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Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is fiercely intelligent and urgently intimate, written with precision, humor, and an incredible... Continue »
How I Came to Write The Way of a Shipby Derek Lundy
In 1998, I was in Victoria, British Columbia, on a book tour for my previous book Godforsaken Sea. Afterwards, I had a couple of days to spare before travelling to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory to give talks and readings, and I decided to rent a car and drive around. I wound up on Salt Spring Island one of the green and beautiful Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia between the mainland and Vancouver Island only because its ferry schedule best fit my impromptu sightseeing. I got there late and checked into an inn for the night.
Things happened right away. The owner noticed my name and said in astonishment: "There's another Derek Lundy on the island. Are you related?"
And suddenly, right on the spot, I remembered old forgotten family stories about an ancestor who had left Ireland in the nineteenth century to go to sea and who had wound up settling somewhere on the remote west coast of North America the United States or Canada, I couldn't recall. Like all Irish families, immigration was almost the rule in mine (I'm originally from Ireland myself), and it was hard to keep track of where everyone ended up. We're all over the old Empire: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Far East, and in the United States too. Maybe the Salt Spring Lundys were my relatives, descendants of that long-lost sea-going forbear.
As it turned out, they weren't. I met them for lunch the next day and they told me that they had come to the island twenty years before. By coincidence, one of them was named Derek, too. But they also told me about the "Lundy homestead," one of the island's heritage homes on Upper Ganges Road, not far from the main village. It had been built by Benjamin Lundy, and I soon found out that he was the ancestor I'd heard about my great, great-uncle who had settled on the island after some years as a deep-sea square-rigger seaman. His grandson lives just across the road from the homestead. (Only Benjamin's two daughters survived to have descendants and, of course, they took their husbands' names; the original Lundy name died out on the island.)
I wasn't able to meet the grandson and his wife on that visit but I did get permission to look around the house Benjamin had built 110 years earlier. It had changed hardly at all on the outside, I was told. Inside, it had been renovated a little, but the rooms were mostly the same, and the California redwood he had used was still there, intact and gleaming. Benjamin's land stretched away on three sides, gently rolling acres with open fields and stands of fir, arbutus and apple trees.
I was immediately interested in Benjamin's story: the long journey he had made from a tiny worker's house on a narrow street in the Irish Quarter of a grim Ulster town in occupied Ireland to become a landowner, a man of substance, on this edenic island in the Northwest rainforest. I'd been born in just such a house myself and I'd gone to sea as well; I felt the connection between us strong and clear.
The following year, my wife, daughter and I wanted to get out of the city for a year (we lived in Toronto). Because I'd liked Salt Spring so much on my previous short visit, we decided to spend the school year there a kind of sabbatical and during that time I did meet Benjamin's grandson, my distant cousin. He and his wife became our friends and one day, they showed me a photograph of Benjamin taken around 1895 soon after he had built the homestead. He was standing beside a deer he had shot, a rifle cradled in his arms. He looked like the sturdy ex-square-rigger seaman and pioneer he was.
But the photograph disclosed something else that was astonishing, almost eerie. My great, great-uncle's face was the image of my own father's. My father had died four years earlier. It was sudden; he had a heart attack on Saturday and was dead on Tuesday. In between, he lay sedated and incommunicado. His death terminated our long history of mutual reticence. Like most fathers and sons, we had left far too much unsaid. My dead father's face in Benjamin's seemed to cement the kinship I'd felt when I first stood inside the Lundy homestead. I had been casting about for an idea for another book about the sea. Almost as soon as I saw Benjamin's photograph, I decided to write about one of his voyages as a square-rigger sailor.
There was just one problem: I could find out nothing about him. Or at least, nothing about his years as a seaman (I had some letters and his descendants' recollections to flesh out his years on Salt Spring). Benjamin was one of those people who disappear from sight and sound a generation or so after their lives end like most human beings, I suppose. And his anonymity was even more profound precisely because he had been a seaman one of a class of poor itinerant laborers who went to sea to make a living or for the romance of it (or both), who endured hardship and peril for a while on their hard-case, widowmaking wind ships, and died in the planet's oceans in their tens of thousands. I searched records in England and Ireland but Benjamin was long lost.
Nevertheless, I was reluctant to conclude that his story couldn't be told just because he was poor and obscure. I decided to create one for him. I would find out everything I could about the world of square-riggers in Benjamin's time and I would tell a story of a voyage he might have made, one that any seaman before the mast could have made in those last days of sail near the end of the nineteenth century. The book would be an amalgam. It would remain non-fiction a maritime history of the ships, their crews, Cape Horn, the routines and techniques of getting a square-rigger across an ocean under wind power alone. But I would include a fictional strand in the lay of the story line Benjamin's imagined initiation into life as a deep-sea sailor.
Once I'd decided on that, everything else about the book fell into place. I knew the research I had to do: find out about the wind ships, their design and construction, how they were sailed, the precise and complex terminology needed to describe how they were worked, what it was like aboard these big iron and steel vessels in storms and calms. The story would have to be technically sound in all these areas. Even though that was the least important part of the book to me, it was the context of Benjamin's voyage and had to be historically accurate. And I needed to discover what I could about the seamen themselves. In particular, I wanted to try to answer two questions: Why did they go to sea in the first place? And how could they keep doing it? enduring the lousy food, constant wet and cold, harsh physical-force discipline, the extreme danger of work aloft and on flooded decks, the extravagant suffering involved on even the average Cape Horn or Southern Ocean passage.
I read books of course, lots of them; and I went to sea again myself. I sailed around Cape Horn because that's where Benjamin's voyage would take him. It was the only way in those days, before the Panama Canal, to get from Europe and the Atlantic to the west coast of the Americas, or back again. I thought it was necessary to see in person the cape that has always been the worst of places for sailors you could think of it as the largest natural mass graveyard marker in the world. I sailed around the fearsome rock in a fifty-foot steel sailboat that belonged to a friend of a friend. I'd lost lots of sleep worrying about getting pasted by what the old square-rigger sailors used to call a "Cape Stiff snorter." As it turned out, however, the fateful day was calm and sunny, an anti-climax for which I was grateful in a way (I wouldn't die there), but in which I was also disappointed (not much good material for the book).
Later, I made a ten-day working passage in a modern square-rigger a three-masted barque rigged in close imitation of a nineteenth-century vessel half-way across the North Atlantic, from the Azores to Cherbourg. I stood watches, went aloft eighty feet (in calm weather), steered the 150-foot long steel vessel at twelve knots in a brief near-gale, and then, motored for three days, in the calms of an unusual North Atlantic Spring high-pressure system. I had wanted more heavy weather good book material but just seeing first-hand how the barque was put together and sailed was indispensable.
In the end, The Way of a Ship became a created account of Benjamin's passage as a greenhorn sailor in a square-rigged sailing ship with a cargo of coal from Liverpool around Cape Horn to the west coast of South America and on to San Francisco. Like all such passages, Benjamin's is full of incident storms, fire, ice, rogue seas and of both the metaphorical meaning and the mundane trials of life aboard a wind ship. I've tried to plunge the reader into the whole world of the last square-riggers and the hard, brave men who manned them, and to bring to life what it was like to sail these beautiful and brutal vessels. The book is both Benjamin's story and a tribute to the ships and their men.