Book Review / Rick Spilman / Steel Ships / Windjammer

Hell Around the Horn, by Rick Spilman

Hell Around the Horn is a nautical thriller more than a navy fiction book, which is what this blog is about. However, even though it doesn’t fit perfectly with the focus of this blog, I wanted to review this book. Partly because Rick Spilman is known among nautical fiction aficionados as the host of Old Salt Blog, a very good and interesting blog on almost all things nautical that just (December 2012) passed one million page views! Partly this book is especially interesting to me because it tells a story about a kind of ship that I knew very little about (before reading Hell Around the Horn, that is), and that, of course, made me curious. The ship in question is a Windjammer!

A windjammer, according to Wikipedia, that marvelous source of knowledge at our fingertips (how did I actually survive for so long without it?), is:

«A windjammer is the ultimate type of large sailing ship with an iron or for the most part steel hull, built to carry cargo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.» (Wikipedia)

So big steel or iron sailing ship built and operated just around the time when steam ships had become fashionable and were roaming the world oceans. The novel is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1905. It tells the story of the journey of the windjammer Lady Rebecca with coal from Cardiff to Chile by way of the dreaded and dangerous Cape Horn. Young Captain Barker is a part-owner of the ship and has invested heavily in the cargo.

With him on this journey, the captain has his wife and children, two mates, a carpenter, four apprentices, and some twenty crew members. Spilman uses an omniscient point of view and shows us – throughout the book – how life aboard Lady Rebecca was for the various characters. We read of events from the point of view of Captain Barker; Will, the youngest apprentice; Fred, one of the crew members; as well as Captain Barker’s wife. Spilman does an excellent job of developing these and other characters and of creating a believable, ever-changing dynamic about the ship.

What a journey it was! Before they had even reached the horn, the coal in one of the cargo holds of Lady Rebecca caught fire and threatened the survival of the ship, the first mate threatened mutiny, one of the crew seemed to be going mad, and the cook spread stories to the superstitions crew that they have a Jonah on board that will make «the devil» come and take them all.

While these were tough challenges, what awaited them was far worse! Cape Horn is always tough. But 1905 was bad even by Cape Horn standards – it was a truly vicious year down at Cape Horn. What awaited was cold, misery winds more or less consistently in the wrong direction, snow, ice, and – as if it wasn’t already enough – monster waves. This is a «man against nature» kind of a book. It’s a story of extreme conditions and a small group of humans on a small ship in a vast and powerful ocean fighting against horrible odds to survive. Almost a Homeric Odyssey.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by Rick Spilman – actually his debut novel! Spilman knows ships and the sea. He has worked as a naval architect and is an avid sailor. He has also sailed as a volunteer crew on the replica square-riggers “HMS Rose” and “HMS Bounty,” and much more. Even though he doesn’t overstate it, his vast knowledge shows. Hell Around the Horn is also very well written; the characters are interesting and very much alive, and the story is based on historical facts. Hell Around the Horn had me racing through the story. Even without naval battles and taller-than-life naval heroes, this book really is a page-turner. It is highly recommended!