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Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days

John D. Whidden
Little, Brown and Co.
Boston 1912

Reviewed by Paul M. Clayton

Antique sailing books can be intimidating, with a style that seems stilted and formal to the modern ear. Old Captain Whidden has somehow managed to project himself into the new era, though, with this wonderful, easy, conversational book, written in his extreme old age, about events in the years of the mid-19th century.

Mr. Whidden went to sea as a ship's boy at the age of 12, in 1844, and swallowed the anchor in 1870, the captain of a fine three masted sailing ship. He had the advantage of belonging to a notable Marblehead family and got his start under the watchful eye of family friend James King, captain of the "Ariel". Evidently he was a rather mischevious boy, and was fortunate to avoid a number of whippings for his escapades, but he soon proved himself as a sailor. By the time he reached his early twenties, he had settled down, learned his craft and obtained a mate's position. He had also circled the globe and seen ports as varied as Honolulu, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Liverpool and Calcutta. Eventually he obtained a captainship and got married. His poor wife didn't survive her first trip to Calcutta, but later he married again, evidently a woman of sturdier stock, and she accompanied him on several cruises. During the Civil War, he and a Boston partner engaged in island trading in the Bahamas to avoid the risk of Confederate privateers, and made a lot of money at it. After the war, though, foreign hulls began to take more and more of the trade, and by 1870 Whidden and his partners sold their ship and got out of the business. What he did from then until he wrote his book in 1908 is lost in the mists of time, but from the picture on the frontispiece it is clear that he prospered at it.

(Additional searching has turned up the book "Old Marblehead Sea Captains and the Ships in which they Sailed", published in 1915, which has a reference to old John Whidden, over 80 years old and living in Los Angeles.)

Captain Whidden seems to have heartily enjoyed his life at sea, and all his ships were happy ones, except for short episodes like the loss of his first wife, occasional disease and death among the crew, or frustrating waits to take on or discharge cargo. There was none of the "bucko" sadism apparent on some of the American flagged ships in later years, no mutinies, no starvation. His ships were adequately crewed, and he was fortunate to have kindly captains and shipmates in his early years, and competent mates to assist him in his years as captain. The Marblehead seamen were a clannish bunch, and he seemed to find friends in almost every port, ready to entertain and assist him. All in all, a most attractive style of life.

I can't recommend this book highly enough, and it is easy to find a digital copy. The ebook is available free through Google Books, in either epub or pdf format.

Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days