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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Perceptive review of The Elephant Voyage

From Old Salt Blog

Joan Druett's The Elephant Voyage is a fascinating historical account of sailors who find themselves castaway on a desolate, wind-swept sub-Antarctic island, while on an ill-fated voyage to hunt elephant seals in the late 19th century. Their rescue and at least partial redemption also tells a tale of the lively and complex world of colonial New Zealand at the dawn of the 20th century.

In 1883, New Bedford, Captain Sanford Miner and his investors, outfit the schooner Sarah W. Hunt and recruit a crew with no real sailing experience, yet who are nevertheless logged as able seamen. Captain Miner and his green crew set sail and successfully navigate to Macquarie Island, a tiny speck halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica, only to find the beaches deserted, with not an elephant seal to be seen. They sail on to Campbell Island, another tiny but rugged rock in the Southern Ocean, where they find a safe anchorage for the schooner. The captain sends the mates and crew off to search for seals along the shore in two whale boats. A storm blows up and one boat is blown out to sea, never to be seen again, while the other just barely manages to row back to the island. After several days of arduous rowing, they make it back to where the schooner had been anchored, only to find it gone.

The captain, in a feat of considerable seamanship but blindingly poor judgment, has decided that the crew has been lost in the storm and, with the limited assistance of the cook, sails the schooner to New Zealand. Captain Miner's arrival causes quite a furor. There are calls for a rescue mission, which immediately get caught up in political and bureaucratic maneuvering and intrigue.

What is so engaging about The Elephant Voyage is that once the surviving crew is ultimately rescued, an entirely new story unfolds with surprising consequences. It is as if the rescue is a large stone dropped in a quiet pool, where the ripples spread rapidly outward, rocking many boats and lapping unexpectedly on distant shores. The attorneys and prosecutors maneuver, in and out of court, during the trial of Captain Miner for abandoning his men. Local politicians become involved. The captain maintains an amusing running battle with his usually intoxicated cook. The US consulate gets involved and the newspapers join in the circus as the proceedings attract international interest.

The Elephant Voyage captures both the hardship of sailing in the Southern Ocean and the fascinating world of a rapidly developing colonial New Zealand. Highly recommended.

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