The Last Voyage of the Schooner Rosamond

A delightful book about two Stanford sophomores who in the spring of 1920, looking for adventure, decided to ship aboard a schooner scheduled to deliver timber from Seattle to Cape Town. Haakon and Don Snedden had no experience as sailors and their assignment turned out to be a ten-month circumnavigation of the world as apprentice seamen. It was an adventure and their story is told with grace, excitement, and candor. For a time they tried to conceal their academic affiliation but it became obvious to the officers and small crew soon enough. Chevalier, even at 18 years at the outset, is among the most intelligent and sensitive readers encountered in my long search for maritime readers.

p. 32: Don and I spent our last afternoon ashore rummaging through second-hand bookshops. Our idea was to get as much reading matter as possible compressed into the smallest amount of space. My choice consisted of one-volume editions of more or less complete works of standard authors, and by the end of the afternoon I had collected the works of Shakespeare, Swift, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Bulwer-Lytton, Oliver Goldsmith, and a small-format edition of Kipling’s stories in several volumes. I decided that these, together with an old Bible that I had, several as yet unread Conrad novels and a few other odds and ends, supplemented of course by Don’s acquisitions, would have to constitute our stock of reading matter.

p. 91-92: Don and I spent most of our spare time reading. I began, I remember, with Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, and next read Sinkiewicz’s Quo Vadis?, and for long days and weeks I devoted my reading time to Byron’s poems and some plays of Shakespeare that I hadn’t read. Don and I put all out books at the disposal of our shipmates, but only George had the curiosity or interest to take advantage of the offer: he would borrow a book from time to time and occasionally come on something that was to his liking. Greg had brought with him a half dozen or more westerns and whodunits, and I had the impression that he read these again and again….

Felix, who as I said was illiterate, had one book, an elementary Spanish school book, probably second or third grade, with simple words and short sentences in large letters. Throughout the voyage he would pull out this old and worn small format book and spend long moments, passing his finger along the page to underline each word, reciting the words in a low, melodious voice, obviously deriving a great deal of pleasure and pride from the exercise.

p. 108, in conversation with the Captain [J.H. Brown]: ‘The doldrums’, he said to me one afternoon of the dead calm as Felix and I were wetting down the poop deck with seawater we fetched up in wooden buckets which we lowered over the taffrail with a length of rope. ‘Do you know what the doldrums are?’

I had looked the word up a short time before in the small Webster tat Don and I had brought with us among our books, where it was defined as ‘a part of the ocean near the Equator, abounding in calms, squalls, and light baffling winds’. I remembered the definition and could have quoted it verbatim but I felt embarrassed about doing so. The skipper would probably think I was showing off and it would make him angry. I decided to venture a definition of my own.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘as I understand it, it’s a kind of hole in the weather…’

The skipper looked at me sharply and gave a soundless laugh.

‘That’s a good one!’ he said, ‘that’s a good one. A hole in the weather!’ He seemed to enjoy the definition hugely. ‘As a matter of fact, it’s not a bad way of puttin’ it. It’s that in part. It’s near the Equator that pressure is the lowest, and this is the doldrum belt, between the northeast and southeast trade winds. These dead calms move about in the area, you never know where to find them, they’re a kind of big void and when you’re in one it’s like a bubble, you can be caught for weeks without a breath of wind, and then suddenly!…’

He threw up his hands and walked away, and I was left to guess what might suddenly happen.

p. 109-10: Each of us…had his own pet activity…Don and I our small library of books. At last I found myself with enough time on my hands to undertake a little more serious reading than I had been able to do until now. I had already plowed through several of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels and I had spent odd hours dipping into my volumes of Swift, Coleridge and Byron. I now decided to tackle Byron, a favourite of mine, in earnest. I had finished Don Juan and now proceeded to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage straight through, with great excitement, almost managing to block out of my consciousness the fastastic rocking motion of the ship and the fearful clatter of all its parts.

One afternoon when I was lying stretched out on my belly on the deckload in the zigzagging shade of the main boom, with my Byron open on one of the pages of Childe Harold, reciting to myself the lines of the stanza in the poem that begins: ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark-blue ocean—roll?’ the skipper happened by and saw me.

