Another resonant seafaring tale from Lundy (Godforsaken Sea, 1999), as a square-rigger rounds Cape Horn at the close of the 19th century.
The author’s great-great-uncle was a seaman on a merchant sailing vessel that sailed from Liverpool to Valparaiso carrying coal that would, ironically, be used by the steamships that ensured the obsolescence of sailing ships. Combining his fragments of information about his uncle’s life with what is known about this particularly difficult route, Lundy shapes a blow-by-blow narrative of his uncle’s passage. He describes the look and lay of the vessel’s architecture, the daily activities of the seamen, the doings of the captain’s wife, the torrent of inventive vulgarities streaming nonstop from the mate, the gradual deterioration of the men’s physical well-being and their behavior, and the consequent birth of petty rivalries and antagonisms. Lundy draws a crack picture of the last days when sailing ships were used as common transport and doesn’t scant the sheer brutality of the work. (Crimping, a legal form of shanghaiing, was often the only way to secure enough men to crew the ships.) He avoids melodrama, but there is no escaping the weather, or the urgency that gives way to terror as winds grow and the seas become an outrageous tumble of trough and crest. Lundy is particularly good at evoking the most dangerous situations, recounting the interplay between heavy weather and the captain's decisions with grim realism, yet lyrically portraying the ship as a living thing that must work, if not in harmony then at least in concert with the riotous elements that surround it. He writes with the ease of one familiar with boats, while not expecting the same from his readers.
Refreshingly breezy, despite the degree of detail: a saga of life under sail that touches to the quick. (Photos, not seen)