By Mark Traphagen on May 1, 2009
Derek Lundy signed on to a modern-day yacht trip around perilous Cape Horn to retrace part of the journey his forebear Benjamin took a century before. As Derek traveled in the relative safety of a contemporary vessel, he became fascinated with how different, and how much more dangerous, Benjamin’s immigration trip must have been.
In the end, Derek decided to tell Benjamin’s story in a unique way. The Way of a Ship alternates chapters of factual information about the lives of 19th century square-rigged sailors with a semi-imagined, fictional novelization of Benjamin Lundy‘s time “before the mast.”
As someone who has had a lifetime love affair with the era of tall ships–and who will read any novel or book about those times–I can say that I have never read anything that informed me better about square-rigged ships and the men that sailed them. While the novels of Patrick O’Brian and Herman Melville certainly are rich in such detail, they also assume a lot without much explanation. Derek Lundy, on the other hand, patiently and lovingly helps those who wouldn’t know a back stay from a yardarm to get a deep working knowledge of those glorious vessels. Part of his genius is to show us how sailing ships necessitated and bred a symbiotic relationship between man and machine that has rarely been seen before or since.
The Way of a Ship is not only a novel about turn of the 19th-to-20th century sailing, it is also a beautiful elegy for the passing of a time never to return. Benjamin Lundy made his passage ’round the Horn during the dying days of sail. The big square riggers were already being replaced by the faster, more efficient steam ships. Benjamin’s ancestor Derek captures for us a thought-provoking picture of one of the hidden costs of progress: the loss of a way of life, the way of a ship.