How Patrick O’Brian Captured the Allure of Seagoing Life

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The HMS Surprise (left), which starred in 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation of O’Brian’s novel, Master and Commander (inset)

The HMS Surprise (left), which starred in 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation of O’Brian’s novel, Master and Commander (inset)

Ever read those Patrick O’Brian books with Jack Aubrey and his doctor companion, Stephen Maturin? I have, and I think they’re great. My day job is as a professor with a Ph.D. in literature, so I am supposed to dismiss such works as Master and Commander or Desolation Island as light entertainment. But I am also a sailor, and the depictions of nature, the portraits of characters afloat and the excitement of choices made under pressure never fail to gather my applause. Sure, there’s naval warfare and swordfighting. But mostly there’s the steady pull of sails, and the entertaining collision of personalities.

Now I am no Jack Aubrey, nor was I meant to be. Aubrey is a nautical prodigy, seaborne from childhood and with a head for both heights and navigation. The contrast borders on comedy. As I read on the settee of my Beneteau First 42, my starboard water tank drips into the bilge beneath me, despite my concerted efforts to fix it. Meanwhile, Jack Aubrey is shipping a new rudder with whatever his crew can scrounge together from among the ship’s spares. Off Cape Elizabeth, I’m pinching to make a buoy we will probably end up tacking for. Meanwhile, on my nightstand the dear old frigate Surprise is executing a daring maneuver by running a spring line from her larboard cathead to a towed prize.

Luckily, we readers also have Stephen Maturin, who may know plenty of languages, but can’t tell port from starboard. He entertains with a contrast between vast erudition and stumbles aboard (and overboard!). In Jack Aubrey, cruising sailors have the Age of Sail’s most talented mariner; in Stephen Maturin they have that same age’s most absent-minded but philosophical observer. Combining these two we are blessed with the perfect pair of shipmates.

Paul Bettany (left) as Stephen Maturin and Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in the film Master and Commander

Paul Bettany (left) as Stephen Maturin and Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in the film Master and Commander

That said, I think it’s more than just the winning characters that puts Patrick O’Brian in so many saloons. Humor and adventure drive good stories, while O’Brian’s many dry, inside jokes emphasize each character and keep us reading as well. Of the lives of the sailors under his command, Jack says, “They have chosen their cake, and they must lie on it.”

Stephen responds, “You mean they cannot have their bed and eat it.”

In other places it’s the unlikely phrase that grabs us. “Jack, you have debauched my sloth,” Stephen says, or jesting at shipboard terminology: “Do this, do that, gluppit the prawling strangles there.” When you see someone paging through one of these novels, it’s often with a smile. The sun is just rubbing its back on the window panes of Christmas Cove as we motor seaward through the mooring field. On a nearby sloop a woman is having coffee aft, and as we pass, I see she holds the unmistakable cover of a Patrick O’Brian book. I call out, “Jack Aubrey wins in the end!” and we share a laugh, glad to be afloat.

Sailors keep coming back to the Aubrey/Maturin novels because they dramatize a vigorous life, a way of existing in both nature and a well-ordered society. The sea is a place of both clarity and decisiveness for O’Brian, while the terrestrial world is the source of ill humors and wretched con men. Stephen observes more than once that common colds and petty complaints recede with the shore, and that sailors at sea present a “cheerful resilience; a competent readiness; an open conversability; a certain candour.”

Those who go down to the sea in ships are also drawn by an incredible integration with nature. “The taut rigging sang with a greater urgency,” O’Brian writes. “The sound of the water racing along her side mounted to a diffused roar; the complex orchestra of cordage, wood under stress, moving sea and wind, all-pervading sound, exalting to the seaborne ear.”

Concrete, goal-oriented action abound in Jack Aubrey’s watery world

Concrete, goal-oriented action abound in Jack Aubrey’s watery world

Nature’s sublime aspects are captured repeatedly in these pages, with whales and birds and especially the daily round of beauty that blesses us afloat: “Suddenly the whole of the east was day: the sun lit the sky to the zenith and for a moment the night could be seen over the starboard bow, fleeting away toward America. Mars, setting a handsbreath above the western rim, went out abruptly; the entire bowl of the sky grew brilliant and the dark sea returned to its daily blue, deep blue.”

Not only that, but two hundred years on, we can still live the wildest scenes. Off Mohegan, I hear a whale breathe in a calm. My wife comes on deck, and we hear the breath again, closer now. Next we see shining black flukes and realize a mature humpback is going to cross us. Wonders of the deep! Twice more there’s the rush and heave of a parting sea, until he rises to rock our very dinghy, just yards astern, all barnacles and weeds and beautiful power, a creature, a fellow. Stephen Maturin could not have been more rapt, more transported, than we.

Perhaps less admirably, we also read of men who are monarchs of all they survey, their clear authority over loyal crew an antidote to the lives we live. O’Brian gives us a hierarchy of merit where the captain’s authority is unquestioned and his crew’s loyalty is validated again and again in shared triumph. Jack warns, “You’ve come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother,” and so says each of us at the helm when our brother-in-law suggests a course correction, our daughter’s boyfriend scratches the gelcoat. More lash and less debate for all of you!

Finally, in these books, we sailors find engaging characters involved in pursuing direct and meaningful goals. Hegel called the sea “Flux, danger and destruction.” But O’Brian’s mariners respond with craft—craft in the sense of hands-on manipulation of physical tools. Their decisions have demonstrable consequences: “He concentrated all of his powers on the exact trim of sails and braces and presently the ship began to speak: her cutwater split a distinct bow-wave and innumerable small bubbles ran down her side.” We all know that feeling, and I don’t have to be Lord Nelson to make direct results my favorite thing in sailing, in stark contrast to so much of our specialized world where we labor amidst ephemeral technologies and planetary forces. On Nellie, I celebrate the relation between an action—shaking a reef out of the main—and the result: more power into the rig. Compare this to your smart phone’s intermittent bluetooth connectivity, or your workplace abstractions of “team-building” and “core competencies.”

Patrick O’Brian wrote over a score Aubrey-Maturin novels in all

Patrick O’Brian wrote over a score Aubrey-Maturin novels in all

Ultimately, the appeal of the Aubrey/Maturin series lies in the way these books draw us out of modernity’s virtual relations and abstract goals and into a parallel world of direct actors and tangible outcomes. Many of us long for this kind of concreteness, especially if it can be in careers not boarding hostile French frigates. Instead, though, we walk our daily round of virtual presences and broad abstractions whose consequences are dispersed across an institution. If I’ve made this sound abstruse, here is a clarifying image: look around any marina and you’ll see a 60-year-old professional happily scrubbing the bilge or whipping a line. The satisfactions of craft are here on display, just as they are written in the Aubrey/Maturin novels.

In conclusion, far from criticizing these novels, I celebrate them for the leisure sailor. Among Wednesday night racers, Jack Aubrey is the ideal of the self in motion, as one might watch Lebron James after playing pickup basketball at the Y. Similarly, for the cruising sailor, the bluewater passages in HMS Surprise or The Letter of Marque simultaneously inspire passage-making dreams and project order into lives ashore. So I expect I’ll keep seeing those familiar paperbacks, and I know their readers will be chasing privateers or catching the trades while they prepare their own boats for new harbors. 

Jeffrey McCarthy is an environmental-studies professor at the University of Utah. He keeps his Beneteau First 42, Nellie, on the East Coast and sails her every chance he gets

February 2018

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