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Ocean Adventures

Shipwrecks, Mutinies, & Survival At Sea

By Stuart Mitchner

The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery.

—Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

A well-traveled old friend once told me, “If you want to know what it’s like to command a sailing ship, read Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.” In fact, the story has less to do with the unnamed narrator’s command of an unnamed ship than with the author’s command of the suggestive psychological nuances of the captain’s relationship with the fugitive he rescues and hides in his living quarters. Formerly the chief mate of a ship anchored nearby, the man had been hastily accused and confined for killing a rebellious crew member during a violent storm. After a single conversation, the captain believes the other’s story and empathizes with him, even to the extent of imagining the fugitive as a double of himself. He takes advantage of his status as commander to help conceal his “secret self” from the crew, even when his choices are risky and suspect, most eventfully when he steers the ship dangerously close to an island so that the fugitive can safely escape, “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”

Early Readings

The literary nuances of Conrad’s narrative would have been lost on me when I was wrapped up in adventure novels centered on the young seaman Tod Moran. From Howard Pease’s The Jinx Ship and The Tattooed Man, I progressed to Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty, and then to Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which was the No. 1 bestseller in 1951-1952. With those two page-turners, the “art” was not the power of prose or the mood, but the momentum of the story and the behavior of its two deposed captains, the post-mutiny heroics of Bligh, who navigated a 23-foot launch some 3,700 nautical miles, and the ultimately self-destructive paranoia of the Caine’s Captain Queeg.

Still a Bestseller

In spring 2024, David Grann’s epic tour de force The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder (Doubleday 2023) continues its almost year-long run on or at the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Early in his narrative, Grann refers to the moment in Conrad’s Secret Sharer when the captain wonders if he will prove “faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” For the Wager’s newly appointed captain David Cheap, there was no way he could have “set up” a situation as challenging as the anarchy he actually contended with when the Wager was shipwrecked off the south coast of Chile in May 1741.

The characterization of Cheap benefits from the author’s empathy, since like Conrad, and on a much larger scale, Grann’s command is the narrative itself, as he suggests in his Acknowledgments when comparing the writing of the book to “navigating a ship on a long, stormy voyage.” The metaphor is powerfully developed in the way Grann commands, reimagines, and brings to life a complex, disparate, and contentious “crew” of 18th-century narratives.

On the Endeavour

Unlike the Wager, which was named for Charles Wager, first lord of the admiralty, the Endeavor was named after the actual word “endeavor.” Reviewing Peter Moore’s Endeavour: The Ship That Changed the World (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 2019), The Guardian’s Ruth Scurr calls it “an engrossing love letter to a word, an attitude, and a ship: it is an endeavour that honours Endeavour, without denying the death and destruction that followed in her wake.”

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Simon Winchester says that Moore has written a book that makes the case for Endeavour “both compelling and irrefutable … an immense treasure trove of fact-filled and highly readable fun.”

Waves and Winds

After vicariously surviving the passage around Cape Horn, readers of The Wager know a thing or two about giant waves and winds of up to 200 miles an hour that are named according to the latitude in which they blew, “with names that capture the increasing intensity,” as well as suggesting generational equivalents like “the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and the Screaming Sixties.”

According to Publishers Weekly, Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean (Doubleday 2010) “travels across the world and into the past to confront the largest waves the oceans have to offer. This dangerous water includes rogue waves south of Africa, storm-born giants near Hawaii, and the biggest wave ever recorded, a 1,740-foot-high wall of wave (taller than one and a third Empire State Buildings) that blasted the Alaska coastline in 1958.” Casey interviews scientists “exploring the danger that global warming will bring us more and larger waves.”

The copy of The Wave I borrowed from the Princeton Public Library has “been there,” as if on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, leaving a telltale ripple on the pages of the section titled “Heavy Weather,” which is itself headed with a line from Pablo Neruda: “I need the sea because it teaches me.” Although surfers and their waves are featured throughout, Casey’s book sails well beyond “Surfin’ Safari” with an opening epigraph from Freidrich Nietzsche: “When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

A Nautical Classic

First published in 1963 and updated in 1979, Waves and Beaches: The Powerful Dynamics of Sea and Coast (Patagonia 2021) has been for sea lovers “what The Joy of Cooking is to home chefs,” says Adventure Journal: “Four hundred pages stuffed with physics illustrations, encyclopedic text, and gorgeous photography makes for essential reading that belongs on the bookshelves of all coastal explorers.” The volume is billed by the publisher as “an essential handbook for anyone who studies, surfs, protects, or is fascinated by the ocean. The original author, Willard Bascom, was a master of the subject and included a wealth of information, based on theory and statistics, but also anecdotal observation and personal experience.” Kim McCoy “adds recent facts and anecdotes to establish the book’s relevance in the time of climate change.”

Illuminating Marine Life

Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures (Little Brown 2022) “shines a light on some of the ocean’s most delightful and overlooked creatures,” says the New York Times’ Joumana Khatib, who mentions “goldfish that flourish in the wild, an aquatic worm named after Lorena Bobbitt, octopus mothers that make sacrifices for their offspring.” Ilana Masad of the Washington Post finds “both solace and hope in Imbler’s ability to portray a world so foreign it’s barely legible to humans, and to bring forth the myriad ways of being that we might draw on to imagine our way forward through the depths.” Chapter titles include “If You Flush a Goldfish,” “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” “How to Draw a Sperm Whale,” and “Morphing Like a Cuttlefish.”

Cutty Sark

Like The Wager, the British clipper ship Cutty Sark has literary panache, having been named after the short shirt of the fictional witch in Robert Burns’ poem, “Tam o’ Shanter,” which was first published in 1791. In Cutty Sark: The Last of the Tea Clippers (Naval Institute Press illustrated edition 2014), Eric Kentley, formerly a curator at the National Maritime Museum, presents “a chronological career narrative” that, according to the publisher, “includes detailed features on crew accounts, log entries, pieces on seamanship, ports and cargoes, and broader tall ship culture, as well as an opportunity to focus on artifacts and the fittings of the ship.”

Conrad’s Source

In The Secret Sharer, Conrad makes fictional use of an incident that occurred aboard the Cutty Sark in 1880, when the first mate, “a despotic character with a sinister reputation killed an insubordinate crew member,” according to Jocelyn Baines in Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960). Conrad’s fictional first mate, who has fled from his ship, “is presented as a victim of circumstances that compel him to commit homicide.” Conrad altered the reports from the Cutty Sark incident to make the character “more agreeable.” Baines notes that “Honor and dishonor, in their particular aspects of fidelity and betrayal, were constantly recurring themes throughout Conrad’s work.” As The Secret Sharer makes clear, Conrad was “especially concerned with them” at the time he wrote the story in 1909.

In an author’s note, Conrad says that “the basic fact of the tale” was “in truth the common possession of the whole fleet of merchant ships trading to India, China, and Australia: a great company the last years of which coincided with my first years on the wider seas,” which, as he writes in Typhoon, “for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery.”

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