“She was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off.”

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Farley Mowat’s The Serpent’s Coil remains, for me, the crème de la crème of sea tales, of which I’ve read a fair number. It’s the story of the Foundation Maritime company’s oceangoing rescue tug Josephine and its search for the crippled Liberty ship Leicester, bound from London to New York but abandoned by its crew mid-Atlantic after an unintended encounter with a hurricane shifted its ballast irretrievably, and therefore open to salvage claim. This was a search without benefit of many of the things you might be thinking of because it was 1948. After they found it, they began to tow it to Bermuda. Awaiting them were two more hurricanes and not even a glimmer from a weather satellite, the first of which was still twelve years hence.

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To comparatively illustrate how good this book is, I can say that I’ve read it at least ten times, and that count will increase by one this holiday weekend. The Perfect Storm? Once. Junger’s was a decent enough book standing by itself, I suppose, but when compared to Mowat’s book, which I’d read years previously, I found it landlubber rubbish. In fact, I recall thinking this to myself several times as I read it: “Pfffft.”

From The Serpent’s Coil:

         Salvage men seldom use superlatives when they discuss a storm at sea — if indeed they can be persuaded to discuss it at all — but many of those aboard the Josephine have lasting memories of this night. One crewman came close to waxing lyrical about it — in a grim sort of way.
“She wasn’t no boat at all by then — she was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off. I never seen nothing like it in twenty-seven years at sea. I got into Sparkie’s cabin and he was going crazy chasing his trunk around the room. Every now and then they’d change sides and the trunk would chase him for a bit. I got up on his bunk, jammed my feet against the deck, and braced my elbows between the bunkboard and the bulkhead. In between laughing my fool head off at Sparkie, I began to feel a wee bit peaked-like. Not scared so much as just plain cowardly. My God, she rolled! And pitched! When she come down off a crest she must have been putting her bows right under. I didn’t go on deck to see. I didn’t like it where I was, but I knew I wouldn’t like it any better up on top.” This was a rare outburst from a seaman of the salvage tugs.

Mowat’s preceding volume, The Grey Seas Under, a two-decade history of the Foundation Franklin salvage tug, is equally gripping and recounts its many hair-raising operations from 1930 to 1948. On the first edition’s back cover, he wrote:

I have gone out to sea on salvage jobs and when I was not paralyzed with fright I marveled anew at the men and ships who could do the impossible with such monotonous regularity and with such a diffidence of manner. I talked, and listened — mainly listened — to a score of seamen whose stories spanned half a century. It was, I think, the most fascinating and solidly satisfying experience of my not unadventurous life to become a part of the life of the salvage ships. But it has spoiled me forever when it comes to enjoying tales of derring-do at sea. For me the epics of naval warfare, of great lines, of tankers, and all the rest, now read like nursery tales beside the stories that I have heard about the somber, insignificant little ships that cheat the Western Sea.

I first read The Serpent’s Coil in front of a wood stove and looking out on a howling winter’s night on Cape Cod. It’s still summer-hot here now, but I fully expect to get chills this weekend.

I’m secretly pleased that these two volumes are not available as ebooks. Kindle’s nice, but I like the feel of a real book when it comes to old favourite page-turners.

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One thought on ““She was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off.”

  1. George Evans says:

    I have read both books as well and Grey Seas Under again just recently. My favorite passage is found on page 233.
    ” Then the slogging match began. Hour after hour Franklin’s boilers fed steam into the cylinders and the great pistons rose and fell with a mindless certainty, a hypnotic regularity that denied the reality of the untrammeled forces in control outside the vessel. The shaft turned imperturbably and sleekly in its bearings, while beyond the throbbing and sibilant world of the machine, the big screw thrust against the fury of the sea” Amazing work and a great sea tale. Nice to know someone else appreciates this kind of story.

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