December 1, 2004
Around Cape Horn
written by Charles G. Davis
reviewed by by Steve Cartwright
Around Cape Horn
The hard knocks school of seafaring
If you ever get the kind of sea fever that makes you want to sign onto a to a square-rigger and sail `round the Horn, this book will cure you.
A first-hand account of 22-year-old Charles Davis's 291-day voyage on the bark JAMES A. WRIGHT in 1892, this adventurous story has enough gritty, unpleasant experiences in it to take your dreamy vision of a romantic voyage and chuck it overboard. That said, it is a credible if sometimes unsavory story that shows us good times and hard times, a few exotic excursions and the grinding routine of life at sea. It's been edited and slightly censored by Rockland schooner Captain Neal Parker. Censored only because Parker decided to delete some raw, racist terms. He didn't catch all of them; I saw the cabin boy referred to as a "coon." I suppose such language is unsurprising among 19th century sailors, or 20th century ones, for that matter. Sometimes a sailor is put down for being different; sometimes he is admired for his character. In the end, life aboard ship is easiest when sailors are on good terms with each other, and with the hard-driving officers they must obey.
Over the long months at sea, Davis and the crew grew close, despite his roots in an upper-class family, where previous sailing was of the yachting variety. But there were clashes, especially on a vessel manned by a minimal crew; a crew given minimal rest and minimal meals. Just as the ocean could be serene or violent, so the men on the JAMES A. WRIGHT sometimes sang chanteys and sometimes lashed out.
As Davis pointed out in his daily journal, he was forced to work harder than he ever would have done ashore. Before joining the bark's crew in New York. Davis had been a draftsman for a naval architect where he hurt his eyes staring at his work; he stopped working but needed something to do. So he went to sea and kept a journal, and this is it.
If Neal Parker hadn't been a ship-model builder like Davis, he wouldn't have been asked to repair a vessel for Davis's grandson in Portland; a model built by none other than Charles Davis. The grandson had a manuscript, and despite an uncanny resemblance between the elder Davis and Parker, for a moment I thought perhaps Neal concocted the whole thing as a practical joke, since he is a good writer and has an equally good sense of humor. Both sailors are from Brooklyn, N.Y., although Parker was born 64 years after Davis went to sea. As I read on, I realized Parker has done a real service to reading sailors, whether of the active or armchair variety. Parker has added some of Davis's skillful line drawings, plus a photo and plans of the JAMES A. WRIGHT -- in case you want to build a replica!
This is a story that drives home the realities of hard times -- and hard tack -- at sea. It tells of skimpy rations and a captain with enough compassion to increase portions after a brave and polite protest by the crew. This is a story, told in the first person, which left me unsure if I really liked Charles Davis. But I have to say he had guts, that he did embarked on the kind of adventure most of us only read about.
Davis is imperfect and admits it. In Chile, as the WRIGHT took on a cargo of saltpeter and unloaded barrel staves and other goods, Davis displayed some youthful poor judgment in deciding to join four others in jumping ship. They dreamed of signing onto a ship bound for San Francisco, thus avoiding Cape Horn and continued harsh conditions on the ship from which they fled.
After a sizzling, bone dry walk in the mountains, the scheme failed and the deserters were rounded up by local officials and forced to return to the JAMES A. WRIGHT by longboat. Remarkably, Davis and fellow conspirators were treated about the same as before, with no particular punishment. Perhaps that was simply because without them the ship was too shorthanded to sail, and life on such a vessel was punishment enough.
Rounding notorious Cape Horn is graphic in detail, and you can practically feel the surge of swells cascading over the 880-ton vessel's deck as she rolled, hove to, in a full gale. Davis shows he knows not just the craft of sailing, but also the craft of writing: "It was getting dangerous now to go on the lee side at all. The wind had the bark on her beam ends every time she rose to the summit of a sea and filled her decks with water flush with the rails. When she toppled over the crest with a heavy roll to windward, sea went washing across from rail to rail like a young waterfall. It was as wild a sight as you would want to see, and I could not help admiring the wild beauty of it."
There were moments of fun. Crossing the Equator, 44 days out of New York, Davis willingly submitted to the ritual of being "shaved" with a tar mixture as his rite of passage, under orders from King Neptune who "boarded" the vessel for the initiation.
There was a Christmas celebration in Valparaiso aboard an old vessel in the harbor converted to a floating church, where "bewitching creatures" (women) plied Davis with tea and biscuits and an old salt sang "Billy, the Longshoreman" and brought the house (ship?) down.
Once, in warm waters, a sailor named Fred persuaded Davis to lower him over the side so he could swim along with the boat. But Fred couldn't keep up, and it took three men to haul him back on board, where he was the laughingstock of all hands. Another time, the pecking order aboard ship was forgotten as everyone joined in a rat hunt, chasing the animal from stem to stern until the cabin boy killed it.
Once, that same boy threw the ship's unofficial mascot overboard, and an angry Davis and others said Tobey dog was worth more than Lawrence the boy. But it didn't seem to occur to Davis that the dark-skinned boy from Barbados was forced to clean up the dog's waste and no one would have considered helping him.
After sailing for nearly a year, the bark arrived in Delaware, and "sharks" arrived to lure the crew to their boarding houses where they could be separated from their money. Davis had to resist mightily, and thus was able to collect his $75 in pay, plus discharge papers of an able seaman. That "ended my career as a deepwater man," he wrote.
Captain Annabel is a love story of a father and daughter, and being a dad myself with a lovely daughter, I can relate to this children's book written by a Maine sea captain. But Neal Parker's semi-autobiographical book -- his daughter really is named Annabel -- is more than that. It's a book about being yourself, about becoming what you want to be. It also recognizes that you can become very good at something if you work at it, sailing in this case. But you won't be and can't be good at everything. Annabel gets a job on a schooner -- in real life her father owns the windjammer WENDAMEEN -- as a cook. It's a disaster, and she is about to be fired for the worst pea soup the captain ever tasted, except that she rescues his schooner in a big blow and earns her way back as a sailor, then first mate. There's more to this simple story for children, but you can find out for yourself. The illustrations by Emily Harris are pleasing, right down to the cats that manage to get in the picture fairly often. One unanswered question: Whatever became of Annabel's mother?
Steve Cartwright is a freelance writer in Waldoboro.
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