Your name is Hawkins or Starbuck, Selkirk or Hardy, or even Christian; your captain is called Drake or Cabot or Aubrey. You are in mid-ocean, off the vexed Bermoothes, or on the Spanish Main, or in those straits you will--if God spares you!--name after your lost captain Magellan, a bare cable's length from a lee shore. Your ship--Unicorn, Surprise, Endeavor, Santa Maria--is enveloped in a lurid, formless, orange light sticky with dew, the sea is "sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould" (Benito Cereno) and the studdingsails hang limp in the dead air while your whole crew whistles for all you're worth. But your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth, your eyes are fixed on the glass which is dropping like a plumb-weight, and your nerves are taut as a harpoon line, awaiting the order to strike sail, for the hurricanoe's coming on...
And then the gale is upon you--and time stops. Sails not hauled down in time are instantly replaced by rigidly horizontal tatters, or else the masts are overborne; cannons careen loose over the gun-deck, the cargo breaks free and shifts promiscuously, heaving the vessel towards her beam ends from starboard to port and back again, and the undermanned pumps slowly lose ground to the water that pours in through the strakes as the hull flexes and lurches in mountainous seas. Surely this is the apotheosis of "messing about in boats"--the grit, the panoply of expertise, the urgent cleverness of a tiny universe of sailors staving off annihilation one improvised inch at a time.
We all know this scene, even--or perhaps I should say especially--those of us with no practical knowledge of sailing. And of course this is a scene from the age of sail, not from the present; it is from a time when the wall between man and drowning was far thinner and more delicate than a steel triple bulkhead, when right action in concert was all that stood against the long rolling dark. Writing about Heart of Darkness in an earlier essay (March 2011), I suggested that the combination of humble--almost domestic--skills needed to sail a ship was exemplary of a particular level of civilization. Margaret Cohen, in her book The Novel and the Sea, describes that combination this way: "To achieve success, [Robinson] Crusoe calls on craft's compleat competences, such as knowledge of geography, arms, shipbuilding, and carpentry. He also exercises craft's human traits, notably prudence, patience, protocol... resolution, jury-rigging, and the pragmatic imagination. Maritime craft, which is exemplified in the mariner's skill under conditions of great duress, is an ethical as well as a practical discipline." That ethic, allying a modest but unshakeable professional devotion to the mastery of a braid of practical skills, is a high achievement of civilization, with generations of refinement behind it.
Richard Hughes's narrative In Hazard takes place on board the steamship Archimedes in 1929, when sail had largely been supplanted by steam. This is what he says about sailing: "It is only lately, when the supply of sail-trained officers has begun to run short, that most of the first-class steamship lines have begun to accept officers trained in steam alone: have begun to train such officers themselves.
This seems an anomaly, to landsmen: that steamship companies should actually require their officers to have been trained in sail: landsmen are inclined to smile, as at a piece of foolish conservatism--as if London bus drivers were required to serve for seven years as stableboys and grooms, before they were allowed to handle motor buses. With so much technical knowledge to acquire anyhow, why waste the man's time in learning a useless and outmoded technique as well?
The answer is a matter of virtue, really. For an inclination towards virtue... is not enough in itself; it must be trained, like any other aptitude. Now there is a fundamental difference in kind between the everyday work of a sailing vessel and the everyday work of a steamer. The latter does not essentially differ from a shore job: it is only occasionally, rarely, that emergencies arise in steam. But every common action in the working of a sailing vessel, all the time, partakes of something of the nature of an emergency. Everything must be done with your whole heart, and a little more than your whole strength. Thus is a natural aptitude for virtue increased by everyday practice. For changing a jib in a stiff breeze is a microcosm, as it were, of saving a ship in a storm.
So the officer in sail acquires a training in virtue that may later, in steam, mean the saving of some hundred lives, and a million or so of property."
This extraordinary book--which reads like a documentary account containing characters from a novel--tells the story of the Archimedes's four days under a monstrous hurricane. In a manner typical of Hughes, the narrative moves quite casually from an allusion to the immense strength of the ship's structure to a rapid and seemingly inevitable chain of disasters. First, in the teeth of the gale, the steering mechanism jams. As the ship loses its forward thrust, it turns broadside to the wind, the force of which heels it over at a 35° angle. The gale, producing a relative vacuum over the deck on the leeward side, yanks the hatches off as it would have yanked off roofs on land, and spray begins to fill the hold. Part of the cargo is old newspapers and tobacco, which begin to absorb water: because they are stowed above the rest of the cargo, the ship becomes topheavy and rolls still closer to the water on the leeward side. That's just the beginning. The funnel's guy wires are warranted to withstand a hundred tons of force, but the wind rips it off the ship anyway. As a result, the draft required to keep the furnaces fired fails. And so on, and on. The suspense lies in whether the increasing weight in the hold will founder the ship before the storm subsides. (I imagine it's no accident that the vessel in this story is named after the man who learned to measure the volumes of solid objects by measuring the volume of water they displace.) The circumstantial detail in this book is terrific. Two midshipmen calm the worst of the waves by dribbling lubricating oil onto the sea through the bow and stern latrines, having wrestled full oil-drums across a sloping deck as wind and spray threaten to throw them overboard. The officers and crew have to keep screaming at each other even in the calm at the eye of the storm because the unrelenting din has temporarily deafened them. When they finally get steam to the pumps again and empty tobacco-brown water out of the bilges, fish rise belly up through the water, poisoned by nicotine.
The Archimedes does make it in the end, by dint of the same grit, nobility, and desperate cleverness which a sailing vessel calls upon in extreme weather, and--just as in sailing--by dint of luck as well. There is one conspicuous difference though. In the pastiche I opened with, the work of luck goes hand in hand with the skillful work of hands. Sailing ships can be jury-rigged and repaired; pumps are manned by men; and the course of the wind is engineered by the manipulation of sails. The heroism of seafarers goes hand in hand with a mastery of the component crafts of sailing. Captain Aubrey travels with a carpenter and his assistants, a full set of tools, and spare wood for repairs. Even a dismasted ship can sometimes be usefully towed by oared boats. Hughes, however, takes pains to point out that even the finest of engineers can do nothing to repair or supplement a steamship's means of propulsion while at sea: the propeller shaft of the Archimedes is impossible to shift by hand. In Conrad's Falk, a steamship is left so helpless when its propeller shaft breaks that the crew has resorted to suicide and cannibalism in the Southern Ocean before they are finally rescued. Not only were they unable to change their fate, but they could not sustain such fragile esprit de corps as they once had. As in the trope of the post-apocalyptic survivor surrounded by useless scrap metal, the high civilization of the sailor has given way to a kind of de facto barbarism. And while sailors are subject to savagery too, when luck and wit fail them, the 3600-mile journey in an open boat undertaken by Captain Bligh and those of his crew who didn't join the mutiny on the Bounty shows us that a Hobbesian state is not inevitable even under extreme privation, so long as the discipline inherent to sailing can still be evoked. Hughes and Conrad both seem to imply that unless the training in virtue which sailing offers can be acquired elsewhere, barbarism in technical matters risks entraining moral barbarism as well.