I had this dream where I relished the fray
And the screamin' filled my head all day
It was as though I'd been spit here
Settled in, into the pocket
Of a lighthouse on some rocky socket
Off the coast of France, dear

One afternoon, four thousand men died in the water here
And five hundred more were thrashing madly
As parasites might in your blood

Now I was in a lifeboat designed for ten, ten only
Anything that systematic would get you hated
It's not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated (death)

The selection was quick, the crew was picked in order
And those left in the water
Got kicked off our pant leg
And we headed for home

Then the dream ends when the phone rings
"You doing all right?"
He said, "It's out there most days and nights
But only a fool would complain"
Anyway, Susan, if you like
Our conversation is as faint a sound in my memory
As those fingernails scratching on my hull


Lyrics submitted by black_cow_of_death

Nautical Disaster Lyrics as written by Gordon Downie, Gordon Sinclair, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, Robert Baker

Lyrics © Peermusic Publishing

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Nautical Disaster song meanings
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  • +9
    General Comment

    This song is not about the Dieppe raid, nor is it "about" any other disaster. It is about a relationship that went bad, and the nautical disaster, occurring in a dream, is a metaphor for the relationship.

    The metaphorical disaster need not correspond to any real event. Whether it does will always be a matter of debate, as the lyric gives no concrete evidence.

    Certainly, the disaster is not the Dieppe raid. Dieppe was a military disaster, not a nautical one; the dead died on the beach, not in the water; the total Canadian dead numbered 907 (with 1,946 taken prisoner), not 4,000; the raid took place in the morning, not "one afternoon"; it occured on, not off, the coast of France; and the survivors weren't abandoned.

    The sinking of the Bismarck is the most popular candidate for the "real" disaster, but few of the facts agree with the song. The Bismarck was sunk some 600 miles from France, in the open ocean; the ship sank in the morning, not in the afternoon; and the crew was just over 2,000, not 4,500. The only fact that agrees is the important one: that the survivors were abandoned, because of concerns that U-Boats lurking in the area might have sunk ships dallying to rescue the survivors.

    It is very hard to find a nautical disaster that actually did drown 4,500, as few ships carry that many people. (Even the Titanic sinking drowned only 1,500 or so). But there is one candidate: the obscure sinking of the troopship Lancastria in 1940 as it took on Allied troops retreating from France. The Lancastria went down in the afternoon, at anchor off the French port of Ste. Nazaire, and although the exact casualty count isn't known, it is believed that 3,000 to 6,000 drowned because of a lack of lifeboats. The facts correspond very closely, but the sinking is an obscure, little known one, so this could be simple coincidence. One notable fact is that the sinking is obscure because Churchill cast a veil of secrecy over it, including a gag order given to survivors.

    Whether the disaster in question was the Bismarck or the Lancastria doesn't really matter. Downie could have mixed up the facts around the Bismarck, and he may never have heard of the Lancastria. The only thing that makes the two sinkings interesting is that they suggest alternative interpretations of the song.

    Very little actually happens in the song. We have our narrator recounting the details of a horrific dream (to a person he addresses as "dear"), and how he was interrupted by a telephone call. This call is apparently from a third party (he said it's out there), although sometimes Downie sings "you," suggesting the caller was the same person he is addressing. Finally, the narrator assures "Susan" (who we have to assume is also the person addressed as "dear") that he barely remembers their conversation -- but by suggesting that the conversation is as faint as his vivid dream, he also suggests that his assurance is false.

    There isn't enough here to pin a specific meaning on the song. The disaster may represent a breakup, or merely a fight (as "I relished the fray/and the screaming filled my head all day" suggests). The assurance offered Susan may be at her behest (as "if you like" suggests, like Churchill's gag order to the Lancastria's survivors), or it may not. The phone call may be from a third party, in line with the printed lyrics, or from Susan herself, in line with the sung (or at least, heard) lyrics. Perhaps he abandons the survivors by choice, as in the Bismarck sinking, or perhaps because he is incapable of rescuing them all, as in the Lancastria sinking.

    Regardless, what the lyric leaves us with is the survivor of some relationship disaster assuring his partner (or former partner) that all is forgotten, when clearly it isn't.

    wonderdogon January 31, 2005   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    Well, whatewver it is about, one things can be certain. Canadian Bands know how to sing it. I think that because Canadians are often not required to sing about Love as part of their contracts it generates such an odd tpye of music. Most of it humourous, but some, if not most, are downright political or estranged.

    The Canadian who should be noted for sheer poetic genius is Leonard Cohen.

