Wooden Ship/Men of Steel

When I was a youngster I was, like many boys, enamoured with the sea and devoured the books of Alan Villiers like Falmouth for Orders, By way of Cape Horn, The Set of the Sails; The Story of a Cape Horn, and Sons of Sinbad. Stories of wooden ships and men of steel.

Villiers, born in Melbourne, Australia, first went to sea at 15 and sailed all the world’s oceans on board traditionally rigged (square riggers now known as tall ships). And he was a wonderful author, too, calling up the howling winds of Cape Horn.

As good a story teller as Villiers was, though, there was another author intimately acquainted with full-rigged ships who was one of the greatest wordsmiths of the English language who ever lived; Joseph Conrad, a Pole writing not in his native tongue, of course, nor even in his second language which was French. But he could put one word after another unlike anyone before or since.

Writing about the ascendancy of steam over sail and how the demise of the sailing craft was something to be mourned, Conrad had this to say…

“No doubt a fair amount of climbing up iron ladders can be achieved by an active man in a ship’s engine room, but I remember moments when even to my supple limbs and pride of nimbleness the sailing ship’s machinery seemed to reach up to the very stars.

For machinery it is, doing its work in perfect silence and with a motionless grace, that seems to hide a capricious and not always governable power, taking nothing away from the material stores of the earth. Not for it the unerring precision of steel moved by white steam and living by red fire and fed with black coal. The other seems to draw its strength from the very soul of the world, its formidable ally, held to obedience by the frailest bonds, like a fierce ghost captured in a snare of something even finer than spun silk. For what is the array of the strongest ropes, the tallest spars and the stoutest canvas against the mighty breath of the Infinite, but thistle stalks, cobwebs, and gossamer? (The Mirror of the Sea)

Listen as VilliersĀ  too, makes similar statements about the craft and business of commercial sail.

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