What can you tell us about Hell Around the Horn without spoiling the plot for readers?
In 1905, a young ship's captain and his family set sail on the windjammer, Lady Rebecca, from Cardiff, Wales with a cargo of coal bound for Chile, by way of Cape Horn. Before they reach the Southern Ocean, the cargo catches fire, the mate threatens mutiny and one of the crew may be going mad. The greatest challenge, however, will be surviving the vicious westerly winds and mountainous seas of the worst Cape Horn winter in memory. Told from the perspective of the captain, his wife, a first year apprentice and an American sailor before the mast, Hell Around the Horn is a story of survival and the human spirit in the last days of the great age of sail.
The book is set in 1905 when ships have been battling the Horn for many years. What made you set the book in this period?
I wanted to write about the era of the windjammers. These ships were specifically designed to sail in the Southern Ocean around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.
The last days of commercial sail are a fascinating and often overlooked time. By the turn of the 20th century, there were still 4,000 to 5,000 medium-sized to large sailing ships carrying cargo around the globe. At any one time, 400 -500 of these were rounding Cape Horn.
Sailing ships could no longer compete with steam ships for high value cargoes, so they shifted to carrying bulk cargoes on the long windier passages where steam ships weren't competitive. These ships would become known as "windjammers." They were often built of iron or steel and were among the largest cargo ships of their day.
Despite their size they were usually sailed with very small crews. For example, the famous clipper ship, Sovereign of the Seas, from 1852, was 50 feet shorter than the Lady Rebecca. The clipper ship could carry only half as much cargo by weight as the windjammer, yet had a crew of 80 able seaman, while the Lady Rebecca sailed with only 20.
The windjammers were massive and magnificent ships, yet could also be brutal for their crews. With apologies to Dickens, they were, indeed, the best of ships and the worst of ships.
How did you undertake your research?
I had been doing a lot of reading of accounts of voyages on square-riggers in the 1850s through the first decades of the 20th century, when I came across a memoir by Captain James Barker that described a very difficult Cape Horn voyage in 1905. I then happened across a second memoir by Captain William Jones, who had been a first-voyage apprentice on the same voyage, on the same ship. Somewhat later, I came across War with Cape Horn, a book by Alan Villiers, which focused on the Cape Horn winter of 1905 and spends considerable time discussing the same voyage on Captain Barker's ship. I subsequently visited the National Archives in Kew Gardens and came across the Official Log for the voyage in 1905.
Unlike most voyages of the period, where the records had been lost or discarded, the voyage that inspired Hell Around the Horn was quite well documented.
How important is historical accuracy to your story?
Getting the history and the details right is very important to me. Unless I understand as a writer what is going on, I don't think that I can communicate the story to the readers. I have sailed on square-rigged ships so I know what it was like to go aloft to tend sails or stand a watch at the wheel. I have also learned as much as possible about the rigging, the sailing routes and the life aboard ship from reading contemporary accounts of voyages on these ships. In writing the novel, I have kept most of these details to myself, but I hope that I provide just enough of the right details to communicate the time, place and the sense of what my characters are experiencing.
In another sense, what I loved about writing this novel was the reminder that history itself is only a story told by someone with a particular perspective at a particular time. History is really just a sea story.
The three primary sources that I used in writing the book each disagreed with each other in significant details. The Official Log, written by Captain Barker in 1905, disagrees with the memoir written by Captain Barker in 1933 and they both differ with the memoir written by Captain Jones in 1955. It is clear that they are describing the same voyage, but the names of sailors and officers, important events and even the number of sailors who died during the voyage, are different between the three accounts. It seemed a perfect invitation to write a novel about the voyage, merging the three accounts as well as reflecting commentary by Villers and others who have written about the voyage.
What fascinates you about the Age of Sail?
I have spent most of my life around ships and the sea. I worked as a naval architect, which is to say, a ship designer, for various shipping companies, for several decades. While I am very fond of motor and steam ships, there is something almost magical about a sailing ship. The captain of a sailing ship needs to have a very different relationship with the wind and the sea than a captain of a motor ship. A steam ship captain seeks calms whereas a sailing ship captain looks for wind. The winds and seas that can destroy a sailing ship are also the forces that a captain harnesses to make fast and profitable passages.
These days the word "sustainability" is becoming popular. The reason that the "age of sail" lasted as long as it did, well into the 20th century, was because the sailing ships were highly "sustainable." Unlike the steamships which sailed from coaling station to coaling station, the great windjammers needed only the winds and the muscles of their crews to keep them sailing.
The "Age of Sail" began sometime before recorded history and lasted into the last century. Even now, there are still dozens of square-rigged ships sailing the oceans. The "Age of Sail" may not yet be over. It may well be that with the increasing cost of fossil fuels that we may again see mighty windjammers sailing the longer and windier passages around the world. Time will tell.
Where did your interest in the sea originate?
Strangely enough, my first memory of being fascinated by the sea was hundreds of miles inland. I lived in North Texas and recall watching the wind blow over rolling grassland. The long grass moved, in what seemed to me then, to be like great waves upon an ocean, stretching out as far the eye could see.
When I was in high school my family moved to a community in Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. With money I earned working in a local marina, I bought a small runabout and puttered along the coast quite a bit.
I also stumbled on a book in the high school library. It was Björn Landström's "The Ship" which, with lots of wonderful illustrations, told the story of the development of ships from early man paddling on a log, to nuclear submarines. It got me interested in both the design of ships and the history of shipping. In many respects that single book changed my life. I became a ship designer and now a novelist who writes about ships and the sea. I can't say that it was all due to Landström's book, but it certainly played a role.
Do you have any other writing projects in the pipeline?
I am currently working on a novel set in the 1870s called "The Shantyman." Based on several true stories woven together, it is the tale of a shantyman who saves his ship and its crew but may not be able to save himself.
I am also about to send off to my editor, "Evening Grey, Morning Red," a novel in which a young ship's captain must face down the Royal Navy just prior to the the American Revolution.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I would just like to thank the readers of Hell Around the Horn. I am extremely gratified by the response to the novel and appreciate all the comments and feedback.
Hell Around the Horn is published by Old Salt Press