FROM AN EARLY AGE it was this image in particular, by artist Rockwell Kent, and a few others like it, that were pressed into my mind as nearly Jungian archetypes of what a life afloat must be like. There were several of Kent’s dynamic high-contrast wood-block prints hanging about our house while I was growing up, most of them of nautical subjects, and they made an enormous impression on me. Later, when I was older, my grandfather presented me with one of Kent’s books, N by E, which had just been reissued by the Weslayan University Press. This made an even bigger impression.
It helped, of course, that several of the prints I’d long admired turned out to be illustrations from the book. It helped, too, that Kent’s prose style is just as muscular and dynamic as his illustrations. The art in the book takes up nearly as much space as the text, and the two complement each other exceedingly well. Together they today seem a tad archaic and mannered (delightfully so, IMHO), but they also present a unique account of cruising under sail in what almost amounts to a very modern “graphic-novel” format.
The cruise documented in N by E was, if anything, spectacularly unsuccessful. Kent at the time was in his late 40s and served as navigator and cook on the voyage; his two shipmates, the skipper, Sam Allen, Jr., and first mate, Lucian “Cupid” Carey, were both in their early 20s. Their intended destination, Greenland, was an ambitious one, particularly in that their vessel, a 33-foot cutter named Direction that belonged to Allen’s father, was both relatively small and carried no engine.
The crew dynamic, as on any cruise, was very important. Kent in his account is openly critical of the boastful, lazy Cupid, but is much more circumspect with respect to his skipper. (Presumably this was because Sam Allen died in a car accident soon after the cruise was completed.) In retrospect, his summation of Allen’s talents seems generous indeed.
The first serious hint of trouble was on June 23, 1929, when the crew of Direction found themselves fogbound far too close to shore while en route between Newfoundland and Labrador and nearly lost their boat in a maze of reefs and shoals. The very next day they were beset by ice in the dark of night in a rising gale and again were too close to shore:
As if the furies rode our wake we now drove westward through that darkness. Soon we could see the contour of the land, blacker than night; the mainland long and low to starboard, and, off the port bow, the island looming large. Owing to sunken reefs and shoals the navigable channel between them was confined to a narrow passage close to the island’s shore. Our speed as we entered the channel must have been seven knots; the illusions of the darkness doubled it. Suddenly from everywhere huge, livid, ghostly forms appeared around us; ice. We were powerless to check our speed or change the course; we bore straight at it.
The mate sprang to the bow. He screamed out, “For God’s sake luff! Keep out of there! You can’t–”
“Shut up,” said the skipper.
Close crowded as the bergs appeared, somewhere some passage opened just in time, and we drove through; and the white water of the ice surf churned around us. There were a hundred bergs, it seemed, pale green and livid in the darkness. I had my chart to watch; I ran below to hide my eyes a moment from the horror.
Then we passed through them so that again only the night confronted us, and the black lee shore. And all at once the light of Greenly Island broke from behind the island’s hill. Now the fine moment of maneuvering was near! The land sloped gradually down–nearer and nearer to the water. It became a low spit almost indistinguishable against the black background of the sea. Where did it end! How could we get the bearing of the light! It was impossible. I waited until the land ahead loomed close. “Ready!” I called out, “Now!” We shot up into the wind. There was a wild fierce flapping of canvas, a whipping and slapping of foresail sheets along the deck, a furious clattering of blocks–a pandemonium of noise. She hovered there in stays. Then a big sea struck her starboard bow. She fell away again. We’d failed.
By the time we had gathered headway for a second try we were close to the lee shore of the mainland. Again we came up into the wind; again the furious clamor. And now, added to it, was the roar of the surf. The mate with his legs twisted around the port shrouds clung desperately to the struggling staysail sheet. A squall struck and hove us down to port; and the mate, still clinging to the staysail, was buried in the water to his neck. Again we’d failed.
We were now so close to the rocks there was no room to wear. One hope was left: the anchor. Over and down it went, and ten fathoms of hawser followed it. It found bottom. We payed out two fathoms more. We held–and lay at anchor in a tide rip forty feet from a lee shore; a gale and a heavy sea. What next!
Now I possessed a certain pair of mittens on each of which was knit a heart. The skipper had worn those mittens that night; and I had somehow seen him in the flurry of the recent crisis pull one off and throw it to the deck. And the thought that it might wash overboard had tortured me. No sooner had we lowered sail than I contrived, carefully hiding my concern from the others, to look for it. I found it! And with that my soul was snug in port.
The next day Direction and her crew made it safely to Bradore Bay in Labrador, but Kent’s faith in his commander had indeed been shaken a bit:
Now the events of the past forty hours had increased my respect for our skipper’s seamanship and lowered my opinion of his judgment. Lowered it to the point that, valuing my life no more or less than most men, I ventured to address him somewhat as follows:
“Say, Sam! We’ve been almost wrecked twice in two days. That’s too high a run of almosts. We want to get there–and get back.”
