Nov­el­ist Pa­trick O’Brian cap­tured the al­lure of seago­ing life with his Jack Aubrey books

SAIL - - Features - By Jef­frey McCarthy

A re­flec­tion on Pa­trick O’Brian’s con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­ary world; strate­gies for fi­nanc­ing the cruis­ing life­style

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 PhD in lit­er­a­ture, so I am sup­posed to dis­miss such words 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. Com- bin­ing these two we are blessed with the per­fect pair of ship­mates.

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 ter­mi­nol-

ogy: “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, allper­vad­ing sound, ex­alt­ing to the seaborne ear.”

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-in­law 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.”

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. s

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

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

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

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

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