Friday, January 17, 2014

Sailing full and by - an author's voyage into the world of nautical fiction

A full head of sail - bark Europa

Surprisingly, neither the young Richard Patrick Russ nor Cecil Louis Troughton Smith served aboard naval vessels, yet they became the most prolific and well-respected exponents of nautical fiction of all times. Writing under the pen-names, O’Brian and Forester, they shared a seemingly intimate relationship with the sea that flowed freely across the pages of their classic adventures. It is, therefore, hard to imagine where the salt in their veins stemmed from.
Today, several latter-day authors have a distinct advantage in that they can proudly boast a career in the modern navy seeing active service. Other writers, having grown up living by the sea, have salt in their veins. But, there are those who live hundreds of miles from the ocean and have little chance to savour the experience first hand.

HMS Victory - Portsmouth naval dockyard

Today, the opportunity to step aboard an original fighting ship from the age-of sail is slim. HMS Victory, Nelson's ship at the Battle of Trafalgar, is still in commission but is in permanent dry-dock. Nevertheless, to walk the decks is enough to inspire the imagination of anyone who visits Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Across the pond, USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship still afloat and very occasionally her canvas is loosed and she sails out from her berth in Boston harbour. But very few people have the opportunity of sailing aboard her.
So, without the advantage of a seafaring background to call on, what does the aspiring lubberly writer do to become acquainted with the changing moods of the sea?

For one author, the only answer is to sail aboard a tall ship.
“To cross the ocean beneath a press of square sails, to stand on a heeling deck in the beating rain as the sea rushes in through the scuppers; to take the helm in the blackness of night wishing and waiting for the moon to rise; to watch the masts drawing infinite circles on the star-studied heavens; to listening intently for the luff of the t’gallant when the ship heads too close to the wind; to marvel at the endless array of sunsets; to sway to the rhythm as the deck pitches and rolls, is an unforgettable experience.”
Sailing the Australian Bight

Over the last eight years, the writer, has sailed on numerous voyages on sail training ships and replica vessels. In August 2013, this aspiring nautical fiction author embarked on a 23-day voyage of 2500 miles along Australian Bight aboard the 100-year old Dutch ship, Bark Europa.

Sailing close hauled under a press of canvas, in a latitude just one degree north of the band of the Roaring Forties, the bow of the 3-masted bark sliced through the waves making a very commendable nine-and-a-half knots. Apart from the chill factor, the winter cold fronts were not unkind and the voyage was uneventful. Only two weeks later, however, as Europa headed north towards Sydney, the 303 ton ship was hit by a sudden 55-knot squall (reported as Force 10) and lost its mizzen topmast.
Muir was not on board to witness this, but remembers an Atlantic crossing a few years earlier aboard the 2,200-ton modern passenger barquentine, Star Clipper.

Europa displays a pyramid of sail
“It was the tail-end of the hurricane season and we were nearing the islands of the Caribbean when Star Clipper was hit by an unexpected tropical squall. As most of her sails were still flying when the Force 9 hit, suddenly everything went over. Crockery and glasses crashed to the floor and passengers were thrown from their beds (modern facilities). The screech of the wind and the noise of the rain dancing on the sea were horrendous, obliterating any chance of conversation.” Such an experience left the writer with an indelible memory.

The endless ocean, in all its guises, is a formidable element of nature and is regarded by some authors as the primary player within a work of nautical fiction. And it was their stories set against the ever-changing backdrop of sea that made the novels of Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester so evocative, timeless and appealing, and has carried their readers on the crest of each new adventure to the far side of the world.

M.C. Muir is author of the Oliver Quintrell series of nautical fiction adventures set in the age-of-sail.
This article appeared in Nov/Dec issue of ‘Quarterdeck’, 2013.

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