Here in Newport Harbor, we await the ebb tide, and with an hour to spare, I pick up a book by Joseph Conrad. He was a sailor long before he was a writer, and this matters because the one informs the other. Yes, Conrad wrote about much more than the sea, but all his work is suffused with themes and insights sailors embrace to this day. On the page before me, for example, he says, “Both men and ships live in an unstable element, are subject to subtle and powerful influences, and want to have their merits understood rather than their faults found out,” words I can very much relate to as we sit here at anchor.
In books like Typhoon, Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Conrad looks at the water and the sailors who make their lives upon it to illuminate grand truths about such things as work, fidelity and industrial modernity. These are weighty topics, and I won’t preach about them here. What I do want, though, is to share my sailor’s enthusiasm for writing that speaks especially clearly afloat.
I’m lucky enough to be afloat this fine morning on a 42ft sloop that’s just taken us to Bermuda and back with squalls in the Gulf Stream, ships in the night and our forestay bursting about 50 miles from St. George’s. Conrad became a captain in the world’s most powerful merchant marine, and I’m here in a tattered shirt wishing I could fix my raw-water pump. What would he say to a sailor like me?
Most photos of Conrad show an intense, hard, patriarch of a man with a beard and a skeptical look. It’s as if you’ve reported for duty, and he has his doubts. With some artists, you can say the work may be severe, but the person is cheerful—not so with Conrad. I imagine him as that brooding shipmate who always stands his watch, but never quite opens up to the passage or the crew. Still, Conrad comes by his gloom honestly. His parents were exiled from Russian-held Poland in the 1860s and both died in the gulag-style conditions to which they were subsequently submitted, so that by 11 he was an orphan with neither a future nor a country.
Amazingly, though, this same childhood is what also delivered him to the ocean. In Marseilles, he trained to become a mariner, and by the age of 21 he had joined the English merchant marine: not the most comfortable path to literary acclaim, but a lifestyle that introduced him to Australia, the Indies, South America and Southeast Asia. When he finally began to publish two decades later, he did so in his third language, was almost 40 years old and possessed an outlook on life that drew heavily on a kind of a saltwater training that made the world simple.
Simple? You might object that the Conrad you studied in AP English or college was anything but simple. But that’s only because your professor wasn’t a sailor. In fact, Conrad takes a chaotic world and boils it down to a few ideas any sailor can hang his or her hat on, things like “work” and “fidelity,” crucial ideals for any ocean voyager.
With respect to work, if you’ve ever made any trip on the ocean you know there are more days spent in preparation than glorious hours at the helm. But that’s OK with Conrad, because in Heart of Darkness the narrator, Marlow (who is fixing a boat, no less!), says, “No, I don’t like work, I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done…but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself.”
These are words, of course, that speak directly to anyone who knows what it’s like spending hours laboring in a boatyard, with ladders, buffing pads and wax. His “work” is our repairing of bilge pumps; it’s replacing that worn halyard or the extra hour you took to measure sheets for that storm jib. This might not show in any Instagram photo, but what it does indicate is respect for the sea. Just like Marlow, I’d rather laze about and daydream, but the pressure of an ocean passage forces me to focus, to work, to prepare, to embrace the process. In a sense, any sailing we do points us toward our best selves—first in the tangible impacts of our labor, then in the ultimate test of waves and wind.
As for the second of these ideals, in his 1920 memoir A Personal Record, Conrad asserts, “The world rests on a very few simple ideas…. It rests notably on the idea of Fidelity.”
In fact, fidelity recurs across Conrad’s fiction, because it offers him a single word both for what’s best about this difficult world and what’s missing when things go wrong. To someone like me, finding my feet at sea, fidelity also articulates what I want from these tumultuous voyages, reminds me of what I can do better when I’m tempted to take shortcuts or lose my temper. At the end of the day, the ocean makes fidelity a daily practice, because we must keep faith with our craft and our crew—or we may all go down together.
Have I made that sound overly abstract? Then how about this? Wind against current sends steep waves over the foredeck and the tender works loose from her lashings. What is it that sends a person forward to secure those lines, then inch back soaked and bleeding? Or what about when the diesel overheats, the boat rolls in a tropical swell and someone digs into that cramped engine space to change the impeller. Oil-stinking and motion-sick they press on, for a cause, for the boat—for fidelity.
Something else, this time about nature and sailing: Conrad adored sailing ships—the great clippers, the three-masted barks; he loved the practiced interdependence connecting tradewinds and currents to canvas and courses. He became a “man of masts and sails” in those relations.
This interconnection with nature is especially poignant if we recall he lived through the end of sail and into the era of steamships, all coal-fired and smoking, oblivious to prevailing wind or foul current. Indeed, he criticizes the steamship as less sensitive to the environment than sail: “The taking of a modern steamship about the world… has not the same quality of intimacy with nature,” he says and, “Your modern… steamship makes her passage on other principles than yielding to the weather and honoring the sea.”
Here the convenience of modern power also carries with it a regrettable blindness toward nature. When we sail we attend to tide and wind, of course, but unlike our motorboat peers we must honor the gusts that dash from headlands and the currents that twist through channels. Sailing instructs an attentiveness, a humility before the grandest forces of the natural world, an attentiveness and humility that Conrad fears was lost in the industrial culture’s shift from sail to steam.
Can it be that we recreational sailors voyage to reignite that connection to nature? Sure, we love the camaraderie and the tinkering, but in those long watches beneath circling stars, under a warm blanket of tropical rain, or when the gasp of a whale sends salt mist high into the air, we encounter a profundity obscured by modern convenience.
An unfriendly reader might say it’s easy to romanticize this thing I do in my spare time. But let’s be clear, Conrad never simplified the oceans into playgrounds. He’d seen enough saltwater to transcend any tourist’s pleasure and reported an expanse “promising, empty, inspiring—terrible.” Still, in those same terms, we also see his respect for the independent being of the waters and especially for the work and the fidelity it takes us to pass across them.
Ultimately, every word from Conrad reflects brightly on the sailors and sailboats around me. These are inspirations passed to us from the Golden Age of sail—not a better time, but one where the dangers and rewards seemed somehow closer to the surface, the surface of the sea ‘that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength.” Conrad regretted his political world’s greed and shortsightedness, and in his sea-stories he celebrated practical grace, with ship and crew a stage for courage and thoroughness. Here, yet another word, “craft,” becomes both the vessel and the intelligence embodied in action.
A ship at sea plus a lively intelligence promised Conrad something worthy in his counterfeit age. Granted, my days at sea can never compare to a professional mariner like Conrad, but his writing helps me identify what I’m looking for out there: I’m honoring work, I’m striving for fidelity and I’m leaning toward craft. In those terms, I fathom what’s best about this dripping pump, the chatter of halyards on mast, and all this sailing of circles atop an ocean that swallows our wake.
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
Photo courtesy of Australian National Maritime Museum