07/03/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Atlantic Memory

In late June I had a wonderful assignment through World Ocean Observatory to interview Bernard Cadoret, a scholar, publisher, editor, and innovator -- considered the "father" of the marine heritage renaissance in France and, some would say, across Europe. As the founding editor of Chasse Maree, France's preeminent maritime publication, as author of Ar Vag, the definitive history of traditional boats in Brittany, and as founding editor of Maritime Life and Traditions, co-published in English with WoodenBoat Magazine in the United States, and documenting the larger maritime cultural meaning of the Atlantic, Cadoret has made an astonishing contribution to public awareness of what was rapidly becoming a lost history in his own country and elsewhere in Europe. He is an amazing example of how one man with a specific passion, relentless curiosity, and determined communication, can make an enormous difference.

Let me give you one example. In 1986, in partnership with Lance Lee, an American with a long and equally passionate career in small craft history, construction, apprentice learning, and experiential education, Cadoret co-founded Atlantic Challenge, a contest in seamanship conducted in 38-foot Bantry Bay gigs, replicas of longboats left behind in Ireland by the invading French army, with three masts, dipping lug sails and 10 oars, identically constructed and manned by young adults from some 12 countries, engaged every two years in various exercises. Atlantic Challenge is not just a fast race to the finish, rather, it is a series of contests that demonstrate on-the-water skills, crew cooperation, and maritime community. To date more than 50 gigs have been constructed, with more to come. To that accomplishment, Cadoret then added Le Defi Francais, rowing clubs and contests in similar boats sponsored by the coastal towns the perimeter of France; to date, more than 100 vessels have been built and engage in constant competition, some year round. Thus, thousands of young people have been involved in these boats, have developed these skills, have changed their lives through this unexpected endeavor -- a renaissance almost all the result of one man's imagination.

In a 2006 essay in Maritime Life & Traditions, Cadoret introduced a concept called Atlantic Memory, vast in its ambition, inclusive of every manifestation of Atlantic culture, and grounded in dedicated research, expressive communication, and typically detailed specification. It was not to be just a sweep of the coast from Cadiz to Stavanger, but rather an inclusive curve that encompassed the North Atlantic in its entirety, connecting Europe to the culture of America and the Caribbean just as historical arcs of passage connected through the exchange of goods, people, and ideas. It was a clarion call, a powerful image by which to contextualize maritime history and to inspire far greater public understanding of (and engagement with) the activities of the museums, working waterfronts, ship preservation initiatives, skills workshops, research programs, educational activities and, yes, rowing clubs, that relate maritime endeavor to contemporary life.

The vision included archival collections and oral histories, linked accessible online inventories of artifacts, legislative initiatives for restoration funding, underwater surveys and explorations, publications, media, educational activities, and finally a "concentration of force" among the relevant institutions to advocate and promote a new, inclusive program of understanding of the ocean and its impact -- past, present, and future -- alongshore where the majority of us abide, European and North American alike. I thought it was brilliant.

You can imagine my consternation then a few months ago, seven years later, in the call for contributions to the agenda of the International Congress of Maritime Museums to be held in Portugal this fall, the following was put forward as the stated foundation premise for the meeting: "The face of the maritime landscape has changed and there is no longer a self-evident presence of the maritime experience in modern life." I could not believe my eyes. Had it come down to this? Was it a joke? A clever debate question? Was this indeed the context that today the directors and curators of the world's maritime museums perceive as the world around them? Has the vision dimmed so that now we can only meet to discuss our irrelevance to modern life? When does irony become absurd?

The situation cries out for Bernard Cadoret, or perhaps in lesser electronic stead the World Ocean Observatory -- perspectives that see around us nothing but ocean connection. This speaks to what, again and again, we cite as the failed premises and historical conventions on which we build now maintain and even build institutions defunct before the paint is dry. If the old views don't work, then it is no surprise that their believers are disillusioned. But change the premise and an entire new world of possibility and action is revealed, indeed the horizon today is defined by nothing but maritime themes and realities that are immensely relevant, in fact essential to the global future. Consider Atlantic memory -- all the traditions and values and individuals that have defined this world history and culture. Let's not forget all that; let's follow the Cadoret example and build on that tradition as a vast, ambitious, galvanizing vision of the ocean future.