AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

08 June 2017

Experience.


The tall ship Corwith Cramer stumbled into the Celtic Sea, engine roaring, 7,500 square feet of sail furled up mute. Its two masts ticked against the horizon like a metronome set to allegro. I joined a row of pallid sailors crouched at the leeward rail. Foam-lathered swell swung for my face, then reeled abruptly away. By the third time I threw up over the side, the “wine-dark sea” of Homer’s poetry just looked like the basin of a billion vomits.

Misery loves blame, so I blamed Joseph Conrad, whose fiction had brought me here. Before Conrad published his first novel in 1895, he spent 20 years working as a merchant sailor, mostly on sailing ships, and fully half his writing — including “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord Jim” and “The Secret Sharer” — deals with sailors, ships and the sea. These loom so large for him that as I have researched a book about Conrad’s life and times, I have felt it essential to travel by sea myself.

I had already taken passage from China to England on a giant container ship, tracing a historic route with the comforts of a queen-size bed, round-the-clock hot water and a mass of steel as big as the Empire State Building between me and the sick-making swell. But the more I read Conrad, the more I realized that I had to get on a tall ship like the ones he knew best, and experience its unique ways of moving, working and speaking.

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