W. H. Bunting
Published with the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society and the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Hardcover, $30, ISBN 978-0-88448-265-9
7 x 10, 256 pages, photographs
U.S. Maritime Literature Award, 2006
John A. Lyman Award in the Published Source Materials Category, North American Society for Oceanic History
John Gardner Maritime Research Award from the G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport Museum
"If I'm any judge, this marvelous book should be hailed as an instant classic—that is a book that will be read with continued interest and pleasure, passed from hand to hand, talked about, quoted from, read aloud, cited as a model of splendid scholarship and love of subject, for many long years to come. I don't know when I've become so immediately absorbed in a book about people I had never heard or and knew nothing about. But W. H. Bunting knows so much—about sailing ships, life at sea, and American maritime history—and he writes with such refreshing vitality that one is swept along as if on a grand adventure. There are passages, both in what he writes and in the remarkable letters included, that might be from Robert Louis Stevenson. The account of the explosion of Krakatoa is but one stunning example. Even the footnotes are entertaining. Give yourself a treat. Settle in for an evening with Sea Struck."
Some people seem to be born with salt water running in their veins. As soon as they are able, they "go to sea." For certain young men at the turn of the last century, this was as much a rite of passage as making the grand tour. In most cases the experience was a transitory adventure; for a few it was a life-shaping experience.
Sea Struck is about the final decades of American square-rigged sail, as recorded in firsthand accounts of voyages made by three well-born young men from Massachusetts. The city of New Bedford looms large here-two young men, Frank Besse and Rodman Swift, came from families prominent in the whaling industry, and old whaling money financed the construction of two ships, the William J. Rotch and the Guy C. Goss, both built in Bath, Maine, under the direction of Captain William Besse of New Bedford (and cousin of young Frank). Young Tod Swift, scion of the prominent Rotch and Swift families of New Bedford and just graduated from Harvard, chose to go to sea as an ordinary seaman, much to the distress of his mother, who was particularly upset that he hadn't packed his pajamas!
Frank Besse, and a third young man, Carleton Allen, each sailed as paying passengers aboard their ships; even from that more sheltered vantage point, their accounts are fascinating. But Tod Swift's journal, kept in secret aboard the steel four-masted bark Astral, relates the reality of a prolonged, hungry, and difficult voyage from Philadelphia to Japan and San Francisco. His account is made even more compelling by interspersed excerpts from Astral's official log-which makes no mention of the fire that nearly doomed the ship, or that the hated cook was always armed with a cleaver, or that the crew went on strike (and the captain called it mutiny).
There is plenty of adventure here-storms, men overboard, a cargo of "Chinese passengers," discipline that bordered on brutality, and exotic Far East ports-but these interwoven stories also demonstrate the fascinating web of connections in the New England maritime community.
Frank and Carleton became bankers later in life and Tod an engineer. Swift had a small schooner built and until the end of his life, Tod Swift and Tyche were an integral part of the Martha's Vineyard waterfront.
W. H. Bunting is the author of Portrait of a Port: Boston 1852-1914 (Harvard University Press), Steamers, Schooners, Cutters, and Sloops (Houghton Mifflin), and the Tilbury books A Day's Work: A Sampler of Historic Maine Photographs, 1860-1920, Volumes I and II, and co-author of An Eye for the Coast: The Maritime and Monhegan Island Photographs of Eric Hudson. He lives in Whitefield, Maine.
Tilbury House, Publishers
103 Brunswick Avenue
Gardiner, Maine 04345