I don't particularly plan it this way, but somehow I keep attracting books about seafarers. In fact, I now have an index page for Pirates, Seafarers, and Travel by Water. I've actually never been on the sea, or seen an ocean. I've seen Lake Erie. . . Oh well. I still find these tales terribly fascinating, and I use terribly with multiple meanings. Certainly most of these tales involve elements of terror. Life on the seas, before the availability of radios and land communication was a life of guaranteed risk. One journey might be peaceful, easy and pleasant, and the next fraught with danger, from storms, pirates, or structural damage of the vessel. These, of course, are the ones you read about in the adventure tales. And yet, almost invariably, until the end, those who have chosen this life have done so with eyes fully open of the perils they face every day. The sea, it seems, is in their blood and soul, and even in the worst situation, they would not have lived their life any other way. A quote from The Secret Sharer perhaps sums it up:
And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and by the singleness of purpose.
And so it is with these tales of the sea. Conrad himself was a seafarer for much of his life, and his stories reflect his
experience in the shipping industry. Beginning with
The Secret Agent, his writing finally began to move landward. But whether on
land or on the sea, Conrad's themes revolve around the human spirit, often with moral and relationship dilemmas. While there can also be dark and satirical
humor in Conrad's novels depending on how you perceive them, most of what he writes is dead serious, and can even be mentally and emotionally exhausting.
In Youth: A Narrative, from 1898, a small group of men are sitting around a mahogany table drinking claret. The narrator of the story is unnamed, but he gives some background on the group: a director of companies, a lawyer, an accountant, Marlow, and himself. They all began their working lives on merchant ships. Marlow tells his story of twenty years ago, his first trip to the East and his first shot at second mate, on a decrepit ship called the Judea with the motto "Do or Die." Primitive, Marlow describes her: a 400-ton vessel attempting to haul 600 tons of coal from England to Bangkok, Thailand. Captain Beard and much of the crew were equally decrepit.
But the voyage is doomed from the start. Leaving London and sailing north to the Tyne where they will pick up the coal, they are hit with a storm, and require a tug to get them to port. It has taken them 16 days to travel this short distance. They finally get loaded, but are then crashed by a steamer in port and damaged badly. They are delayed another three weeks, but finally ship out. When they are about 300 miles west of the Lizards in the North Sea, a terrible storm blows up and the ship leaks badly, They pump for their lives, as they watch the Judea falling apart at the seams. They make it back to Falmouth where the vessel undergoes a major overhaul. However, as this is in process, all the rats abandon ship—a bad omen—and therefore, so does the crew. They hire a crew from Liverpool, and are off again.
But of course, this is a voyage damned from the start. Because of all the reloading and disturbance of the coal, it begins to combust when they are finally out to sea. Though they do their best to wet it down, the ship is beginning to catch fire. They believe they finally get it put out, but they are mistaken. Finally the deck blows up, along with Marlow:
I stared at him in unbelief, and he stared at me with a queer kind of shocked curiosity. I did not know that I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, that my young mustache was burnt off, that my face was black, one cheek laid open, my nose cut, and my chin bleeding. I had lost my cap, one of my slippers, and my shirt was torn to rags. Of all this I was not aware.
This is real white-knuckler, and is followed by another equally terrifying venture. Typhoon is so descriptive that I felt through the entire story that
I was stuck in the midst of this catastrophic storm along with the sailors.
Captain McWhirr, a seasoned officer with a fine reputation has been given command of the Nan-Shan, which now flies a Siamese flag. His parents never quite forgave him for running away to the sea. That was years ago. He has a wife and two children who barely know him. His wife's greatest dread is the day he will come home to stay. McWhirr is a man who says little and cannot understand what people have to talk about. He has enjoyed a life of mostly calm seas. That is about to change when the ship's barometer suddenly falls like never before. McWhirr calmly notes: "That's a fall, and no mistake," he thought. "There must be some uncommonly dirty weather knocking about."
The ship is heading toward the port of Fu-Chou, where the two hundred Chinamen onboard will disembark. Having worked in tropical colonies for several years, they now return home, each with a small chest containing the money they have earned, and almost no other belongings. There is also some cargo onboard. The real hero of the story is the young chief mate, Jukes.
McWhirr, while observing the barometer really has no idea what he's sailing into, so keeps course rather than avoid it. And because of that choice, the ship almost goes down. And add to that, the Chinamen, who are below deck begin to get knocked around and lose their chests, which grows into a horrible brawl in the midst of the typhoon. And it is Jukes whom the Captain sends to stop it.
As mentioned earlier, Conrad has done such a tremendous job with describing the details of the ordeal, the reader is literally taken away to this boat-ride to hell. One can hear the roar of the wind and feel being thrown nearly overboard as the ship rolls and almost tips.
She dipped into the hollow straight down, as if going over the edge of the world. The engine room toppled forward menacingly, like the inside of a tower nodding in an earthquake. An awful racket, of iron things falling, came from the stokehold. She hung on this appalling slant long enough for Beale to drop on his hands and knees and begin to crawl as if he meant to fly on all fours out of the engine room, and for Mr. Rout to turn his head slowly, rigid, cavernous, with the lower jaw dropping. Jukes had shut his eyes, and his face in a moment became hopelessly blank and gentle, like the face of a blind man.
The title story, The Secret Sharer, gives us a break from shipping catastrophes.
This one is more a story of morals and choices. The Captain, new and a stranger to this crew, narrates the story. They are anchored in the Gulf of Siam. The
Captain notices a ship anchored inside the islands. The second mate informs him it is the Sephora from Liverpool
Because the crew has had very little sleep in the last couple days, the Captain does an unusual thing and says he will keep watch until about 1 a.m.. Soon everyone is snoring, and as he looks about the deck, he realizes no one has pulled up the ladder. Annoyed at himself for not noticing this earlier, he attempts to pull it up when he sees there is a naked man clinging to it. He comes aboard, and is almost a double to the Captain.
He was an officer on the Sephora, but he killed a man on board in a fit of temper. He was kept locked up, but escaped and being an expert swimmer, has been swimming since 9 a.m. He wants to get to an island and make a new life. The Captain opts to hide him, a very dangerous choice, not because the man is violent—he's not—but because of the consequences of the Captain being caught. And unlike the first two stories where the terror was from the elements, the suspense in this one revolves around keeping the man hidden until they near an island.
I love Joseph Conrad's writing. No matter what the subject, I am never disappointed in his stories. Though he was actually Polish, he has become known as one of the greatest novelists of the English language.
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