Going to Sea

A Variety of Voices

A Let's Talk About It series developed by Jim Millinger

  • “The Seafarer” 10th-century poem
  • “Youth” by Joseph Conrad
  • Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
  • “Dauber” by John Masefield
  • The Log of the Skipper’s Wife by James Balano
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

What is going to sea really like? People from all walks of life, although mostly male until the late 20th Century, have crossed over the interface between the land and the sea to accept the challenge of living in an environment alien to human bipeds. Their experience has often inspired them to see their lives differently, for the sea experience can offer lessons—often, lessons in humility, cooperation and compassion for our fellow beings. Some of these individuals have written about their learning experience. Other writers, who have not gone across the interface, nevertheless use the sea voyage as a way of separating their protagonists from the ordinary ways of life and values that prevail on shore. They often use their imagined experience of being away from the land to express some of their concerns about human nature, life and its meaning.

We will read the works of six authors (among them a British Poet Laureate and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) who have taken their characters away from the safety of the land for a sea experience. We will study them as they examine old and contemporary problems and reveal the lives and deaths of their characters. We will examine what they think one can learn from the sea experience; and think carefully about how they present their works of art.

Views of seafaring were often views from the quarterdeck—those of a captain of a cargo or naval vessel. The major purpose of these selections is to give us the opportunity to listen to voices other than those of captains in order to get a perspective on what the experience of a sea voyage may have been like. Therefore, we will be listening to accounts of “sea experiences” from other voices: a 10th-century trader, a late 19th-century second mate, a young schoolboy fishing on the Grand Banks, a “greenhorn” making his first trip around Cape Horn, a captain’s wife, and an old man fishing alone. In what ways do their sea experiences differ? Does their perspective differ from that of a captain? What is the author’s role in revealing these people and their sea experience to us? Along the way, we will read some fine short stories, a diary, and two poems, and meet some rather different “seafarers.”

A second purpose is to examine carefully (as best we can) the possible intentions of the authors of these six narratives. What is their perspective and how does it inform us or lead us astray from our learning about the sea experience? Four of our selections are based on autobiography but their authors or editors have removed themselves from the narrative—to more easily manipulate the historical past This is often to create a present more to their liking and amenable to the major points which they hope to communicate to the reader.

We start off with four English views. The Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” is the earliest “English” version of what it was like out there. Joseph Conrad’s “Youth” is the view by the former second mate of an ill-fated passage on a cargo vessel sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous takes a young American boy to sea (accidentally) on a Gloucester fishing schooner a century ago. John Masefield takes a young farm boy, who would be a painter, to sea on a cargo vessel rounding Cape Horn. Dorothea and James Balano, mother and son, present us with the diary of a Maine sea captain’s wife while sailing on a cargo schooner in the Brazil trade in the early decades of this century. Finally, Ernest Hemingway presents the tale of an old fisherman’s fishing trip away from the safety of the land to catch the big one.

Book Descriptions

The Seafarer” Joseph Conrad, “Youth”

The Seafarer” is one of the earliest poems in English literature. This translation from the Anglo-Saxon is loaded with images of the sea voyage. Given his experience, why does the Seafarer keep leaving the safety of the land? What was his purpose in going to sea? Was he the “Captain?” What was the cargo? What was his attitude towards the sea as compared to the shore? What did he learn from his sea experience?

Scholars are still deeply divided as the authorship of this poem. Is it written by one voice or two? For what audience is it intended? From what “station” in life does its author appear to come? What is his world view?

In 1881, at the age of 21, Joseph Conrad went to sea as second mate in the 126′ vessel Palestine carrying coal from England to Bangkok. Twenty-two years later in his short story, “Youth,” he has the character Marlow tell the story of a similar passage in the vessel Judea. Is this story fiction or (not very heavily disguised) autobiography? In theme, it extols the strength and daring of a young man facing up to the challenges which the sea and other disasters have to offer. In its narrative line it seems not to be that different from the narration which the Seafarer makes. Why is his view of his passage so different from that of the Seafarer? What if Conrad had written this story as “Age,” narrated by Captain Beard, not Marlow? Would it have read differently?

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous

Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous takes a young American boy to sea (accidentally) on a Gloucester fishing schooner a century ago under sail and canvas. This “boy’s story” was written in 1897 without Kipling having experienced fishing on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, but it presents an extraordinarily keen portrayal of fishing under sail in the last years of the 19th Century. In Harvey Cheyne’s “death” by drowning Harvey finds a life in the discipline and need for cooperation on the fishing schooner We’re Here. Although “dead” to his parents, he is very alive and growing in strength and wisdom. What does Harvey learn about life from his sea experience? Is there a meaning to the name of the fishing schooner? Who are the Captains Courageous? Is this merely a “boy’s story?”

John Masefield, “Dauber”

In 1894, John Masefield, at 16, sailed as an apprentice, around Cape Horn to Chile. Nineteen years later he sends the English farm boy, Joe, on a similar passage. Like many another lad on either side of the Atlantic, Joe went to sea to get away from shore side problems and make money, but he had no intention of becoming a professional seafarer. His quest was for inspiration for artistic expression. This poem of many levels reveals, with deep insight, the shipboard society and hierarchy of the late 19th Century in the waning days of sail. Does its story line differ from our previous readings? What is the meaning of the sea experience for Dauber? What is the significance of his “fall from a high place?” Did he go too high? Did he try too much? When Masefield has Dauber cry out three times that “It will go on,” what is it that will go on? What is Masefield’s message?

James Balano, The Log of the Skipper’s Wife

In 1979, James W. Balano (1912-82) published the sea-going diary of his mother, Dorothea (“Dora”) Moulton Balano (1882-1951) who was the wife of a Maine cargo schooner captain. Her diary covers the days when she accompanied her husband in the coasting trade in 1910-1913, including one trip to Brazil. Dora is presented as an engaging and frank woman who introduces us to life in the aft cabin of a vessel as we rarely see it. Liberated and college-educated, Dora is both curious and critical in examining her relationship with her husband, Captain Fred, his business associates, his crew, and her life as wife of the captain. She describes the dowdiness of his hometown on the coast of Maine in contrast to her longing for a cultured life. She reveals her desire to get pregnant as well as her husband’s sexual escapades. At the end of the diary, Dora, unbeknownst to her husband, is scheming with the vessel’s owners to send Captain Fred (and thus her) on a cargo run to France. What insights to the sea experience does this woman provide that males cannot or do not have?

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

In this famous American short story, Ernest Hemingway places his protagonist (Who, biblically, was Santiago?) in a small boat, probably not much larger than that in which the Seafarer went to sea one thousand years earlier, and sends this old man out too far. What does the old man learn from his sea experience? Was it more of a “fishing” than a “sea” experience? What is Santiago’s quest? Is this story a tragedy or a celebration of life? Hemingway finally discarded his working title (“The Dignity of Man”) as being too pretentious. Is it? Would we read the story differently if we had read it under that title? What are some other possibilities for titles for this story?

As we look back at what these six voices have told us, can we better discern what going to sea is really like? In these writings is the sea an active force or is it merely the setting? What is the sea? What is the sea experience?