The call of the sea is something that we feel strongly in our youth. How wonderful to sail away to exotic ports and foreign climes, to feel the ocean breeze and the salt spray on one’s face rather than be tied to an office desk. The reality of ship life may be far different from our romantic imaginings but the sight of an outward bound freighter steaming down the East River is enough to awaken all the old longings.Reality soon sinks in and and we become reconciled to the impossibility of a naval career. Most of us turn our hand to other , less glamorous, occupations and satisfy our juvenile yearnings by reading novels of the sea.
In my youth , the first such novels that I remember reading are the adventures of Mr. Midshipman Easy written by Frederick Marryat. Then there were the Horatio Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester. After that there was a long hiatus with nothing particularly memorable until a few months ago when I stumbled upon Dewey Lambdin’s series about the adventures of Alan Lewrie.It is not a new series , the first book in the series having been written more than 20 years ago but it is still enthralling .
As it begins , Alan Lewrie is a young rakehell , enjoying a dissolute life in 1780’s London, living at home after having been thrown out of several schools. His charmed life changes completely when he is caught in bed with his half-sister Belinda ( no blood relation) who has been throwing herself at him. He is forced to sign papers relinquishing to his father his rights to any inheritance that is coming to him and he is forced to immediately join the British Navy as a midshipman. Once on board ship , he begins to question what has happened but it is too late as he has his hands full adjusting to naval life and just trying to survive.Not only does he survive but he flourishes as he unexpectedly discovers in himself a love for life at sea.
In the first book, The King’s Coat , he survives a rough beginning and sees action against the French, winding up at the end with the small fortune of 2000 guineas which he has appropriated off a French prize of war. In the second book, The French Admiral, the scene shifts to America Lewrie participates in the battle of the Chesapeake and the Siege of Yorktown before escaping to England. The third book in the series, The King’s Commission, sees him promoted to Lieutenant, appointed as first officer because of a clerical error, sent to Forida in a clandestine effort to swing the Muskogee and Seminole Indians into war on England’s side, participate in Capt. Horatio Nelson’ s abortive attempt to take Turks Island from the French ,and take temporary command of the Shrike before being demobbed in England. The fourth adventure, , The King’s Privateer, begins with Lewrie caught in flagrante delicto by an irate husband ( he hasn’t learned from his past misadventures , has he ?) and take service as fourth officer in Telesto, an 80- gun ship of the line disguised as an independent trader or ” country ship”. In this book , which I thought was the best yet, Alan Lewrie voyages to Capetown, Calcutta and Canton as the Telesto hunts down and destroys the French privateer captain Guillaiume Choundas and his blood thirsty allies, the Mindanao pirates known as the Lantun Rovers. He also meets up with his father in Calcutta and discovers the secret of his birth. Right now, I’m reading the fifth book in the series , The Gun Ketch, which opens with Alan getting married ( no, I’m not going to tell you to whom ) before setting of for the Bahamas to protect British merchant ships from pirates . That’s as far as I’ve got and, since there are to date sixteen novels to date in the series, I know I’ll be occupied for some time.
Lambdin does an excellent job in portraying the grim realities of life in a sailing ship… the danger, the casual brutality, the harsh discipline, the backbreaking work, the terrible food,the close quarters, the horrors of naval war and the possiblity of sudden death. A sailing ship with the wind billowing out its sails is a gorgeous sight but those sails have to be furled and unfurled to catch the shifting winds. Imagine having to go aloft , one hundred feet and more , to take in the sails while the ship wallows in heavy seas ! If that is not enough to disabuse one about the glamor of sea life , there are vivid descriptions of life below decks: the terrible food ( salt pork moldering in the barrels , hardtack that sailors reflexively tap against the table so that the weevils can escape), sleeping in hammocks eighteen inches apart,stinking ‘ tars’ who never bathed etc. There are vivid descriptions of naval combat : broadsides of grapeshot and canister which scythe through bodies and wreak havoc with the packed seamen manning the guns, close in fighting with sabers and pistols with no quarter given and all for less than two shillings a day. No wonder the daily issue of rum was so much looked forward to. And yet, in spite of it all ,there are moments of pure exhilaration and quiet fulfillment as Alan Lewrie falls in love with sealife, and with him, so do we , the readers.
By varying the scene of the action in each book, Lambdin sustains our interest . Not only do we get to read about new parts of the world but his adventures and challenges in each book are widely different. And , of course, being the randy devil that he is, Alan always sems to be able to find a willing wench, or two , or three. It remains to be seen whether marriage will slow him down. Inspite of his elastic morals , he is an engaging character and the reader finds himself rooting for him as he rises through the ranks and makes his fortune. Alan Lewrie may be a lightfingered Casanova always ready to cut a few corners to enrich himself but he is also brave, hardworking, smart, loyal and daring . Each book only whets one’s appetite for the next.
Lamdin is an entertaining writer who knows his subject, having been in love with the sea since childhood. His books are well researched and have the ring of authenticity and historical accuracy yet they are fast paced and engrossing. Lambdin is not as well known as Patrick O’Brian , author of the Jack Aubrey- Stephen Maturin series of naval adventures ( you might have seen the movie they made of the first in the series , Master and Commander) but he is much easier to read and , to my mind , far more enjoyable.
If you haven’t already sampled these novels, do so . You are in for a treat.