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.