The Bird of Dawning
Or, The Fortune of the Sea
John Masefield
(National Maritime Museum)
The captain is trying to get the clipper Blackgauntlet back to London in record time, but a steamer rams it and it sinks.

First mate Cruiser and fifteen others --- the captain went down with the ship --- are left on a eighteen-foot "clinker-built." It is nothing but a leaky hull, too many crowded into too little space. The seas are heavy, very heavy. Scary.

I don't know about you but after page ten I was right with our abandoned crew, on this boat "with a good breadth of beam for her length," impossible to keep from crowding each other, nearly pushing some fellow sailors overboard.

You'd think the language --- right out of a S. J. Perelman parody --- would get to you soon,

    She had spacious forward and after lockers, five thwarts for rowers, and a mast-steep for a short mast, which set (on occasion) a small storm-jib, and (usually) a single dipping lug, fitten, according to the practice of the Min River Tea Company, with two reefs.

But, let me assure you, the language doesn't matter because it is irrelevant. No, it's not irrelevant: it's a backdrop for a terrifying ride in a gale in the open sea. You are there, sodden, water-logged, unable to sleep, and the ocean, which had before been a matter of air, becomes suddenly a matter of water; a wave, out of the night. It seemed to them

    that it crackled as it advanced as though it was breaking the air to shreds. It sent out fore-boilings and up-bubblings that broke and wrinkled about them; all the sea seemed to know beforehand of it and to laugh and to writhe.

Masefield has got a fine power of words, the ability to put together a stupendous sailing narrative. His is a total knowledge of the world of clippers; you are in the middle of it, plunging (wet, cold, dangerous) back into that longboat again.

§     §     §

I guarantee you, The Bird of Dawning won't leave you alone ... and you won't want it to. It's like that black shark that hounds the clinker-built, and soon enough you know, along with the sixteen sailors, that after a few days, the lack of water will get to you. The old salt, Kemble, says of his previous time adrift on the sea,

    "We were four days before we got ashore somewhere on the East of Cape Horn, and eleven days living there on shell-fish and sea-weeds and trash. But the thirst before we got ashore was the thing that killed us. We chewed buttons, and the eyelets from a sail we had. But we used to look at each other and think, 'My God, that fellow is full of blood and I could drink it.' The third day, the day before we got ashore, a young fellow said he'd as soon die one way as another: he drank the sea; and he did die: it made him mad first."

After a few days, the crew comes to a clipper known as the Bird of Dawning. When Rodmarton and Cruiser venture aboard the abandoned ship, Rodmarton said that to him it had apparently been taken over by "a giant squid." It had obviously come up

    and picked all hands off and ate them.

    "What, and the boats too?"

    "Yes, sir, pulled the boats down."

"You can tell that to the marines, not the deck department," says Cruiser, tartly, but he knew that "somewhere down in the darkness was something evil which had driven nearly forty men in a hurry out of the ship."

Whatever it was, he had now to "find and face" it.

--- Pamela Wylie
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