Sail setting: How sailing inspires literature
by Claire Wrathall
Adventure, glamour, inspiration: from Fitzgerald to Hemingway, authors have long channelled the symbolism of sailing yachts. Claire Wrathall explores their role in literature
Instantly evocative, yachts offer up an immediate sense of escapism: of tales waiting to be told, adventures to be enjoyed. Look closely and you’ll find yachts at the heart of many a classic novel, while passing references crop up in everything from thrillers to a naturalist’s commentary.
For a case in point, you have only to look to F Scott Fitzgerald, who gives Gatsby his first taste of the high life as a member of a yacht’s crew. Halfway through chapter six of The Great Gatsby we encounter the young James Gatz, as Jay Gatsby was born, in a rowing boat on Lake Superior gazing up at a sloop named Tuolomee, a yacht that “represented all the beauty and glamour in the world”. It belongs to copper magnate Dan Cody, who invites him aboard and hires him on the spot as “steward, mate, skipper, secretary.… The arrangement lasted five years, during which the boat went three times around the Continent.”
Tuolomee may be a fictional name, but the boat she was based on was real: Ventura, an 18.5-metre cutter-rigged sloop designed by Nathanael Herreshoff and so splendid she now has national landmark status in the US. Fitzgerald once went aboard as a guest of its original owner, George F Baker, the co-founder of the First National Bank of the City of New York (now Citibank) and whom Time magazine once described as “twice as rich as JP Morgan”.
Indeed, the literary pantheon is packed with books in which boats play incidental yet critical roles in delineating character or advancing narrative, as well as just plain scene setting – for what better metaphor exists for discovery?
The ne plus ultra of books about this is probably Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, originally published in 1839. It’s an account of the five years (1831-36) he spent as a naturalist on HMS Beagle, on a voyage to survey the coastal waters around South America. Conscious that even with a crew of 74, a commander’s position could be a lonely one, Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who was just 26 when they set sail, had hoped to recruit a naturalist who might also become a friend. Darwin, then 22, was a friend of a friend and accepted the invitation with alacrity. “The scheme is a most magnificent one,” he wrote the month before he sailed. “We spend about two years in South America, the rest of time larking round the world.” (It also took him to Tahiti, Australasia and back across the Indian Ocean.)
Had he not made the journey, and found the finches in the Galápagos, his theories of transmutation might never have been formulated. It’s a fascinating, unexpectedly gripping read, though it is more about what he finds on land than how it feels to be at sea.
For entertainment value, a real sense of swell and a more controversial take on the whole Darwin enterprise, try Harry Thompson’s epic fictionalised retelling of the voyage, This Thing of Darkness (2005), a novel also likely to appeal to fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander series. Published between 1969 and 2004, O’Brian’s 21 novels (the last unfinished) are set during the Napoleonic wars, and they recount the friendship of Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy officer who ascends from lieutenant to rear admiral, and Stephen Maturin, a surgeon (and an amateur naturalist with more than a little in common with Darwin) as they serve on a succession of sloops-of-war, frigates and the type of warship known as ships of the line.
William Golding also made use of one of these, “transformed into a travelling store-ship and passenger conveyance” as the setting for Rites of Passage (1980), the first of his great trilogy, which takes place as it plies its way from “the south of Old England to the Antipodes… through the geometry of all four seasons”.
When it comes to the minutiae of life aboard, Golding, who served in the Navy during the Second World War, is writing from experience: the routine, the closed society and, most evocatively, the relentless movement. Even in the doldrums, nothing stays still for long. “We are motionless,” he writes, “the sea is polished… Now and then some sea creature will shatter the surface and the silence by leaping through it. Yet even when nothing leaps there is a constant shuddering, random twitching and vibrations… as if the water were not only the home and haunt of all sea creatures but the skin of a living thing, a creature vaster than Leviathan.”
He’s not the only novelist to draw on his own experiences at sea. Herman Melville, too, made use of his time as a sailor, first on a merchant ship, then on the whaler Acushnet, which became the basis not just for Moby-Dick (1851), but for the five maritime novels he wrote first. Typee and Omoo, for instance, drew on his time in the Marquesas Islands, where he jumped ship.
