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The Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail

The Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail

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by Derek Lundy

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When, as a young man in the 1880s, Benjamin Lundy signed up for duty aboard a square-rigged commercial sailing vessel, he began a journey more exciting, and more terrifying, than he could have ever imagined: a treacherous, white-knuckle passage around that notorious "graveyard of ships," Cape Horn.

A century later, Derek Lundy, author of the


When, as a young man in the 1880s, Benjamin Lundy signed up for duty aboard a square-rigged commercial sailing vessel, he began a journey more exciting, and more terrifying, than he could have ever imagined: a treacherous, white-knuckle passage around that notorious "graveyard of ships," Cape Horn.

A century later, Derek Lundy, author of the bestselling Godforsaken Sea and an accomplished amateur seaman himself, set out to recount his forebear's journey. The Way of a Ship is a mesmerizing account of life on board a square-rigger, a remarkable reconstruction of a harrowing voyage through the most dangerous waters. Derek Lundy's masterful account evokes the excitement, romance, and brutality of a bygone era -- "a fantastic ride through one of the greatest moments in the history of adventure" (Seattle Times).

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The Way of a Ship, then, is less an account of a specific albeit fictitious voyage than a tribute to the seamen of the Age of Sail. As such it joins innumerable other books that address the same subject, many of which have appeared during the boom in nautical books of the past couple of decades. But Lundy's is a vivid and useful addition to this literature. He does not sentimentalize or romanticize the seamen in any way -- they were a coarse, violent, mostly semi-literate lot, "turbulent wanderers without homes, roistering their way around the world from whoring drunkards in port into sober and precise workers at sea" -- but he has a deep appreciation for the knowledge they accumulated and the skill with which they used it. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Lundy (Godforsaken Sea), an experienced amateur sailor, offers a gale-force recreation of a late 19th-century square-rigger voyage. He begins by introducing his Irish-Canadian great-great-uncle, sailor Benjamin Lundy. Since little information about Benjamin was available, the author combines the few facts with what he learned about life on square-riggers from maritime museums to fabricate an imaginary voyage and a fictitious ship, the Beara Head. Benjamin sets off on the Beara Head in 1885 amid "the smoky mist and watery sun of a Liverpool spring day." While charting the ship's course (around Cape Horn to Valparaiso and on to San Francisco), the author shares details of ship construction, food, equipment and the routine tasks of those onboard. He depicts the romance and tranquil beauty of square-riggers, along with the intense physical challenges the exhausted, sleep-deprived seamen deal with. Under "the black, boiling clouds of the storm," they wrestle with the topsail: "The fight to control the sail becomes nightmarish toil without end." Musical sea chants pitch and roll with gusto throughout this adventure tale, along with Lundy's personal sailing experiences, plus literary references from Conrad, Melville and others. Convincing dialogue crests on rippling waves of fiction, yet readers will surface with a strong sense of seagoing history, a knowledge of the specialized skills involved in keeping square-riggers afloat and a respect not only for the fierce power of the elements but also for Lundy's considerable talent as a writer. Photos, map. Agent, Anne McDermid. (Apr. 1) Forecast: A coastal author tour (including stops in New York, Boston, Providence, Cape Cod and Seattle) should target interested readers. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
To reconstruct the voyage of a 1880s square-rigger merchant ship around the Cape Horn, Lundy (Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters) draws on his own experiences as a trainee aboard the barque Europa, the recollections and speculations of other sea writers, and his own vivid imaginings of the experiences of his great-great uncle, Benjamin Lundy, a Cape Horn seaman in the 1880s. The theme throughout-almost excruciatingly documented and developed-concerns the endurance of those wind-ship sailors, who, "always soaked, no heat or light...malnourished...went aloft a hundred feet or more on icy ratlines and footropes, up masts that could whip to and fro through ninety degrees of arc in a few seconds, to grapple with homicidal sails, certain death just one small mistake, a slip away....How could they have done it?" Although Lundy certainly re-creates a rugged way of life, it is still a re-creation and always seems to be slightly less than the sum of its parts. We arrive at the curious epilog to this voyage with appetite still whetted for more than Lundy's conclusion: "The sea-voyage story ends. History begins again. Or the search for the sparse bits and pieces of ordinary lives-that history-begins again." It is to Lundy's credit, however, that he does not try to improve on that realistic but tantalizing closure. Recommended for all libraries.-Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 fromhis readers. Refreshingly breezy, despite the degree of detail: a saga of life under sail that touches to the quick. (Photos, not seen) Author tour
Sunday Times (London)
“The wealth and authority of this book make it a worthy companion to the very best histories on seafaring.”
Jonathan Yardley
“A tribute to the seamen of the Age of Sail.”

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Read an Excerpt

Them was the days, sonnies,
Them was the men,
Them was the ships
As we’ll never see again.

C. Fox Smith, “What the Old Man Said”

To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time,
a passing phase of life . . .
Joseph Conrad, preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”

There never was a sailor’s tale that wasn’t a damn lie.

Kenneth Roberts, Captain Caution

Baltazar is anchored in a small bay on the east side of Isla Herschel, on the Paso al Mar del Sur, almost exactly seven miles north-northeast of Cape Horn. We’re recording a sustained wind of more than sixty knots at deck level and gusts of close to eighty -- although they’re as much as 30 per cent stronger at the masthead. The anchor is dug into the sand bottom, good holding, with two hundred feet of chain out and two nylon snubbing lines to absorb the shock of the waves.

