Tall Ship Picton Castle

Sail the world with the tall ship Picton Castle

Hell Around the Horn

Hell Around the Horn, by Rick Spilman. Old Salt Press, 251 pages, soft cover ($10.99), ebook ($2.99).

Hell Around the Horn coverIn 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.

Tall Ship Book Worshipful

America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, J. Dennis Robinson. Lynx Educational Foundation, 184 pages, with 190 color photos, paintings and maps, oversize hardcover, $34.95.

America's Privateer coverOne of the great things about tall ships is that you can’t go wrong with a good picture. Virtually all large sailing vessels are photogenic to a fault, particularly when all the sails are run out, and the boat is almost sliding across the water. Lynx is no exception. The new coffee-table book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, published by the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Lynx Educational Foundation, takes maximum advantage of this camera-loving vessel, while author J. Dennis Robinson engages the reader with an interesting, if sometimes over-the-top story.

Launched in 2001, Lynx is a replica of type of highly-maneuverable topsail schooner with distinctive raking masts and a unique purpose: prey on British merchant vessels and warships on behalf of the U.S. government. The modern Lynx was inspired by a similar ship of the same name built near Baltimore during the War of 1812, and although her career lasted less than a year, her story, particularly her design, inspired maritime historian Howard Chapelle, which included a drawing of her in his landmark book, The Search for Speed Under Sail. Businessman and history buff Woodson K. Woods saw the drawing and decided he wanted a boat just like it.

The original Lynx sailed with a “letter of marque,” a license to attack enemy ships. During the War of 1812, the U.S. issued these licenses—a common practice among nations at the time—to expand the number of ships that could engage a powerful adversary, in this case, the Royal Navy. Investors would build a ship specifically designed for “privateering” in hopes of taking cargo or ships and selling them for a huge profit. Although patriotism certainly played a role in these “cruizes of opportunity,” a single prize could make a man (the investors at least) rich. Robinson makes a convincing case that privateers are an under-appreciated aspect of the War of 1812. But that doesn’t make the investors, captains, and crews admirable people. Privateers weren’t pirates, in the sense that they operated within the law. But their methods and ultimate motivation were hardly much different.

Woods’ much nobler motivation for building the modern Lynx was educational; he envisioned a platform on which young people could discover the nation’s maritime history, specifically the history of the War of 1812. He asked designer Melbourne Smith, who also designed the brig Niagara and the schooner Californian, to create Lynx. Robinson takes great pains to show how Lynx was constructed by amazing craftsmen and women at Rockport Marine in Rockport, Maine. The story of towing the 99-ton Lynx across a bridge to its launch site is harrowing. And Robinson manages to reveal a little bit of Woods’ character, beyond his love of country. “[Woods] ‘blessed’ the project by tying red bunting in every corner of the boat shop to ward off witches and evil spirits,” Robinson writes.

A prolific writer of local history and editor of SeacoastNH.com, Robinson sometimes falls in the trap of many maritime writers: too much “salty talk” and an almost hagiographic treatment of life on the water. Although I have never gone to sea, it’s clear enough to me that even in the 21st century, it’s a dangerous, unpredictable, and sometimes ruinous way to make a living. That was certainly the case for the original Lynx. But America’s Privateer is valuable because its gorgeous layout, stunning imagery (some photos by Woods), and intelligent description of the historic and modern Lynx are sure to spark conversations wherever it’s found.

Comic Artist Lucy Bellwood

When the subject of “unusual jobs” comes up, tall ship sailor should definitely make the list. So should “comic book artist.” It’s truly amazing when one person combines both, and that’s what Lucy Bellwood of Portland, Ore., has done. As a citizen in the U.S. and Great Britain, she styles herself at “America’s one and only dual citizen tall ship-sailing cartoonist.” She’s the author of two volumes of a comic called “Baggywrinkles,” and she’s an experienced hand on the tall ship Lady Washington. She took some time to answer a few questions from me.

Bellwood PanelHow did you get interested in tall ships? When I was in high school in the southern California town of Ojai, I’d often dreamed of a practical way of going to sea. One day, I ran across a list of working replicas, and learned that many of them offered volunteer programs. Then I discovered that the brig Lady Washington would visit Ventura and I booked spots for a sail.

