!) ■

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or john@saltwaterlaw.com, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.