Ernest Hemingway was another keen sailor, having acquired the 12-metre cabin cruiser Pilar, itself the subject of a New York Times bestseller by Paul Hendrickson titled Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (2011). As Hendrickson writes in his introduction, Hemingway “had dreamed new books on this boat” (The Old Man and the Sea being the obvious example). “He’d taught his sons to reel in something that feels like Moby-Dick on this boat. He’d accidentally shot himself in both legs… He’d fallen drunk from the flying bridge… He’d written achy, generous uplifting, poetic letters… He’d propositioned women… He’d hunted German subs… He’d saved guests and family members from a shark attack.” Pilar, he writes, “lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize and all his ruin. She’d been intimately his, and he hers.”
If today’s novelists spend less time on the water, that doesn’t stop them writing about boats, for how better to indicate wealth, to signify a certain milieu, than to bring in a superyacht. Take Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, the best and most entertaining new novel of 2018, at least in my opinion. Ingeniously plotted, uproariously funny and poignant, it’s the tale of the status-obsessed principal of a Manhattan hedge fund who flees New York just as his fund (named This Side of Capital, in a nod to F Scott Fitzgerald) is about to blow up. Of course, there’s a boat in it. Indeed, its denouement hinges on a video made on a yacht off the coast of Sardinia.
Joseph O’Neill also describes life on a yacht in his 2013 novel The Dog (another treat!), the Dubai-set story of a New York attorney (and accomplished scuba diver) hired to run the Emirates-based family office and foundation of a man “who’d transformed… a venerable if smallish shipping agency into a vast international concern”. Unreliably narrated in the first person, its unnamed anti-hero’s “one function… is to make sure nobody steals” from them.
Or so the paterfamilias instructs him when he joins Giselle on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast as she makes her “annual odyssey from Beirut to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat”. His time aboard lasts no more than a few pages, but its excesses are perceptively observed and finely detailed, from the owner’s “gratuitous domestic nudity”, a habit, the narrator notes, “prevalent among the rich and famous as a kind of very authoritative informality”, to the crew’s immaculate monogrammed uniforms.
In one vignette, three Italian deckhands swim ashore in a picturesque bay, where the boat has anchored. “Giancarlo turned towards us and waved. He gestured at a black goat, and Georges gave him a double thumbs up.” The animal is swiftly dispatched, its carcass returned to the yacht. “‘You see?’ he said to me. ‘This is the quality of these men.’” But the exercise is not just for entertainment. It is also dinner. The liver, which the chef presents raw with a squeeze of lemon, is served first.
Yachts have always been emblematic of high adventure. No wonder they make the perfect settings for maritime thrillers, there being no earlier nor finer example than Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the quintessential ripping yarn.
Carruthers (we never learn his first name) is “a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, and has a safe, possibly a brilliant future in the Foreign Office”. He is languishing in London one summer when he receives a letter from one Arthur Davies he’d known at Oxford inviting him for “a little yachting” in the Schleswig fjords of the Baltic. When he joins it, the yacht, the Dulcibella, is not the comfortable crewed vessel he is expecting. “She seemed very small,” he notes. But this is no ordinary holiday.
Davies recounts how he was almost wrecked by the altogether grander Medusa, which has stewards and a crew, guests who dress for dinner, a “gorgeous saloon, plush lounges, silk cushions, that sort of thing”. And a German ensign. In a series of high-octane adventures among the Frisian Islands, they uncover a plot to invade England.
It’s an astonishingly prescient plot given that the novel was published in 1903, not to mention a vivid account, practically a manual, of how to sail in these waters. (The text is prefaced by four British and German admiralty charts.) Like the novel’s author, Davies is an expert sailor. Carruthers, though, has to learn to “tame” the ropes, and struggles with “the fidgeting ripple in the luff of the mainsail, and the distant rattle from the hungry jib – signs that they are starved of wind; the heavy list and wallow of the hull, the feel of the wind on your cheek instead of your nose, the broader angle of the burgee at the masthead – signs that they have too much.” You can practically taste the salt and feel the cold spray. Indeed, doubts about the weather notwithstanding, it makes quite a case for exploring the waters of northern Europe.