An A-Z of stories of the sea, from Conrad to Cervantes, Defoe to Patrick O’Brian

Norman Freeman got a taste for maritime yarns studying for his radio officer’s certificate in Kevin Street. As his own book comes out, he explores the classics of the tradition

The sea and seafaring have always been an abundant source of myths, stories of adventure and discovery. The common link joining the legends, yarns and anecdotes is the behaviour of human beings in storms and shipwreck, in love-making beneath palm trees, in gallantry and mutiny.

For centuries people have been entranced by the heroic voyage of Odysseus in Greek mythology, where he and his men endured disasters, encountered monsters and alluring women, underwent twists of fate and surprises until finally returning home.

Similarly, the imaginary adventures of Sinbad the Sailor from the Arabian Nights have captivated readers down the ages. His Seven Voyages took him to magical lands, to brushes with ogres and demons and to supernatural happenings.

Portugal’s national epic is a poetic description of the great voyages of discovery in the 16th and 17th centuries made by redoubtable navigators like Vasco da Gama. Os Lusiades was written by Lus Vaz de Camões, who himself experienced the grinding hardships of exhausting months at sea, poor food, all the dangers of sailing along the coasts of east Africa, India and further east.

The report of the Spaniard, Miguel de Cervantes, of the appalling battle of Lepanto helped to draw attention to the struggle for marine supremacy in the Mediterranean between Christian and Muslim. Forty thousand died when the galleys of the bitter enemies collided ferociously in a coastal inlet of Greece in 1571. Cervantes was badly wounded but recovered to write what is credited as the first modern European novel, Don Quixote.

Daniel Defoe's story of Robinson Crusoe, based on a real happening, told of a sailor marooned alone on a tropical island, surviving by his wits and will. It had an enormous appeal to readers worldwide. Similarly Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure story of pirates and buried gold, Treasure Island, gave the sea and seafaring an exciting allure.

The publication in 1851 of the novel Moby-Dick by the American author Herman Melville, with its story of a man's obsession to take revenge on a murderous white whale, became regarded as one of the best books ever written about the sea. It drew the attention of readers to the perils and privations of whaling in stormy waters.

An author who wrote compellingly about sailors and seafaring was Jozef Conrad, the Polish writer who settled in England. He spent some 20 years at sea between 1873 and 1894 and Conrad developed sharp insights into the human condition. He knew that mariners, like everyone else, were fallible human beings. The themes of courage and duty recur in some of his sea stories. At times of crisis seamen didn’t always measure up to the ideals. They weren’t always valiant.

Seafaring life was dramatically depicted in the early plays of the American playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Now accepted as America’s greatest playwright, it was said that he was obsessed and possessed by the sea.

In 1910 he shipped out as a seaman on cargo ships. He endured all the hardships of seafaring in those years. He absorbed the atmosphere of shipboard life, observing the effects of a hard existence on his fellow humans. Like many seafarers he got into the habit of heavy drinking. His dominating interest in seafarers and those who peopled the world of the waterfront – sailors, drifters, prostitutes, dockers – provided material for 15 of his first 25 plays.

The Captain Hornblower novels of CS Forester and those of Patrick O’Brian gave a distinctly British slant to the clashes at sea with the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic wars. The doughty commanders and their stalwart crews always seem to emerge victorious from the smoke of thunderous bombardments, when sails and timbers are torn and shattered by shot and cannon-fire.

Many seafarers became accomplished storytellers themselves. A ship might be anchored for days in some bay or creek, waiting for a berth or waiting for orders. Men who were off duty sat round, delighting in telling yarns of happenings, serious, trivial or humorous; surviving storms in the North Atlantic in winter, enduring the searing heat in the Persian Gulf in summer, fights in dockside bars, encounters with women in smoky shoreside dives, captains good and bad. The same stories were retold, often with embellishments and exaggeration, when seafarers got home and went to the local pub to meet friends.

My first experience of maritime anecdotage was in the College of Science and Technology in Kevin Street in Dublin in the 1950s. I was part of a class studying for the Radio Officers Certificate, grappling with the intricacies of marine transmitters, receivers, echo-sounders and radar as well as the dots and dashes of the Morse Code. We were more or less penniless students, walking to classes or arriving on creaking bicycles.

Every now and then a man who had already gone to sea returned to sit for a First Class or a Radar Certificate. These seasoned fellows were well dressed, some sporting tropically-acquired suntans. They had money. Some smoked aromatic Dutch tobacco and others had already developed a taste for gin and rum.

At class breaks they used to stand in the corridors spinning yarns about their experiences at sea. They had an aura of glamour about them, men who had been to exotic places, seen strange sights, who had confronted bullying captains. We stood round them, mouths agape, listening to their every story of faraway places with strange-sounding names. For those of us who went to sea the reality was sometimes different. There were times of wretched seasickness, of heat rash, of insect bites in tropical places. There was boredom and loneliness.

However, we saw some of the world’s most enthralling vistas, admired the bright galaxies at night in the blackness of mid-ocean, had the odd romantic experience. But few of us ended up tippling on vintage coconut wine while fondling some Oriental beauty and puffing on a pungent cheroot.

Some of my own maritime experiences and those of others are included in a recently-published book, The Lure of Far-Away Places (Liffey Press, €16.95)