Low-key debut about a young woman who defies the elements and a mutinous mate to take charge of a San Francisco–bound sailing ship when her husband is felled by illness.
The story, based on a real-life incident, begins in New York City on June 30, 1856, as 19-year-old Mary Patten packs for a voyage on the clipper Neptune’s Car, captained by her husband Joshua. During an earlier long haul, Mary learned to love the sea and (most crucial in the days ahead) how to navigate. The ship is sound, the hold full of cargo, and the weather promising; Joshua plans to reach San Francisco in a record 100 days. The only sour note is struck by surly first mate Keeler, reluctantly hired by Joshua at the last minute, who soon begins questioning his captain’s authority. Sailing is smooth at first, but as the ship enters the South Atlantic and the weather deteriorates, Keeler attacks Joshua; during the melee, in which the rebel is overcome and imprisoned, the captain is wounded. Joshua soon lapses into unconsciousness, and Mary is the only one on board who knows how to navigate. With the help of the young second mate, she takes charge. On deck at all hours as the ship battles high seas and ice before it finally rounds the Horn and enters the Pacific, Mary must also nurse Joshua, contend with Keeler’s continuing malevolence, and conceal her newly discovered pregnancy from the crew. Like every perceptive author of nautical fiction, Kelley understands that the sea and the ships must get equal billing with the people who sail them. He knows how clippers were rigged, how sails were adjusted when the trade winds blew or the ice around the Horn froze the rigging, how storms could blow up suddenly and threaten to sink even the sturdiest ships. And he treats all his tale’s elements—natural, technical, and human—with equal respect.
A sea story with an agreeable difference.