“I think so too,” said the skipper seriously.
At Bradore Bay is a post office. “We’ll be wrecked before we finish this trip,” I wrote–and tore the letter up.
Sure enough, Kent was right. Three weeks later, having at last successfully crossed the Davis Strait from Labrador to Greenland, Direction was lost in a fjord in a violent gale just 40 miles shy of her destination at Godthaab, after her skipper declined to follow his navigator’s advice regarding the final approach.
IT WAS JUST A FEW YEARS AGO that I finally obtained a copy of another of Kent’s books, Voyaging: Southward From the Strait of Magellan, which recounts an earlier cruise he made in Patagonia in 1922. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I only got around to reading it this spring.
Voyaging does not seem quite as powerful to me as N by E. It, too, is well illustrated with Kent’s bold wood-cuts, but the art is not as predominant as in the later book. I should note, too, that none of the prints in Voyaging were familiar to me. I am sure one of the reasons N by E resonates with me so is because I absorbed so many of its illustrations during childhood.
Still, the journey recounted in Voyaging is, if anything, more remarkable than the one described in N by E. It’s really not so much a cruise as a quest. In this instance Kent acted as his own skipper, with one very colorful, vaguely disreputable Norwegian seaman, Ole Ytterock, as crew. His goal was to sail around Cape Horn. Having arrived by steamship at Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Strait of Magellan, he at once set out with an almost ferocious single-mindedness to achieve it.
The first challenge was to procure and outfit a vessel. Kent immediately bought a 26-foot lifeboat off a wrecked freighter for $20, then spent two months working furiously to refit it as a cruising sailboat. He named it Kathleen, after his wife. On her very first day out sailing, however, the little gaff cutter proved to be extremely leaky and almost sank. She was hauled out again, and another three weeks was spent making her sound. Then at last Kent and his crew set forth down Admiralty Sound on a shakedown cruise.
Unfortunately, Kathleen never made it out of Admiralty Sound. The ungainly engineless vessel was unable to make progress to windward against the relentless westerlies, so Kent and Ytterock anchored her in a cove, then hiked southward overland across a mountainous portion of Tierra del Fuego that had never before been traversed by white men. Arriving on foot in Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel, they finally succeeded in chartering another vessel. In the end, however, as in his later cruise to Greenland, Kent failed to reach his objective. Kathleen II, as he dubbed her, proved even less seaworthy than her predecessor. Though he did get close enough to spy Horn Island from a distance, Kent was ultimately forced to turn back and could not round the Horn due to weather.
Though ultimately thwarted in both his sailing adventures, Kent as an artist found them incredibly nourishing. The barren wildernesses of Patagonia and Greenland were a great inspiration to him. Greenland in particular was important to him, and he returned there twice, in 1931 and 1934, to paint and live with a local woman he developed a relationship with. Through out his life Kent was always seeking out raw, isolated environments in which to live and work. Curiously, it was in Voyaging, the earlier of his two sailing books, that he spelled out most specifically why nature was so important to him:
Is it mere chance that the forms and humors of nature appear as symbols of the moods, experiences and desires of the human spirit? The unbroken pathways of the wilderness are reminders of the hard and solitary way that ardent souls must travel. The glittering, virgin whiteness of high mountain-fields of snow, untrodden, maybe unattainable, their mist-veiled beauty neither earth nor cloud, remote serene and passionless, picture the spirit’s aspiration. Can it have been the fervid imagination of man that has endowed these mountains with an aura of symbolism? Rather is it the reality of mountains and plains, the sea and the unfathomable heavens, unchangingly forever dominating man, cradling him in that remote hour of his awakening into consciousness, forever smiling, brooding, thundering upon him, that have imposed their nature upon man and made him what he is.
Kent had a very successful career, both as a commercial illustrator and fine artist, during the 1920s and ’30s. After World War II, however, his socialist leanings and stubborn nature got him into trouble politically. The witch-hunts of the McCarthy era were not kind to him (though a famous 1958 U.S. Supreme Court decision did resolve a passport dispute with the State Department in his favor) and the new wave of Abstract Expressionism then sweeping the art world made his sort of direct representational artwork seem dated and facile. For many years, ironically, he was best remembered in the Soviet Union. In 1960 he donated a large amount of his work to the Soviet people, and in 1967 he received the Lenin Peace Prize.
But none of that need trouble us now. The Wesleyan University Press is to be commended for keeping both these books in print, and I urge you to take a look at them. I suspect there are few cruising sailors who cannot relate on some level to Rockwell Kent’s very visceral, yet romantic approach to life.
BoaterMouth link: here