Before the front crossed over, the wind was out of the northeast. We were almost wide open in that direction, out into the Bahia Arquistade and beyond it, to the great Southern Ocean itself. For twelve hours, we pitched into seas eight to ten feet high before the wind backed first to the northwest and then west, rising to near-hurricane strength as it clocked round. By then, the low, grassy hills astern and on our sides gave us the protection we had counted on.

Apart from the anchor, we have three lines out to shore, two secured to wind-carved dwarf trees one hundred feet off our stern and one running off our port side, shackled to a cable we have wrapped around a large rock. The lines are fouled with hundreds of pounds of cleaving kelp, broken away from its beds by the storm. The weight adds strain to the lines but also dampens down their surges as the wind slams into the hull and rigging of our fifty-foot steel boat.

Two of us dragged the lines ashore in the rubber dinghy, paddling in frantic haste like commandos storming a beach. Baltazar was difficult to control in the rising and gusty wind, and we had to get the stabilizing lines secured in a hurry. Our skipper, Bertrand, worked the engine to keep the boat off the close, encirling rocks. Twice, I scaled the low cliff behind the beach and tied off two lines. Such exertion was unusual for me in my sedentary life, and afterwards, I slumped on the rocks gasping, heart thumping much too fast. I wondered if it was my destiny to die on this stony shore.

Weatherfax maps limned the growth of the unfolding storm. Twenty-four hours earlier, it had been an unremarkable, loose-structured low-pressure system. We would keep an eye on it as we rounded the Horn, but we wouldn’t worry too much about it, maybe even using it to make a fast run across the Bahia Nassau and back to the Beagle Channel and shelter in this corner of inhospitable Tierra del Fuego. Then the barometer began to drop fast, going down at a sixty-degree angle until its line disappeared off the graph. The next weatherfax disclosed that the system had tightened up, its isobars bunching together until they almost merged, air pressure down to a frightening 950 millibars at the centre. The Chilean navy broadcast a securité, warning all vessels to get to shelter immediately. We began to see the cirrus and cirrocumulus clouds that signalled the depression -- the “mares’ tail and mackerel sky” that makes any sailor apprehensive. After clearing the eastern tip of Isla Hornos, we ran hard for a haven.

Bertrand is a fifteen-year veteran of these waters, and of many voyages across Drake Passage to Antarctica. He’s never seen a storm that looks like this one, he tells us. And when the worst of the wind hits us, it is the strongest he’s ever experienced. That’s when the barometer begins to rise again, its tracing line reappearing on the graph and shooting up almost vertically. I didn’t know a barometer could do that.

Fast rise after low foretells a stronger blow. With anxious fascination, we watch the wind lay our boat over on its side as if it was sailing close-hauled into a strong headwind.

The Horn has lived up to its reputation again. In twelve hours, its malign influences have transformed an innocuous summer low coming in out of the Southern Ocean into the most dangerous of storms: what the old square-rigger sailors used to call a Cape Horn snorter.

On deck for ten minutes to check shore lines for chafe and take photographs, dressed in my modern warm and impermeable foul-weather gear, I can, nevertheless, feel the windchill, fifteen or twenty, or more, below zero. The weight of wind is like a soft yet powerful, unyielding wall moulding itself to my body. It’s impossible to keep my eyes open looking to windward; raindrops are tiny, blinding missiles. I must concentrate on not getting flipped off the deck and into the sea. Later, from our snug, dry cabin, I look out at the horizontal rain and hail, the fog of sea water as the wind lashes the sea’s surface into the air.

I often think of the nineteenth-century square-rigger men during the two days we wait out the storm in our little bay of refuge. I say to Bertrand: “How could they have done it?”

It’s the question I’ve been asking myself since the storm began. It’s the question I have come to Cape Horn to try to answer.

Day after day, week after week, summer or winter, wind-ship sailors endured just the sort of battering wind and deluge we were comfortably observing. They went aloft a hundred feet or more on icy ratlines and footropes, up masts that could whip to and fro through ninety degrees of arc in a few seconds, to grapple with homicidal sails, certain death just one small mistake, a slip, away. In leaky oilskins, always soaked, no heat or light in their squalid fo’c’s’les, malnourished, scurvy -- the sailor’s ancient bane -- still a possibility even at the end of the nineteenth century.

One writer, a square-rigger sailor himself, coined the phrase “the Cape Horn breed” to describe the men who worked the beautiful, widow-making deep-sea sailing ships in their dying days. It felt apt to me. Those seamen’s work was fraught with so much danger, their plane of discomfort such true suffering, that the men who matter-of-factly did it seemed remote and alien, like shadowy warriors in old and vanished wars.

I had a personal interest in these sailors. Some of my ancestors had been Cape Horn seamen. One of them was my great-great-uncle Benjamin Lundy, at sea in the 1880s. I had some of his letters and I knew what he looked like; I had met his descendants and become friends with them. I wanted to write about his voyage around the Horn. In that way, I thought I would come to better understand the men who sailed the last square-riggers, and what the experience had been like for them. Maybe I could answer the questions that had bubbled up with such urgency in our Cape Horn refuge.

South from our storm anchorage, past the low sheltering headland, lay the Horn, and beyond it, the Southern Ocean. That’s where the wind ships would have been a century ago: fifty or a hundred miles out, or several hundred, close to the Antarctic drift ice, beating endlessly into contrary and hostile wind and seas, mothering their cargoes -- the only reason they were there at all -- struggling to make their westing before they could finally turn north, clear of the continent’s lethal lee shore, towards benign seas, warmth and harbour.

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Yardley
“A tribute to the seamen of the Age of Sail.”

Meet the Author

Derek Lundy is the author of Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters. He lives in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, with his wife and daughter.

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Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Shocking to see how similar modern ships can be!