Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Tall Ships and taller tales

by Antonia Senior

When I was twenty-five, brave and picked in nautical fiction, I set out from Barbados to crew a tall ship across the Caribbean Sea. I did not know it then, but the experience would echo down the years and find its way into my fiction. 

Living history. I have written before about the joy of cooking historical recipes, and how it helps me feel my way into the periods I write about. Before writing my book about twelfth century Scottish Vikings, The Winter Isles, I took a lesson in fighting with medieval broadswords. One Viking author I know is bearded and perpetually wielding an axe. Most of the Roman swords 'n sandals writers seem to spend their time dressed in centurion's kit, complaining about chafing.

The single most important exercise in living history, however, were the two tall ship voyages that I took in my youth - once to the Caribbean and once to the Azores. Those voyages have given me metaphors, and insights into the workings of a battling crew, and a flavour of the lives of sailors in the age of sail - albeit with running water and better food. 

In my latest book, The Tyrant's Shadow, one of my characters, Sam Challoner, opens the story sailing as a privateer with Prince Rupert, Charles 1's nephew. My youthful tall ship adventures have proved invaluable in writing about this. 

Prince Rupert and a motley band of renegade Royalists turned privateer during the early Commonwealth, to attack its navy and attempt to raise money for the embattled court-in-exile. His fleet sailed to the Azores, then to the African coast and then out to the Caribbean. On the way, they took and lost prizes. They faced vicious local tribes, and their own internal divisions. They battled ferocious storms, one of which sunk his biggest ship, The Constant Reformation, with the loss of 333 lives. 

Eventually, in 1653, the fleet limped home, with little to show for the sailors' extreme hardships. 

I did not know that I would be writing this story, when I set sail from Barbados on the Stavros S Niarchos. The ship, a 200 ft brig with a modern hull and eighteenth century rigging, belongs to the Tall Ships Youth Trust. 

The Stavros S Niarchos. Isn't she gorgeous??

These are the things I learned that turned out to be useful:

1. When you climb to the top of a 36 foot mast, you will be terrified. Near the top, the cat's cradle of the rigging all seems to become more frail - at the bottom when you are least afraid there are broad, ladders of rope for your feet - further up,you wedge your feet in to small gaps. Your legs will tremble.

2. Up there, near the sky, the pitch and roll of the ship is hugely exaggerated. A sea that seems calm at deck level will seem monstrous at the top of the mast, which will sway from side to side with alarming capriciousness. 

3. As you edge out along the yard, your trembling legs are supported by feet which rest on a swinging rope. Below that fragile line, there is nothing. Space. A dizzying gap.

4. Up there, rolling and pitching and swaying, clinging on to the yard with white-knuckled hands, you will feel a rush of total joy. You will sing a song of fear and euphoria to a wide sky and an infinite sea.

5. You will either pray to a God you do not believe in, or thank Him for all the glory and beauty.

6. That the most sublime place in the world is on board a ship at sea, on a calm night with a following wind. During the midnight watch, you can laugh and chat, and look up to see the stars framed by a the roll of the sails and the rigging.

7. The even more sublime place is splayed out across the bowsprit, as it rises and slams into the living sea, spraying you with salt. 

8. That Patrick O'Brian is a genuine genius.

Write what you know, they tell you. Mostly, I discard this advice. It is enough to know what it is to be human. But sometimes, knowing about something viscerally, can be a writer's blessing. 


Ruan Peat said...

I adore sailing, just flying under sail with only the sound of the boat, and the sea, sat back listening to nothing and everything. The salt taste on your lips and the sway and movement of the boat, just takes you out of time. You could be any time on a sailing boat, esp out of sight of land. Thank you for bringing the feelings back while I am sat in my house on a cold rainy day!

Joan Lennon said...

Wow. Your description brings me as close to climbing the rigging of a tall ship as I will ever be - thanks for posting!

Caroline Lawrence said...

A beautiful piece, Antonia! I love your eight points, too. And you are right about Patrick O'Brian. He is the King of Historical Fiction in my opinion. (And Mary Renault is the Queen!)