Derek Lundy is a keen sailor, some might say a mad one: as research for this book, he sailed a 50' steel-hulled boat around Cape Horn. Reading his reflections on this voyage, which are interleaved with a fictionalised account of his ancestor Benjamin Lundy's passage around the Horn in 1885, one gets the sense that he's actually rather disappointed not to have encountered more extreme weather.
Lundy captures the feel of being afloat under sail, the reliance on the elements that's absent in modern-day travel. The Beara Head he writes about did not exist, but she's typical of a number of square-rigger, steel-hulled, four-masted ships in the last days of sail: crewed by what any Napoleonic captain would've regarded as a skeleton crew of 22 men, carrying dangerous cargo (coal, which was prone to spontaneous combustion), Liverpool to Valparaiso in 150 days.
Lundy says near the beginning that he's drawn heavily on the works of three major nautical writers -- Melville, Conrad and Dana. (I hadn't heard of Dana, but his Two Years Before the Mast is apparently a classic, and much admired by Herman Melville.) It's Conrad who he returns to, cites, reveres: in fact, he waxed enthusiastic enough to encourage me to read 'The Secret Sharer', and I am now on a Conrad kick, having been put off at an early age. But that by the bye.
Lundy refers to Cape Horn as 'the largest natural mass graveyard marker in the world', and by the time the Beara Head nears the Horn, Lundy's instilled a healthy respect for it in the heart of his reader. He describes a rogue wave drowning the ship, the men hanging in the rigging and looking down on green water with four masts protruding from it: the ship not righting herself under the weight of thousands of tons of water ... the mate, a hard man who's given his crew a great deal of grief, overwhelmed by a 'passionate curiosity', a sense that this is the end. And then the ship bears up, the deckhouse torn away, a man overboard and instantly lost, the boats smashed and broken: and, as in O'Brian, that sense of the fragility of human life at sea. Work as hard as you can, as long as you can, or die.
The pacing is splendid. I found myself racing ahead, eager to read the next chapter of Benjamin's story as he metamorphosed from raw youth to experienced sailor: yet the intervening material is fascinating too. Derek Lundy's own voyage; the life of a sailor in the 19th century; the rapid rise of steam power, and the sailing ships (Lundy calls them 'wind ships' throughout) collaborating in their own demise by carrying coal more cheaply to the ports where the steamers were based; the sheer intricacy of a sailing ship. 'As self-sufficient as space-ships,' writes Lundy of wooden ships, which seems to me a backhanded sort of simile.
I learnt more about tacking and yards, stays and lines, how a sailing ship works, from this book than from all twenty-and-a-half volumes of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. It's not a fair comparison, though it's made more than once in the reviews I've noticed. Lundy isn't focussing on character or plot, though there is a sufficiency of both -- he imagines each crew-member's viewpoint, and the Plot is of course "Liverpool to Valparaiso via Cape Horn" -- but simply on what it might have been like for all those untold thousands of men who sailed the ocean blue.