Hell Around the Horn, by Rick Spilman. Old Salt Press, 251 pages, soft cover ($10.99), ebook ($2.99).
In the midst of reading Rick Spilman’s fine first novel, Hell Around the Horn, I learned that the replica tall ship HMS Bounty was lost on October 29 in Hurricane Sandy, along with two of her crew. As I read the terror-filled scenes of the fictional ship Lady Rebecca struggling against the storms of Cape Horn, I considered whether the thoughts of Captain James Barker mirrored those of HMS Bounty’s master, Robin Walbridge. Barker lives the ideal of perseverance, that given enough luck, courage, and raw will, a person, or a ship, can survive anything. If Walbridge believed in the same things, something in the equation went terribly wrong for him and his ship.
Spilman, a naval architect by training and blogger by vocation, constructs his imaginary world out of a short period of maritime history lasting from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. At the peak of this period, around 1900, as many as 5,000 large sailing cargo ships, called “windjammers,” carried on the trans-ocean trade now dominated by bulk carriers, container ships, and oil tankers. Spilman picks out one year, 1905, and a dangerous winter passage around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Using period logs from a real windjammer and memoirs of a real Captain Barker and others, Spilman brings to life a time which otherwise would have remained hidden in a library archive or someone’s attic.
Spilman’s narrative is crisp and well-paced, and his knowledge of life at sea and the complex operation of a tall ship is expert. But Hell Around the Horn’s characters teeter on the edge of sea story stereotype: the doughty captain, the mutinous mate, the adventurous young sailor out to see the world, the superstitious crewman always predicting doom, and so on. We’ve seen these people before. As good as it is as a historical novel, Hell Around the Horn might have been far better if the author focused on how circumstances change the characters’ relationships to each other, and how they live with the transformation, rather than just live through a Cape Horn blow.
Nonetheless, the storm scenes, particularly one involving a so-called “rogue wave,” forced me to reflect on what might have gone through the mind of Captain Walbridge on the HMS Bounty as he struggled to cope with the unexpected and unthinkable. We’ll never know what he really thought, because Walbridge is presumed dead. But it’s possible he may have wondered whether he made the right choices, just as Captain Barker does in Hell Around the Horn. The difference is a happy ending versus a tragic one.