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A HARD SCHOOLING
In 1979 I was asked by the editor of Writer's Digest to write an account of how I became a writer in the first place. Had I always felt the urgent need to write? Was I impelled by the Muse? Had I ambitions to out-write, perhaps Slocum, Conrad, or Melville? Alas, the answers were much more mundane.
I have often been asked whether my drive to write came from my voyaging experiences, or whether I went voyaging in order to be able to write about it. It's a bit like the old riddle, "Which came first--the chicken or the egg?" I believe that life is, or at any rate should be, a cycle. I believe that the "straight line" theory of human progress contains in itself its own fallacy. From nothing to nothing seems to me to be too futile. Nature has shown to me that existence is a very well-designed cycle, in all its successful and fulfilled forms. Birth, life, death--who can say which comes first?
So the answer, if there is one, to where my writing drive comes from must be from the tales I heard, and the stories I read, as a child. In other words from my education, elementary though it was.
I don't want to be read as if I'm beating a drum for sailors, but I honestly believe, I have observed, that the seaman, as he has been depicted in fiction, is just that--fiction. The brawling, boozy, semimoronic character one commonly meets in fiction, stumbling out of some dockside low-dive, has hardly ever shown up in real life--at least not in my lifetime of roaming the world. When he has, he is usually found to be someone who is play-acting. Those types of people rarely last long at sea in all weathers. Nature takes care ofherself.
Such has been too often the image of sailors ever since, and even before, Treasure Island. But I have found the contrary. I have found that the average career seaman, of any grade, is on the whole more well read, and more expressive, than his shore-side counterparts. I would even go so far as to say that the career seaman is probably the best educated of manual workers anywhere, and that probably this has always been so. The nature of his life at sea, alternating long periods of boring inactivity with brief spurts of almost superhuman effort, almost invariably makes the sailor turn to reading. The good writers of the sea--Melville, Conrad, Slocum, Gerbault--recognized the seaman's verbal and other virtues and wrote about them and themselves as sensible and sensitive human beings. The seamen, in their turn, perforce recognized literature for the power it is, and gave writers like Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands), E.M. Forster (A Passage to India) and Somerset Maugham, maritime-flavored subjects that greatly added color to those authors' works.
The close relationship between voyaging and writing, which has existed since Homer wrote about Ulysses, is strong indeed, and will continue to be so, no doubt, when our great-grandsons voyage on the far side of the universe.
But back to my own life. I was born at sea, in my father's ship, fifty-eight years ago, to a family whose seafaring records go back to 825 A.D. A Welsh seafaring family. The ship I was born in was bound from Australia to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The day after I was born her destination was changed and she was directed to Liverpool, England. So I became a Welshman, and spent the first ten years of my life in west Wales.
West Wales is one of the areas of the British Isles that was very little affected by the Industrial Revolution. Still, only three kinds of men are truly respected in west Wales: a learned man, a man who can tell a story well (they are not necessarily the same thing), and a Master Mariner. My father, though of humble origin, was all three, and when he was at home from sea in our village of Llangareth we were visited by the guiding lights from all Merioneth and Cardigan. Then, with the fire piled up blazing in the hearth and the Aladdin oil lamp at full blast, the cottage was warm and crowded and full of the tales of the old Sail-in-Trade.
There would be Morgan Lewis, harbormaster of now-deserted Barmouth but still a Power-to-be-Reckoned-With, who could reel off the name of every sailing ship known on the coast of Wales for the past fifty years, together with the name of every man-jack onboard; and Mereddyd Philips, a Red Star man who had rounded Cape Horn fifteen times under sail; Rhodri Griffiths and his brother Daffyd, old men now, but merrily pithy-witted, who had been together in Norwegian and American whalers for many years.
Best storyteller of all, as his voice rose and fell with the firelight shadows leaping on the whitewashed wall, was Cadell Rum, a gaunt, lanky sailing-skipper of around fifty, a magical man who could bring to Llangareth the palms of coral islands waving in the trade wind breeze, bring them to moving life, make them weave in the wind like shaggy Highland bulls at the challenge. As Mam poured the tea from the great cosied pot, her head bent, her dark eyes forever glancing, smiling at my father, Cadell talked and took us to where the groaning bergs calve off the glaciers, or up a dark alley rife with skulduggery in Bombay or Madagascar. When Cadell told a tale everyone, even Mister Jeffreys-Geography, the English schoolteacher, stared enchanted as his voice, full of the rolling seas and the call of the petrel, held us nailed to his gestures, lashed to his memories and riding on his laughter. In those moments Cadell Rum held Llangareth in his warm, gentle, hard-calloused hands, such were the power of his words, and a writer was nurtured in the small boy who listened to him in rapt wonder.
