What do You Drink With a Drunken Sailor?

Most of history writing is about big events, big people, but sometimes something small and seemingly inconsequential can have a huge, but immeasurable effect on the lives of many.

John Paty was born in 1807 in Plymouth Massachusetts, and became one of the great ships captains of his time, or ever. In his long career he never lost a ship or had a single serious accident – not a member of crew or a passenger was lost. Given the dangers of sea journeys this is a truly impressive record.

He moved his family to Hawaii where he was made a commodore and was involved in voyages of exploration, but is mostly remembered for the number of journeys he made between his adopted home and completed 139 passages in 15 years, an unbeatable record. He set standards for all those sailors who followed him.

But this could have been totally different. He was staying in the town of Yerba Buena, what became San Francisco in 1847. He became ill after a visit to a local hostelry and almost died. Investigations eventually led to the discovery of the cause: several days earlier a Russian sailor had gone missing. His body was found in the well of the hostelry where Paty and others had been drinking. This dead sailor could have changed the course of America’s maritime history.

It is also a reminder of the importance of clean water, an issue most of us take for granted, but is a luxury for most people in the past, and for most of those alive today.

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