Lucy BellwoodI can’t really do justice to the excitement and exhilaration I experienced during those first three hours on board. Mostly I was fascinated by the crew — their easy camaraderie, boundless enthusiasm, and dedicated competence were inspiring, to say the least. I hadn’t a nautical bone in my body, but I’d always loved the feeling of working with others to create something bigger than the sum of its parts.

A few months later, I completed a two-week volunteer stint on Lady Washington. I was petrified, but I was also utterly aflame with the thrill of actually doing this thing I’d spent so much time reading about in books and seeing on screen. I returned twice for a stint in the San Juan Islands in Washington state (heavenly) and a vomit-filled transit from Aberdeen, Wash., to San Francisco. Later, after I returned from an eight-month trip outside the country, I signed on Lady Washington again. I suppose there’s no hope for me now.

How did you get interested in comics as an artist? Rather like sailing, comics were a late-blooming passion for me. I grew up exceedingly passionate about drawing and writing, but didn’t quite realize that I could put the two together until I entered college. After spending some time at Reed College, I took a summer course at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.

The five days I spent there were staggeringly inspirational, life-changing to the same degree that my first trip aboard the Lady Washington had been. The 35 workshop participants ate, slept, and breathed comics the entire course. My goal was to create an eight-page story, but I arrived with no clue as to what it would be about. I began doodling a mast and a few sails, and realized that the story of my first experiences on a tall ship would be excellent fodder for a small comic.

I was utterly unschooled in the ways of comics, and I hadn’t grown up reading much beyond Calvin and Hobbes, but the medium felt natural to me. Exhausted but exhilarated, I barely dragged myself into the studio on the last day with my finished eight pages, but I’d done it and, just like sailing, I wasn’t looking back. Pretty soon, I’d created and published the two volumes of Baggywrinkles with the help of Portland’s Independent Publishing Resources Center.

How do the worlds of tall ships and comics intersect? Comics are often a rather solitary affair, while you don’t get more communal that tall ship sailing. They’re also both extremely labor intensive. I’m deeply passionate about both, and I want to communicate that passion to others. The best part of writing and drawing about tall ship sailing is that I know it from direct experience. There are plenty of adventure stories out there which paint tall ship sailing as this romantic, bygone profession, but when you read a comic by someone who’s actually done it, reading the comic becomes an entirely different experience.

Who is the audience for your comics? I’ve certainly had an inspiring amount of support from fellow sailors, but I’m also interested in making the series accessible to non-mariners as well. Now that the Historical Seaport (which owns Lady Washington) is carrying them in the ships’ stores, I’m also paying greater attention to the content and language. Oddly enough, there aren’t as many great comics for kids as people seem to think, particularly educational comics. I’ve had local librarians come up to me at conventions and buy Baggywrinkles in bulk the minute they hear that they’re age-appropriate AND educational. It seems to be a rare combination. I would just love to make sail training comics for tall ship organizations. The challenge there, of course, is that the general public may not need such specific information.

Bellwood Panel 2What kinds of comics do you like to read? My tastes in comics are pretty eclectic. I’ve never really been one for mainstream superhero series, but I love the world of independent comics. Currently my favorite creators include Craig Thompson, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, Cyril Pedrosa, and Jen Wang. For nautical comics, I recommend Drew Wieting’s “Set to Sea,” and Kevin Cannon’s “Far Arden.”

Any comic projects on the drawing board? As it stands I am long overdue to start a new issue of Baggywrinkles. My goal is make upcoming issues much longer, blending autobiographical stories from my time tall ship sailing with educational snippets on sailing lore. I’m also drawing my first full-length graphic novel/memoir about growing up as a dual US/UK citizen, completing a written thesis on comics theory, and drawing a 30-page story about creativity, genius, and fear. Baggywrinkes was where it all started, though, so I can’t see myself letting it go neglected for too long. Just keep your eyes peeled and I’m sure new material will crop up soon enough.

Lucy Bellwood’s comics are available through her website, the online store of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, and retailers in Ojai, Calif.