I won a scholarship to Aberytswyth College in 1937, but this was in Wales and the times were hard and my family was poor, so instead I went to sea to earn my living as a deckboy on a North Sea sailing barge. I left Llangareth on a fine, sunny day in May. It was four days before my fourteenth birthday and Mam made me promise to eat the meat pie when the train passed through Shrewsbury and to pick a corridor coach so I could go to the lavatory and to make sure to follow the written instructions on how to get across London and be sure not to lose the ten-shilling note she had secured inside my inner pocket with two big safety pins. Then the train puffed through the winding Welsh valleys, and through the spring-green fields of England in 1938, when the stout stationmasters still wore gold watch fobs and walrus mustaches and the fishmongers' box-carts on high wheels waited at the station yards, the horses gybing at the hissing engine, and when we still believed in "peace in our time."
The next two years were--there's only one phrase that will fit--hard labor. Try to imagine loading up a sailing ship with bricks, for example, 60,000 bricks a cargo. Just two of us, the mate Bert and me. All by hand. And then, once the cargo was loaded and the tide was right, we endured sailing in all weathers. It was a good school, though, and taught me the value of simple comforts so that the war years I spent in Royal Navy destroyers in the Arctic seemed like a blessed relief to me, even though I was in three ships that were sunk.
It was in the navy that I first started to read seriously, as opposed to reading simply for entertainment. The books that were sent to our ship's library varied from stacks of Zane Grey Westerns to On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The good Westerns and detective novels were passed around conspiratorially, from friend to friend; the classics languished on the shelves and were much easier to obtain, and so I was lucky.
As well as being natural readers, some of the seamen I knew were also prolific letter writers. Soon I had joined them, having realized the value of being able to channel one's private thoughts, and to express them, in the crowded conditions of a destroyer's mess deck. True, it was like trying to write in the middle of a busy supermarket gangway, but it was a powerful concentration trainer, and the experience I gained has served me right well over the years. I have written short stories and articles in conditions that would probably make the average author blanch. (The first half of my first book, The Incredible Voyage, was written in the boiler room of Harrods, the great London department store, and the second half was written in the dormitory of a men's shelter in the Bowery of New York.)
The first time I wrote anything for publication was after World War Two had ended. It was a short unpaid piece for our Ship's Book, in which various sailors wrote their own experiences. Everyone else wrote about aspects of life onboard. I wrote about an Egyptian ship cleaner who had come onboard in Port Said and chatted with me. I wrote about his life, a life of unimaginable poverty, about his family and his hovel-home, and about his faith and simplicity. The only payment I had for that story was the satisfaction that I had made some people think twice about the poor souls they hardly noticed whom most of them took completely for granted.
I was invalided from the navy shortly after that episode, and, as I recounted in my second book, Ice!, I had great difficulty finding work, until by some guidance, the nature of which I can only guess, I strayed into small craft sailing. And once started on that, nothing--not even a brigade of guards--could drag me away from it, despite the fact that for the first fifteen years my total income was something in the region of, on average, a mere ten dollars a week. Most of that time I had, as the old saying goes, "One foot in the gutter and the other one on a bar of soap."
There were three good things about being close to broke for so many years: my pockets didn't get holes in them, I met a lot of very interesting people whom otherwise I would probably have missed, and I was impelled towards the typewriter.
I'd been at sea in small sailing craft, sometimes my own, sometimes other people's, for many years, fifteen in fact, and in bigger ships for fourteen previous years, before I sold my first short story. This was the true (but stumbling) account of how a friend and I had salvaged a wrecked boat on a Spanish island and sailed her, engineless and minus mainmast, to a port 200 miles away, where she was refitted. I sent it in to Motor Boat and Yachting, a London magazine, and then more or less forgot it. I had other things to do, such as sail a thirty-eight-foot yawl from the coast of Connecticut to West Africa and then back up to the Mediterranean, heading for the Greek islands.
