Some years ago, Oakland, California’s FOX News Affiliate KTVU allowed itself to be pranked in a most remarkable way. After broadcasting false names for the captain and crew of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the station attempted to deal with the ensuing furor by insisting that the National Transportation Safety Board had confirmed the crew’s identities.
In turn, the NTSB claimed it wasn’t their fault — at least, not officially. It was the fault of a summer intern: a youngster who’d roamed just far enough off the reservation to allow a Bart Simpson-like joke to make it all the way to the national airwaves. As the NTSB put it, rather primly:
Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.
The NTSB does not release or confirm the names of crewmembers or people involved in transportation accidents to the media. We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today’s incident.
Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.
After discovering the online hubbub, I feared I was suffering heatstroke. I couldn’t imagine even the most loosely-run or inattentive news organization failing to pick up on names that clearly were fake, and that had made the rounds of Iowa playgrounds more than fifty years ago.
But they weren’t paying attention, they didn’t take the time to read the names aloud, and they went live with a “breaking news” update that surely made the Monday morning staff meeting a nightmare for someone.
Watching the video of the broadcast a second time, I confess I laughed. I laughed because of the word play, and I laughed from astonishment that such a thing could happen. Most of all, I laughed at the speed with which the entire event moved from mistake to embarassment to apology to pending lawsuit. Today, things move even more quickly, but even so, it took only minutes for the apology to be issued and the facts clarified. In two more days, Asiana began muttering about lawsuits, and the firings began.
Two decades ago, things moved more slowly. When sailor, author, and adventurer Tristan Jones died on Phuket Island, Thailand, in 1995, one obituary appeared in the British newspaperThe Independent. Written by Euan Cameron, Jones’s British editor and quite an admirer of the man often called, without apology, “the old rum-gagger,” the obituary tended ever so slightly toward hagiography:
Tristan Jones’s life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic, and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.
It all began with a breach birth [sic] in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha (hence the Christian name) in May 1924. Mrs. Jones was the ship’s cook and both she and Tristan’s father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. “By God, this one will always land on his feet!” the ship’s mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. “He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he’ll never drown!
Cameron went on to note that throughout Jones’s life, as might be expected, pinpointing the sailor’s location could be difficult. He kept landing on his feet in out-of-the-way locations, and sending letters home requesting that money be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, or engine parts dispatched to Constanta on the Black Sea.
It seems never to have occurred to Mr. Cameron that Jones’s sudden disappearances and vague itineraries might be the work of a trickster: a prankster, a sleight-of-mind artist. But at the time there was no reason for suspicion. His books, filled with roaring oceans and exciting landfalls, appeared regularly and sold in the thousands. His book signings at boat shows brought in hundreds of sailors. When I met him at a fall boat show in the late 1980s, I was utterly charmed. One of my acquaintances, even more impressed, signed on as volunteer crew.
Still, there were mysteries. His eventual biographer, Anthony Dalton, remembers that Jones didn’t want his biography written during his lifetime. His books were autobiographical, he insisted, so there was no need for a formal biography. He felt so strongly about the subject that he included a stipulation in his will that no biography was to be written until at least thirty years after his death. Later, he amended that to a financial condition. No biography could be written without payment of $100,000 to the Tristan Jones Trust.
His reasons for not wanting his true story told, Dalton discovered, had little to do with modesty and far more to do with a lack of probity. As he began piecing together Jones’s life, one accidentally discovered falsehood led inexorably to another.
The man who claimed to have sailed more than 345,000 miles in boats under forty feet, who said he sailed 180,000 miles solo, and who told his readers he had crossed the Atlantic nineteen times under sail…had far less experience at sea than he was prepared to admit. The man who claimed to have been torpedoed three times before his eighteenth birthday, who said he had taken a sailboat farther north into Arctic waters than anyone else, who told his readers of being trapped in polar ice for months at a time, was something of a fraud.
Despite the details of Euan Cameron’s obituary – details picked up and passed around the world for years – the man who said he was born at sea on his father’s ship in 1924 actually was born on land five years later, and Dalton has the facts about “Tristan” Jones.
Arthur Jones was born in Liverpool in 1929, the illegitimate son of a working-class Lancashire girl, and he grew up in orphanages with little education. Too young to see action in the World War II naval battles he would later write about so movingly, he joined the Royal Navy in 1946 and served fourteen unremarkable years.
Why would a man who was an accomplished sailor, a beloved raconteur, a remarkable adventurer, and a successful author feel the need to ‘prank’ his audience? Dalton points to cultural heritage as one possible explanation.
If we accept that he was Welsh, as he claimed he was and as it’s possible he was, he was far from alone in his ability to weave fabulous tales. British author Melvyn Bragg, in his biography of Welsh actor Richard Burton, said, “In his cups [Burton] was a story-teller who embellished whenever necessary, and he expected the brightest listeners to understand the art.”
As Bragg put it, “The Welsh way was to talk it up. Celtic stories were tall tales, and if your audience was daft enough to swallow it whole – so much the worse for them. He truly didn’t give a damn.”
And perhaps that is the key to unlocking the mystery of Tristan Jones. There simply was no reason for him to give a damn. If his persona was invented, his knowledge and love of the sea was real. If he engaged in trickery on shore, he knew the tricks of his sea-trade as well as anyone, and was willing to share them freely. He may have pranked the whole sailing world for decades, but in coves and in bays, sheltered at tiny island anchorages and buffeted on interminable offshore passages, his books continued to inspire and entertain the people dearest to him – the ones who put to sea.
And as for those ashore? He was happy for their company, too. As he liked to say, some sail the oceans and some do not, but everyone sets sail on the sea of life, and the lessons of the sea apply to all. I came across a favorite passage from one of his books when making a sea passage myself, and never have doubted its truth:
The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
She knows only loyalty and audacity
and determination and courage
and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.
She knows awareness.
She knows patience.
She knows staunchness.
She knows foresight.
Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame
or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.
She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.
If we have none of these attributes
when we join her,
we shall have them when we have known her
for any length of time,
or we will be defeated or dead.
~ Tristan Jones