The Way of a Ship


The Way of a Ship
A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail
By Derek Lundy
Review by Steve Fisher

I was in the publishing business for twenty years, and I was always suspicious of jacket blurbs, but this was the first one I found completely misleading. This was to be an account of the author’s ancestor aboard the Beara Head, a steel hulled 4 masted barque. The author makes it perfectly clear in his prologue that information about his ancestors sailing days was sparse at best and that this would be a work of “fiction.” Having said the above, I must say that this is a wonderful read despite the fact that the blurb writer never even read the first chapter.

Information about the author’s ancestor was so sparse that he could not even identify the ship Benjamin Lundy sailed on, and to that end the author created a ship that would have sailed in 1885. The Beara Head, was a typical 4 masted barque of the period carrying a bulk load of coal from England to Chile. Coal, because it was a bulk commodity, enabled sail to continue to compete with steam. Lundy graphically describes life aboard one of these ships including all the hardships the common seaman would experience from horrible food to undermanning. But it was exactly these frugalities that enabled sail to last into the early 20th century. What I found particularly interesting was learning that coal was a very dangerous cargo because under certain conditions it would spontaneously combust. Which happened on this fictional voyage, necessitating digging by hand in the holds while underway, to find the source of the fire.

Throughout the book, the author alternates chapters on the trip with interesting chapters about the history of sail and steam. Of particular interest to me were the frequent references to the works of Melville, Dana and especially Joseph Conrad, who was both a seaman and officer in this time period.

I truly enjoyed the read and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period when steel hulled sail ruled the seas. It made me want to read more of the works of Joseph Conrad, something I’ll no doubt have time for with the end of the building season upon us here in the Northeast.