view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
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... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Way of a Ship: a Square-Rigger in the Last Days of Sail

I'm on a roll. I'm finishing books like there's no tomorrow. You may think I have way too much time on my hands, but the truth is that this one has been waiting to be finished for months now, becalmed in the Horse Latitudes of my reading habits, my bookmark poised within sight of the end of the voyage.

Author Derek Lundy begins with a photo of his great great uncle Benjamin, who in 1885 made the voyage form Ireland to the West Coast of America, around Cape Horn. Inspired by the image of his relative staring back at him from the past, Lundy sets out to find out more about him, more about his huge leap into the unknown and the harrowing journey that brought him to a new continent.

It was quite a journey, when you think about it. Immigrants to North America, including members of my own family, did it all the time – it was the quintessential immigrant experience – and that made it seem commonplace. But what an alchemy! The voyage away from the confines of European class, accent, religion, imperial diktat and the claustrophobic "close-togetherness" of everything to the space and light of the New World, its even-handed presentation of the possibility of success and failure. It was like the first true deep breath of a person's life.

woasLundy recreates the voyage by ship across the Atlantic, around the Horn, and into the Pacific, by piecing together a story based on ship's logs, the wisdom of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, and his own incredible knowledge of the sea and sailing. Along the way he describes the "Cape Horn breed," the men who worked the beautiful, widow-making deep-sea sailing ships in their dying days. This was in the late 1800s, coal-driven steam ships were making their appearance, driving out the romanticism of an earlier age and replacing it with a soulless commerce. Lundy weaves a beautiful nostalgia for an age that pitted men against a vast sea, relying on their reading of the elements and their hard-won skills in order to survive.

For a long time I've seen parallels between tall ship voyages, and life on a film set. Whenever I start on a new show, and especially when on location, I imagine our small crew, in charge of expensive cargo, sent out to venture across scantly charted waters. The director is our captain, the script writer our navigator. When I fill out my start papers, it's like signing the articles of agreement (though the food is much better on a film set).

The captain might have been lord of the ship at sea, but in a home port, he was painfully subject to the worries and whims of the owners of his command… No wonder captains mostly looked forward to getting clear of land; they went to sea like monarchs entering at last, and after endless trails, into their rightful dominion.

If that's not the relationship between a film director and the studio executives, I don't know what is.

So, I started this book as a guide to the structure of a film crew. I made notes in the margins as I read about the similarities between who's who on a ship and how that relates to a crew of filmmakers. The first mate is obviously the first AD, constantly at the crew, whipping them in to shape. There's grips and gaffers who scuttle up the rat lines and keep the day to day workings of this moveable machine running smoothly.

Shipboard life was marked, for example, by a mixture of strict hierarchy – the division between officers and men – and democracy – the brotherhood of seamen before the mast.

Everyone has their job, their own set of tasks, there are gang bosses, department heads, individual labourers, everyone knows their place. All the while the owners and studio executives, the investors of our venture remain in safe harbour ready to pass judgment on any mishap. I see the cargo, the treasure within the holds, as a combination of the acting talent, and the story being told. The entire voyage is designed to safely deliver this cargo intact when the passage comes to a close. Some movies sail in to harbour with flying colours, others have lost their cargo somewhere along the way, and sink at the box office. If all goes well, the reward is the opportunity to do it all again.

But, my personal reading-between-the-lines aside, Lundy's book is firmly rooted in 1885, and magnificently recreates the life of these sailors on their journey. We get to know each member of the crew, their personalities and fears. When Benjamin first climbs into the rigging, All around him was the web of the standing and running rigging, the shrouds – iron wire supporting the masts – and the lines, hundreds upon hundreds of them, that raised, furled, trimmed, checked, eased and tweaked the vessel's yards and sails. It was like being inside a loose-woven cocoon.

When it comes times to enter the Southern Ocean, the battle around the Horn begins and doesn't let up. Storm after storm hammers their ship relentlessly. Men are lost. You really get a terrifyingly clear picture of what it must've been like. The horrible food, the expendable nature of the men, the endless days in the freezing wind and rain with little or no sleep, and the final emergence into the Pacific, having survived such an ordeal.

All of this transcends a story about sailing a ship, and becomes something more encompassing. Lundy writes that the Horn became the archetype of the ancient struggle between man and the sea. The voyage becomes metaphor, and it's more than a mere set of skills that Benjamin gains along the way. If he could keep his head clear and his guts strong in the face of a Cape Stiff snorter, no one and nothing could bamboozle or intimidate him again. In rounding the Horn, he had got round himself as well.

Derek Lundy set out to give voice and history to the relation he saw in a fading photograph, while also taking us back to another time when men sailed the oceans. He has done this and much more. The Way of a Ship becomes an epic story of reinvention of self, and a new life won. There is a Cape Horn for every man, says Melville, and this book begs the questions of what our own personal Cape Horn may be, and if we've got round ourselves in this life yet.

Check it out here at Amazon.

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