When I sailed the yawl Barbara into Ibiza, the Spanish island, in February 1970, my old friend Rattler Morgan was there on the jetty to catch the mooring lines. Barbara had had a good fast run up from Gibraltar, three days of bowling along with a quartering wind, and I was looking forward to having a few beers and seeing my Dutch girlfriend, Marlieka, who ran an infants' school on the island.
"Hey Rattler, howyadoin'?" I sang out as the lines whizzed over to him.
"Wotcher, Tris, good trip?" he replied, hands cupped around his lips to shout against the wind.
"Up and down, up and down, you know..." That's the way I would dismiss a 12,000-mile passage in four months in a small sailboat in those days.
"Saw your story in Motor Boat and Yachting, mate. How much did they pay you?" Rattler's fair hair--he was ten years younger than I, about thirty-four--blew in the breeze. "Didn't know you could write!" his grinning blue eyes squinted against the bright Spanish sunlight.
For a moment or two I was nonplused. I'd forgotten all about the story I had sent to London. Then it dawned on me what he was talking about. "What ... where did you see it, Rattler? Did they show the pictures?"
"No, but there was a pretty good drawin'..." he finished tying up the lines. "How much did they pay you?"
"I don't know, I haven't collected any mail for four months; it's waiting for me here at the post office..." I rammed an extra fender between the hull and the jetty stones.
Then my sailing mate, Albi (a Portuguese lad of twenty-two), Rattler and I wended our way to the Hotel Montesol for a couple of cool beers on a sidewalk table; I left them to it and went to meet Marlieka and forgot my story.
Next morning though, at nine o'clock, when the post office opened, there was I, waiting, and soon I was settled down again at a hotel table with another beer, sorting through a bunch of letters. Among all the others was an envelope marked Motor Boat and Yachting. I tore it open. It was dated three months previously. Inside was a pink slip marked "Please find enclosed check for thirty-five pounds (seventy-five dollars by the rates in those days), payment for article 'Slow Boat to Barcelona.'" Below that the editor had written in pencil "Looking forward to seeing more!" On the strength of that I ordered another beer. It had been the first story I had ever submitted for payment and it had been accepted and published! Now I had found the key to the solution of my problem. For fifteen years I had roamed the world under sail, living solely on my Royal Navy invalid's pension of fifteen to forty dollars a month, at rare intervals earning extra money by delivering other people's boats, usually across the Atlantic. It had been a long, hard slog and I was accustomed to making do on very little food and with not much other comfort; now I had the key to survival in my chosen way of life.
From 1953 to 1968 I had made many remarkable voyages, about which not one word was written during that time. I'd been sunk three times, collided with a whale in midocean and almost thirsted to death, been trapped in arctic ice for just over a year, five months of that under a capsized iceberg with the threat of instant oblivion hanging over me; I'd survived many, many hurricanes and storms, and on one occasion managed to sail a small craft from Cayenne 3,000 miles home to France after she had lost her rudder and had her decks stove in. I grinned to myself. Now I would be able to take it easy and live ashore and write these stories. I had enough true adventure memories between my ears to write five hundred stories!
I took another swig of the San Miguel beer, then opened the next envelope, from Barbara's owner. Together with a group of other people he was interested in sending the boat to the Dead Sea (the lowest water in the world) and to Lake Titicaca in Peru, South America (the highest). It was a voyage that had never been made before and was considered by the vast majority of navigators to be impossible. Would I like to skipper the expedition?
Would I? I headed for the telegraph office, all thoughts of writing gone clean out of my head.
I should explain to my nonsailing readers why, after this initial small success, my mind was too preoccupied with other matters to give much further thought to writing at that time.
Also I should make it clear that the explanation of difficulties and problems, to the explorer, is not a matter of complaining. It is merely an explanation. No one but a fool would persist in a lifestyle in which he or she did not find fulfillment despite seemingly insuperable obstacles.
A persistent fiction, within the realms of fiction, is the person who sails away into the sunset in his or her sailing boat to live happily ever afterwards without a care in the world. It ain't necessarily so, as the songwriter put it. In fact, it very rarely is so. Long voyages--any voyages--in small sailing craft are most complex operations when they are carried out properly, in a seamanlike manner. The idea of escaping the problems of life by sailing away is a fable. On exploratory voyages, such as those I have undertaken, this is doubly, trebly so. Let us, very briefly, consider the problems encountered by the small boat voyager.
