Some of these difficulties
are illustrated by Homer in the earliest written report of a shipwreck
from ancient times.
Odysseus survives the destruction of his raft by a great wave, then swims for three days before negotiating the surf zone with considerable difficulty and safely returns to shore in the land of the Phaeacians.
The edited text below basically excludes the role of several Greek gods and their interactions with Odysseus during the ordeal.
In an extended account following his arrival on shore (Lines 465 to 493 and not included here) Odysseus is aware of the potential of death due to hypothermia and sensibly chooses to spend the night inland under cover rather than remaining exposed to the elements on the beach.
The account is so
remarkably rich in realistic detail it is hard to imagine that the author
has not had some personal experience of such a near-drowning event.
Odysseus' difficulties in negotiating the surf zone to return to shore parrallel the experiences of some surfriders up to the universal adoption of the leg rope, circa 1976.
Before then, surfboard riders who were separated from their boards in a wipe-out had to swim and bodysurf back to the beach to retrieve their boards.
|365||While he pondered these things in his
mind and in his heart,
Earth-shaker Poseidon (5) stirred up a great wave,
A terrible disastrous one, overarching; it dashed him.
As when a blustering wind shakes up a heap
Of dry husks, and scatters them in all directions,
|370||So it scattered the raft's long beams.
Bestrode one spar as if he were riding a horse.
He took off the clothes that divine Calypso gave him,
And he stretched the veil right away beneath his chest.
He fell headlong down in the sea, spreading out his hands
|375||And striving to swim. ...
|Then for two nights and two days upon
the thick wave
He wandered, and his heart many times saw destruction ahead.
But when fair-braided Dawn finished the third day,
Then at that point the wind died down and there was
A windless calm, and he sighted land nearby,
Scanning sharply, as he raised himself from the great wave.
|398||So delightful did land and forest appear
|400||Vigorously he swam to set foot on the
But when he was as far off as a shout may carry,
And had heard against the reefs the noise of the sea-
For the great wave was dashing upon the dry mainland.
Fearfully spraying, it covered all with saltwater foam;
|405||For there were indeed no secure harbors
for ships, or channels,
But headlands there were, jutting out, and reefs and cliffs;
Then Odysseus' knees and his own heart went slack,
And, grieving, he addressed his own great-hearted spirit:
"Alas, that Zeus has granted me to see unhoped-for land
And I have come to the end of cleaving this gulf,
|410||And no way of escape appears from the
But offshore there are sharp reefs, and the wave about them
Moans as it surges, and the rock runs on up smooth.
The sea is deep close in, and there is no way
To stand with both feet and to escape misfortune,
|415||For a great wave perhaps may snatch
me as I am getting out
And hurl me on rough rock, and my trying would be in vain.
But if I can swim along still further and can find
Spits of land jutting out and harbors of the sea,
Then I fear that a storm will seize me back again
|420||And bear me heavily groaning onto the
Or some god may drive a great monster on me from the sea,
Of the kind that in numbers the renowned Amphitrite (6) feeds;
For I know how angry the renowned earth-shaker is at me."
He pondered these matters in his mind and in his heart
|425||Till a great wave bore him up on the
There his skin would all have been stripped off and his bones broken
If the bright-eyed goddess Athene had not put a thought in his mind;
He caught at the rock with both hands as he dashed upon it,
|430||And held onto it moaning, till a great
wave came along.
And he avoided it so, but it struck him again with its backwash,
And dashed on him and threw him far into the ocean.
As when an octopus is pulled out of its den,
Numerous pebbles are caught in its suckers,
|435||So against the rocks the skin from
his stout hands
Was stripped off. And the great wave covered him over.
Then surely wretched Odysseus would have died in excess of fate
If bright-eyed Athene had not given him presence of mind.
Getting up out of the wave that spewed on the mainland,
|440||He swam along it outside, looking for
land, if he might happen
On spits of land jutting out and harbors of the sea.
But when as he swam on he came up to the mouth
Of a fair-flowing river (7), there the best place seemed to him to be.
It was bare of rocks, and it had a shelter from the wind.
|451||... At once the river stopped flowing
and held the wave.
It made a calm in front of him and rescued him
At the issue of the river. Then he bent both his knees
And his stout hands. For his own heart was downed by salt water.
|455||All his skin was swollen,and much seawater
From his mouth and his nostrils. Breathless and voiceless
He lay with slight strength, and dread fatigue came upon him.
|462||... He slipped out of the river,
Lay down on a rush bed, and kissed the grain-giving earth.
Translated and edited by Albert Cook
W. W. Norton and Company Inc., New York, 1967, 1974.