The prolific McCutchan returns with his second novel about Tom Chatto, an Anglo-Irish seafarer in the waning days of sail at the beginning of this century. It is now some years after the events of "Apprentice, to the Sea" , and Chatto is second mate of a liner on the South American run. After a trouble-plagued voyage, he plays a heroic role in trying to save a derelict sailing ship, with the unexpected help of Patience, the bucko mate from the "Pass of Drumochter". This is a better book than its predecessor, thanks to nonstop action, better characterization, and the same masterly feel for the details of seafaring when steam or sail drove the ships that bound the world together. "Second Mate" is that rare thing today, a book that could easily have been twice as long without boring the sea-loving reader.
The further adventures of young Tom Chatto, who, following an auspicious series debut in old pro McCutchan's Apprentice to the Sea (1995), proves himself a mariner to be reckoned with.
Having learned the ropes during the last days of the great sailing craft, Tom (second son of a well-born Irish Protestant churchman) moves on to steam-powered vessels shortly after the start of the 20th century. Rising through the officer ranks, he achieves second-mate status aboard the Orvega, a British ocean liner bound from Liverpool to Valparaiso. The voyage proves a difficult one for all hands. Influenza breaks out among the huddled masses in steerage, and the Orvega is barred from Madeira, where the captain had hoped to lay up to repair a dysfunctional valve spindle. In the meantime, Tom (who has taken the cruise as much to see his ladylove, the daughter of a wealthy Argentinean cattle rancher, as to advance an already promising career) becomes a target of opportunity for passenger Grace Handley, a lusty grass widow looking for a fresh start in the New World. Although tempted, true-blue Tom resists her efforts to bed him aboard ship and in ports of call along the eastern shore of South America. He soon faces an even sterner test during a rough transit around Cape Horn when his crippled vessel's way is blocked by a foundering windjammer. Charged with taking the derelict in hand in a stormy sea, Tom and his salty salvage crew are forced to call on all the courage and skills they acquired when sailing before the mast as they pit themselves and their battered hulk against wind and wave.
Another fine sea story from a master of the difficult game, replete with credibly motivated characters and the lore of a transitional era in the maritime trade.