Not whingeing or drowning: women writers on board by Julia Jones

Grand-daughter Hetty
writes up her log on PD
I have a new dream job. Yachting Monthly, a magazine I’ve known all my life, has asked me to contribute monthly book reviews. They’re very short, more like notices really but the reading is so good for the brain – or did I mean soul? This summer I’ve managed no more than a few snatched hours on the water -- Peter Duck has only left the Deben once (that’s not counting the time darling-son Bertie ran her on the bar on the EBB … my blood chills as I think of it…)  and, while she pretends she’s been reasonably contented on mother-ship duties, it’s not the same as setting out to sea. I’m promising her (as ever) that next season will be different (last year I wrote a pledge to that effect which I left in her cabin through the winter) but, until then, I’ve a stash of YM books and am going to make the most of vicarious adventure.  I'll read on board. Arthur Ransome used Racundra as his floating office to extend his sailing season in1924 so I can at least quote precedent.

I’ll recommend Paul Heiney’s Pilot Guide
to Cape Horn and Antarctic Waters. Awe-inspiring detailed knowledge contributed by sailors in whose wake PD and I will never follow, together with fragments of history, geology, politics, insight into the natural world and practical seamanship. Plus photos. It was one of my first review choices. Briefly I felt embarrassed by the fact that I have absolutely no intention of venturing into the Southern Ocean then I remembered all the gardening books I used to sell from my bookshop to people were unlikely ever to plant those glorious woodland vistas in their small town garden but enjoyed imagining they might. I could get hooked on pilot guides. They’re so specific and factual –such a spur to the imagination. I watch Blue Planet2 on TV with the ooh-ah factor every Sunday and forget it at once but give me a book that deals with the detail of mooring to rock or highlights a particular cove where you might be glad to find shelter if you need to do some underwater work on your vessel, then I’m there (in my dreams) knocking picks into the crevices and running lines out from all four quarters to secure against the williwaws.

The previous regular review contributor had died: YM was short staffed and books had been stacking up. I received a generous boxful with instructions to aim for variety – mix pilot guides with novels, cruising tales with how-to manuals, history with humour. As far as genres are concerned there’s a rich choice – my first page will review a book about madness at sea + a pocket guide to cloud formations + the Cape Horn pilot guide.  The second, post traumatic war veterans on a British Isle circumnavigation + a step by step aid to diagnosing diesel engine problems + a scholarly History of Yachting from the Restoration to the present day. Next,  an exposé of America’s Cup shenanigans + a collection of Pooteresque comic sketches + a meandering exploration of redundant industrial archaeology on the lower reaches of the Thames.  

More packages followed as publicists were told I was now the send-to person. Within a week I had  thirty-odd books on my shelf – yet only two were by women (and neither of those quickened my reviewer’s pulses). This % is not unfamiliar. Earlier this year I began to assist with the YM “Book at Bunktime” feature – another infinitely desirable task: select a yachting classic, put it in context, offer a smidgen of biographical research, choose an extract –share and enjoy. I checked the list of forty three titles already featured; three by women. I made a private vow to improve on this (it was not unlike leaving that note in PD’s cabin). Recently YM readers will have enjoyed (I hope) Lallie in E Arnot Robertson’s Ordinary Families (1933) winning a dinghy race in gusty conditions while keeping her feet out of the water because it was the first day of her period and currently (December issue) the indomitable Cecily Gould (aged 13) and her sister Bess (15) dragging their father’s 15 ton yacht Gossip through the Gota Canal with utter cheerfulness.  “The girls and I will manage.”

Male achievements will continue to be honoured in the YM book pages. I hope we’ll celebrate Christmas in the company of Robin Knox Johnston as he approaches Cape Horn on his winning non-stop circumnavigation in 1968-9 but then perhaps it won’t be too long afterwards that we revisit the only female-authored title of the forty eight in the iconic Mariners Library series -- Elizabeth Linklater’s A Child Under Sail (1938).  Born in 1868, daughter of a master mariner, she made her first passage on her father’s ship when she was four years old, crossing the Atlantic with a cargo of chalk from Grays in Essex to Boston, Massachusetts.  There was little chance of her father involving her in the running of his merchant ship in the way that Cecily Gould’s father made yachtswomen from his daughters. “Women on board a merchant vessel were there on sufferance”. Yet her voice is well worth hearing as she too rounds the Horn.

 After two days running we actually were pooped. An enormous sea came over the stern and filled the ship fore and aft. In spite of all the precautions that had been taken, the water ran down the companion stairs, the passages were full, so were my room and the starboard after cabin. I put on my rubber boots and helped the steward to bale the water out of the saloon and spare room. The water had got in from the main deck through the sail-locker. Everything that had been left on the floors was floating about and our trunks were standing in water. We had to unlash them, put pieces of wood under them and relash them in readiness for another inundation.
How can one describe the feelings of women battened down in a ship's cabin in circumstances such as these? I don’t mean the water coming into the cabins – that was a diversion that relieved the tension after the first shock was over – but the awful suspense until we knew that the three men on the poop – the captain, the officer on watch and the man at the wheel had not be swept away by the terrific force of the incoming wave.”

How indeed … if such books by female authors do not find their place in every reviewer’s box load? I sent an email to some of the publicists mentioning my interest in any good sailing titles written by women. Another package soon arrived: Sail Away by Celia Imrie (forthcoming 2018) – two women evading their domestic and career problems as passengers on a transatlantic cruise liner. It wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind.

With thanks to Claudia Myatt for permission to use some of the cartoons she contributes monthly to YM's sister magazine, Practical Boat Owner.


Jan Needle said…
What a wonderful piece, Julia. One question though, as a man albeit with a girl's name - why do you have to keep your feet out of water on the first day of a period? (By you, I mean one, of course.)
Bill Kirton said…
Like Jan, I loved reading this, Julia. Not having sailed for a couple of years now, I grab any chance I can to do so vicariously. However, even though I've devoured books about sailing for longer than I can remember, I'm too much of a coward ever to have contemplated rounding the Horn. I prefer memories of being stuck overnight on a sandbank in the Moray Firth ten or more years ago, glugging a beer and watching the Northern Lights. A favourite book is still NIcholas Tomalin's 'The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst'. I've read it several times and it still fascinates me. Thanks for starting my day with thoughts of sail trimming, splicing, and the many other ways of messing around in boats. And congratulations on the 'new dream job'.
John Benford said…
Julia - "... female-authored title of the forty eight in the iconic Mariners Library series - Elizabeth Linklater’s A Child Under Sail (1938).". What about Ann Davison's "Last Voyage" (and also "My Ship is so Small")?
julia jones said…
Dear John - Ann Davison not on the Mariners Library list that I was working from but very happy to have recommednatuion and will certainly follow up. THANK YOU.

Dear Jan -- regret I cannot enlighten you as to 1930s conventions re first day of "the Curse". Casting my mind back to the aeon when that was still a problem for me I remember it only as a good excuse to be "off Games". Hope this helps (that's me in counselling mode...)

Dear Bill - thanks. Asa always you get the point entirely -- am off to bed with h w bottle & David Hemplemann Adams - mmmmmmmmmmmmm!

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