First, the speed of sailing progress. This, to the landsman, must seem excruciatingly slow, but the very nature of a sailing craft dictates that its speed is governed by the waterline length of the hull. If she sails faster than her design allows for, she will overturn and sink: therefore the slow speed, which in a thirty-eight-foot boat is about six miles per hour in ideal weather conditions. However, the weather conditions are very rarely ideal, so the boat's speed suffers, and the average, over a long voyage, is no more than about four miles per hour. This is coupled with the boat rising and falling an average of six feet every five seconds while leaning over at an angle of something between fifteen and twenty-five degrees from the vertical. Stop for a minute and realize what this means when you consider that the voyage described in The Incredible Voyage was over a total of 62,000 miles, and that my total voyaging, to date, is almost 300,000 miles.
Another preoccupation of a sailor-writer is the weather. This can be anything from halcyon days and balmy nights under a plethora of planets, an upturned stadium of stars, to bashing and banging away in cringing terror before the terrible forces of nature, which make anything that man can produce seem like the feeble waving of a baby's fist.
Then the isolation. Even in boats with one or two crewmen this is a great time-stealer, for they must muster from among them their own doctor, dentist, lawyer, engineer, shopkeeper, mechanic, carpenter, restaurant operator, navigator, tailor, sailmaker, linguist, cook; ad infinitum. There are no facilities, no workshop, 'just down the road.' Imagine then, how much time a single-handed sailor, at sea or even in harbor, has for writing during a voyage! But nature has an endearing way of maintaining her balances, and so the very business of voyaging leaves little time for introspection or self-doubt and one learns to observe what matters.
Next, space. In my last vessel, Sea Dart, my living cabin was seven feet long by six wide and four feet three inches high. But I managed to write short stories and articles in her. No electricity, no refrigeration ... no running water at the twist of a tap.
Under those conditions, writing a book is almost impossible. Yet I did it, in 1973. I wrote a 160,000-word book entitled Indian Ocean Saga. I sent it to an agent in England ... and he ran away to Paris with his secretary and I never have heard from him since!
I submitted well over two hundred articles to magazines while on voyages and here I must remind the reader of a very important fact. In the hurly-burly of the Western world, with its seeming relentless pressures, it is easy to be unaware that a good two-fifths of the world's land surface (and almost all its water surface) is exactly the same now as it was a thousand years ago--and, for the most part, so are the people. Sure, we can take pictures of the land by satellite. We can fly from one island of progress to another, swiftly and comfortably, by Jumbo Jet. But the only way we can reach the remote coastal parts of the earth is by small craft or helicopter, and the latter is too problematical from a support point of view. The only efficient self-contained 'terrestrial' coastal exploration vehicle is the small sailing craft. For one man, alone, it is the only vehicle possible. Thus, I have sent off articles to nine different countries from my boat by Eskimo kayak, Polynesian catamaran, Red Sea felucca, jungle river dug-out and Indian balsa reed craft on a lake almost 13,000 feet above sea level. I know there are people out there in the toils of everyday Western life who might wonder if some of the episodes I have written about were not perhaps a little exaggerated--dreams in the night. The simple reply to that is that one does not publish dreams under the scrutiny of the Royal Geographical Society, the world's foremost authority on exploration.
Some of the dialogue reported might not be completely accurate, it is true, but conversations reported years after the event very rarely are; and the last thing one thinks of when all hell is let loose is making notes in a diary. But essentially the sense of the dialogues is correctly reported.
My coming back into the maw of society in 1976 after a quarter-century almost continually at sea in small craft, was not easy. Many phenomena taken for granted by the average person in the so-called "advanced countries" make no sense at all to someone whose outlook on values can be distilled down to one question--Will it aid survival? I tackled my return into general society as I tackled my exploratory excursions. I tackle my writing in the same way: first--What is the aim? (What do I want to say?); second--Who will it benefit? (Hopefully, everyone who reads it); third--(dependent on the second) Where am I going? (Who am I trying to reach?); fourth--Do I know enough about the area to tackle it properly?
Thus I came to realize that literature, poetry--all art--is an exploration, just as surely as exploration is an art. The process of conceiving, initiating, organizing and writing a book, for example, is very similar to the process of launching and carrying out a voyage.
