In 1925, a restless Dr. William Lorenz, noted Wisconsin psychiatrist, foregoes usual snowbird activities during January to crew on The Ruth, a commercial fishing smack sailing from Pensacola for red snapper. Unfortunately, Lorenz’s working vacation ends in a shipwreck 60 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula in an area known for its snapper-rich waters—and its notorious line of shoals. Mexican authorities arrest the stranded crew for spying, smuggling, and gun running. They are jailed in filthy quarters, then prison until the U.S. intervenes.
Ninety-eight years later, Lorenz’s journal appears in print as Gauntlet in the Gulf: The 1925 Marine Log & Mexican Prison Journal of William F. Lorenz, MD. The diary was edited by Claude Clayton Smith whose detailed forward traces how the project evolved from discussions with his friend, Lorenz’s grandson, “Bill III.” Smith, a Madison-based author, explains his editing process and provides a mini-biography of Dr. Lorenz, including photographs of family, boats the doctor built, and records of achievements and awards. The book tells several stories, not only the shipwreck-related experiences. For context on why the crew was arrested, Smith summarizes the strained Mexican-U.S. relations at that time, and includes Mexican newspaper coverage from shipwreck to repatriation.
On board The Ruth, Lorenz records the progress of his days, both as observer and participant in fishing chores. According to Bill III, his grandfather always felt at ease with working men, which is demonstrated when he takes his turn on watch, at the wheel, and with chores such as oiling the canvas aprons worn when fishing. The crew on board The Ruth, ten experienced fishermen, were all in their fifties and sixties hailing from such places as Pensacola, Nova Scotia, and Finland. Lorenz quickly learns their “deep reverence for the natural,” and describes one man greeting the rising moon as an old friend. Spelled after his early morning turn at the wheel, the psychiatrist muses about how soothing it is, “To lie on the cabin deck and watch the clouds & moon made drowsy by these rhythmic sounds and the soft warm wind.” His jottings disclose daily patterns of calm attention to work and conversations mostly about fishing. Old salt Munroe spouts aphorisms, such as, “A full moon never sees a setting sun,” and shares witty tales and sea adventures.
From the diary entries, it’s clear Lorenz recognizes these men as a “rapidly disappearing type.” Young men were no longer being drawn to the fishing life, and insurance companies would no longer fully insure independently owned boats. These shifts would eventually set the course for expanding corporate ownership of fishing fleets.
The book cover shows an elegant smack in full sail and an autographed picture of the crew. These and other photos of the fishermen at work capture a particular moment in history. Thanks to William Lorenz’s journal and photographs, and to Claude Clayton Smith’s research and presentation of archival materials, Gauntlet in the Gulf ties us to an even broader historic moment—while also being a fascinating read.