    Though, the Hip, and Gord, reach deep into me and define a sense of who I am as a Canadian.

    We know we are American jokes. We seem cowardly or whiney. But we are honourable, honest and resolute. We know that to act out of fear is to make mistakes.

    I could go on forever. Sufficed to say this song hits deep inside you.

    Krackonison February 03, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    This is a great song...It's about a bad relationship where the nautical disaster is the metaphor...whatever anybody think it means, it's still a great song.

    OpinionHeadon March 12, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    The protagonist in this song is using a metaphor to a harrowing shipwreck to reflect that the other problems in his life are much more significant than the conversation between him and Susan.

    I tend to think that he feels that he's being pulled away from something important by her interruption.

    fsfwannabeon April 18, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    OK if this song is about an actual nautical disaster, could someone please explain the last few lines?

    Then the dream ends when the phone rings, you're doing alright he said it's out there most days and nights, but only a fool would complain. Anyway Susan, if you like, our conversation is as faint as a sound in my memory, as those fingernails scratching on my hull.

    What conversation in relation to an actual nautical disaster? Who's Susan? What dream? What conversation?

    I think anyone who has had to let someone go to save themselves would understand what this song is about.

    hseagraveson March 18, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    After Wiki-ing "Lancastria" I have to agree with wonderdog's assessment that the titular disaster does indeed refer to the sinking of that doomed troop-ship during WWII. The facts as well as some of the imagery do indeed correspond very nicely with Downie's lyrics.

    However, as most people realize, the actual event is a metaphor for a doomed relationship, hitting a reef or being sunk by enemy fire--or whatever relationships do when they're not working out. Personally, I don't think it really matters which tragedy is being alluded to; it's about emotional distress--possibly incurred by the woman in the song--and how it manifests itself into the narrator's sub-conscious. Maybe he had a grandfather who died on the Lancastria and somehow that seeped into his dreamscape. Who knows, dreams rarely make sense. But the song is very powerful, dark and moody. Like a bad relationship in its final throes.

    On a final note: the song is definitely NOT about Dieppe.

    Irishmonkon July 31, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    On a final note: the song is definately Not not about Dieppe, as Gord has mentioned it being such. It also allures to a failing / failed relationship.

    And apporx. 3700 died at Dieppe. Pretty close to the 4000 mentioned in the song.

    Regardless, take the song as you see it and let it fill you as such. There is no right or wrong way to interpret music on a personal level.

    Great song.

    Mukkahon September 27, 2008   Link
  • +1
    Song Meaning

    It's a dream. It doesn't have to be about a real event.

    I think the "fingernails scratching" and "kicked off our pantleg" are taken from the Bismarck. The general setting fits the sinking of Lancastria much better (especially since it was filled mostly with non-combatants, unlike the Bismarck, which was filled with soldiers - frankly, soldiers on the side of evil - in a time of war). Maybe it was inspired by Dieppe.

    The historical connections do matter a great deal, but the vividness of the recalled (imagined?) dream is what matters more. It's silly to lose sight of that while arguing which historical incident fits the song lyrics better.

    inverarityon September 09, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    I agree w/ Arios and Wonderdog. Very insightful - I will not try to go into the "which disaster was it" discussion - other than to say I don't think it matters. I don't know exactly what he is saying about the disaster or the relationship, but the fact that he put forth that metaphor is brilliant already.

    And if you really think about it, the awful emotional pain he describes in the France/coast dream, about the guilt and horror you might feel to try to shed something like that - to be used as a way to bring insight into a relationship - is exceptionally, creatively, and profoundly insightful.

    We all see and hear of stories of pain and death at sea, on land, in history, throughout time...and yet - some of the most extreme, real, unimaginable pain is what we go through in our emotions, such as when we are in a tumultuous relationship.

    adzreon September 12, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    I recently had an experience that resonated with this song. It might not be the "meaning" that Mr. Downie had in mind, but it's how I relate to the song. I found myself in a relationship (spit on a lighthouse) which one day started to fail because of my own personal problems (four thousand men died in the water) and this caused pain for my partner (five hundred more). I decided the best thing for both of us was for me to end the relationship and focus on myself. But, this was very hard to do (I kicked my partner off my pantlegs and headed for home).

    Breaking up with someone makes you feel selfish, because you have to hurt a person you care about. It's an experience you want to repress. When I talk about the experience with my former partner, the perfect metaphor is the one Downie states in his closing lines: it's "as faint a sound in my memory as those fingernails scratching on my hull."

    nosligon October 30, 2012   Link

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