- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Among the many pleasures of the reading life, one of the rarest is the unassuming but excellent novel. That was what I found, to my delight, in Hell Around the Horn, by Rick Spilman.
Hell Around the Horn has no grand pretensions. It does not try to be a romance, or a mystery, or a political tract. It is what its manifest states – a straightforward account, fictionalized, of a memorable voyage by a windjammer and her crew in the year 1905.
The windjammer, if you’re not familiar with the term, was the last stage in the age of commercial sail. Like the clipper ships before them the windjammers drove under a cloud of sails, but they were generally steel- or iron-built, and bulkier in the hull to accommodate more cargo. Although a seeming anachronism, windjammer commerce endured as late as 1957.
The story is told through the eyes of four main characters on board the vessel Lady Rachel – Capt. James Barker, a young captain keen to make a profit on his first voyage as a partner, Apprentice William Jones, a teenager just learning the ropes (literally), Able Seaman Fred Smythe, an American sailor with a little education, and Mary Barker, the captain’s wife, who has come along bringing their two children.
The story starts a little slowly, perhaps, as we are introduced to the ship and crew, and the voyage departs from Cardiff (headed for Chile with a load of coal) following the trades. The plan is to round Cape Horn, which may be tricky as they’re doing it in the southern hemisphere winter. What they don’t know is that 1905 will turn out to be the worst winter ever for that passage, and the dangers they will face will test not only the integrity of the ship, but the character of everyone aboard.
For a lover of the sea like me, Hell Around the Horn was simply a delight. The author, a marine architect, knows what he’s writing about, and there’s authenticity in every line. On top of that the characters were realistic and complex, and the writing – I rejoice to note – was flawless. Not a typo or a misspelling or a false homonym that I could identify.
Highly recommended. Spilman should do this again. He has a gift.