On the question of luck. I believe deeply that there is a force for good in the world. I believe that if the aim of an excursion, a venture, an effort, is directed to fighting what one believes to be detrimental--evil--then Lady Luck, Fate, the Guiding Spirit, synchronism if you like, will be on one's side. That may appear over simplistic in this day of rampant cynicism (but cynicism itself is a detrimental force and hates simplicity, which withstands it), but to me, in my own experience, it has been proved time and time again.
For instance, the story of how an American publisher came to contract for my first book is a good example of how close reality can be to dreaming. This reality is an example of what I call synchronistic fate: the coming together, as if by design, of evidently unrelated phenomena or persons in order to form a clear pattern. There have been several startling instances of synchronism in my life, and the navigator within me will not allow me to believe that those episodes were mere accidents, nor to believe that these kinds of patterns exist only for me. I can only conclude, therefore, that they are intentional patterns, and that there must be an Intelligence behind them, as there must be behind the design of the universe.
After the long six-year voyage, which I described in my first book, The Incredible Voyage, was concluded, I was in a parlous state. The many years of mainly single-handed effort, the frequent bouts of starvation, the regular subjection to tropical diseases and insects, the ravages on my intestines caused by a tapeworm, and the lack of income had all brought me to my lowest ebb since my disastrous encounter with a whale in 1967 (this is described in Saga of a Wayward Sailor).
To cut a long story sideways, I interrupted my writing of The Incredible Voyage amid the roar of a London department store's boilers, to carry out a task toothsome indeed to me: to investigate the infamous so-called Devil's Triangle, to try to ascertain whether or not there were any grounds for the fearful fantasies being written about that area.
I recruited my boat and her crew from New York State. Being short of funds, I took on three eager amateurs. I chose a young pipe-fitter from Long Island, a black ex-U.S. Air Force photographer from Manhattan, and, as cook, a middle-aged restaurant owner from Westchester County. For the purpose of this story I will endow the restaurant owner with the acronym PP One.
During the crossings back and forth over the Triangle, for two months in all weathers in the forty-four-foot yawl Sundowner, in search of clues to any mysterious occurrences, partly to weld the crew together and partly for entertainment, I encouraged them to tell their stories and I told them some of mine. In case my tales sounded too tall I showed the other three men my logbooks (so strange and incredible is the real world to modern Western man).
The days and nights passed, until eventually, having found nothing but the wonders of nature--no little green men, no things that go bump in the night--we arrived in Puerto Rico and the crew dispersed. I returned to Manhattan, to my poor lodging in the crowded Bowery men's shelter and carried on writing The Incredible Voyage. Living in New York on an income of ten dollars per week is an interesting exercise and should be tried by anyone who is in danger of losing faith in human nature.
After about a month or so of this, I made a trip to PP One's restaurant in Westchester County. There were two reasons why I did this. One was to talk about our sailing trips together, and the other was to get, at long last, a decent meal.
PP One greeted me and made me welcome, and during our lunch together he told me a curious thing. PP One had a namesake, who, for the purpose of this story I will call PP Two. PP Two was a Texas businessman and had recently driven to New York to close a deal. On his way into the city he had seen PP One's sign and his curiosity aroused, decided to eat at PP One's place and introduce himself. While the two men were talking together, PP One had recounted stories of his voyages with me and some of the tales I had told him. The Texan was intrigued, for he was also a yachtsman, and had read some of my articles in the yachting press. Even more important, he was a shareholder in Andrews & McMeel, the publishers. Within a week, Jim Andrews, the president of the publishing company was in New York, and shortly thereafter I had a contract for The Incredible Voyage and was out of the Bowery. That was in 1976. Since that time I have written a total of eleven books.
A great honor came my way after The Incredible Voyage was published in Great Britain in 1978. The book was awarded the first prize for literature, 1978-1979, by the Welsh Arts Council. This is a prize equivalent in cash to the National Book Award here in the U.S.A. Coming as it does from Wales, it is of inestimably far greater value to me, for it is awarded to the work of the small boy who once, long ago, listened so intently to Cadell Rum tell his stories by the light of the flickering fire flames in Llangareth. Another full cycle is completed; Cadell, at last, is rewarded.