‘So you like to read, eh?’ he said gruffly.

I jumped to my feet. I was overcome with embarrassment and a curious feeling of guilt, as though I were being caught doing something unworthy of a sailor. I muttered some apologetic remark, but the skipper, despite his habitual fierce look, did not seem to intend any disapproval. He looked at the thick volumes of pages in small print that I was reading (a seven-hundred-odd-page volume of the complete works of Lord Byron, published in Philadelphia in 1847 by Griff, Eliot and Co, which I still have) and he must have concluded that I was reduced to reading it because I had nothing available, for he said, in the same forbidding voice,

‘I have a lot of back numbers of the Saturday Evening Post, if you’d like to read them. They’re probably a little more up to date than what you’ve got there…’.

I happened to share with a number of my more or less literarily inclined fellow-students a rather supercilious attitude toward ‘popular’, large-circulation periodicals, and among these the S.E.P. was one of the most prominent targets of our disparaging judgment. But I was so flattered by the skipper’s offer that I eagerly accepted….

I had let myself in for it and I now felt honour-bound to approach the field of literature, which was really unfamiliar to me, with an unprejudiced eye. In the weeks that followed I conscientiously spent a considerable proportion of my reading time reading the skipper’s old Saturday Evening Posts, and I had to admit to myself that I found it not unrewarding; and when I had gleaned what I wanted from the first batch the skipper had given me I went back for more.

p. 139, observing the author’s 18th birthday on Sept. 10, 1920, with presents given to him before the voyage began: My sister’s present was a thin-paper edition of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, bound in soft leather—a book I was ashamed I had not yet read.

p. 140, on seeing their first albatross on approaching Antarctica before reaching Cape Horn, one of the crew says this: ‘Dey look comical and clumsy ven you get dem up on deck,’ he said—and I remembered Baudelaire’s poem, ‘L’Albatross, with its memorable last line, ‘Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.’—it’s [sic] giant wings prevent it from walking. We were to see many of them in the months to come.

p. 144-45, after a long period of Antarctic storms, he has a long passage based on his reading of Thom’s Navigation about the nature of storms, cyclones, anticyclones, hurricane’s typhoons, etc. and the factors that cause them.

p. 156ff, decides to write a story of his own, The Bondage of the Sea, based on one of the crew. He hoped to finish the story by the time they reached Cape Town so that he could send it to Stanford for publication by the Cardinal, its literary magazine.

p. 165, the ship arrived at Cape Town without a harbour map and therefore the captain created some make work projects while waiting for a pilot: One of the books that Don had brought, and which I read with a great deal of profit and pleasure, was Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. I particularly enjoyed his definition of ‘sabotage’, which he called the voluntary withdrawal of efficiency. This conscientious withdrawal of efficiency was, in any case, precisely what we practiced on our deck-scraping project…. So this game went on day after day. It became a form of protest against the skipper’s handling of the ship. If he was in no hurry to bring us in to port, we weren’t going to be in a hurry to get his poop deck scrapped.

p. 194: In our more irresponsible moments Don and I toyed with the idea of ‘jumping ship’, as he had suggested that first evening when we had cast anchor in Table Bay, of making our way, perhaps by a tramp steamer, up the coast to the Congo and points north, or cutting across to the east coast, to Mozambique and Tanganayika and the Red Sea. Names like Zanzibar, Mogadiscio and Djibouti were richly evocative and set my imagination reeling. I thought of Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness, and I remembered Arthur Rimbaud, who when he was no older than I was now was already a famous poet, the author of A Season in Hell, and who then for some mysterious reason kicked over the traces and vanished in Abyssinia in search of a fortune which he never found, and I nursed impossible dreams of adventure beckoning me somewhere on this, the least known of the world’s continents.

p. 209: I saw on my atlas that one small group of islands among the Crozot Islands is called the Iles des Pingouins—the Penguin Islands—which of course reminded me of the novel by Anatole France, which I had read with great excitement in my Freshman year, and about whose author I was to write and publish a book ten years later. I must have had a strong desire to see those islands and those birds, since I find in my log-book at that point in the voyage that I mention seeing ‘great numbers of penguins’—which is clearly impossible, as penguins do not fly.