Friday, December 28, 2018

Blackburn Challenges

Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman Of GloucesterLone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures Of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman Of Gloucester by Joseph E. Garland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard of Howard Blackburn because several friends in my New Bedford rowing clubs (WCR and AMHS) have participated in the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile race in the Gloucester area. I have not been in any races above 4 miles, but do hope to undertake this one someday.

I had heard snippets of Blackburn's biography, and decided that diving into his biography would be a good way to begin my sabbatical. I had already told my university that while 80 percent of my sabbatical would be devoted to curriculum development, 20 percent would be nautical studies not directly related to my teaching. The "starting gun" for my spring sabbatical was the submission of fall-semester grades, but I found the early chapters of Garland's work a very welcome diversion from end-of-semester chores.

It was also good to be reading this book after my first visit to Nova Scotia, whose geography figures prominently in the story. The maps in the book itself are rather feeble -- those who do not know New England and the Maritimes can benefit by reading this with an atlas handy.

The opening pages are astounding -- I had no idea that Blackburn's most dramatic ordeal took place when he was so very young. It was as gruesome a rowing story as can be imagined. While some -- perhaps most -- survivors of such calamity and grievous injury at sea would find a career inland, Blackburn spent the next 20 years setting ever-more elaborate nautical challenges for himself.

Driven to go ever-greater distances in ever-smaller boats, he contorted his ample frame into boats that I would not want to sail for an afternoon, and piloted them through conditions they were not built to endure. As a fellow human of substantial size, I could feel my back and legs ache as I read some passages. I was also incredulous as I read how he endured illness and injury. He would wave off the assistance of other mariners when he was clearly too sick to pilot anything.

Garland -- an accomplished mariner himself -- draws on exhaustive documentary research to write .a detailed account of adventures that always began in Gloucester but extended thousands of miles from there, in all directions.

One of my rowing clubs is also a sailing club, in which I have gained just enough experience -- mainly as ballast -- to appreciate some of the details of the sailing, while also realizing just how much of the terminology I still do not know. (Short version: a bit of wind is a really good thing; a bit more can be even better; but a lot more can be catastrophic.)

The protagonist risks being one-dimensional; after all, he has essentially the same response to every nautical challenge, which is stubborn determination.

Throughout most of the book, his wife Theresa is mentioned only when he is about to set out on a long and risky voyage, and she is only mentioned as being absent from the dock. In later chapters, we learn a bit more about their family life. We also learn about Blackburn's business dealings, which mainly involved keeping a saloon open during periods of frequently changing alcohol laws.

For me, Blackburn's most admirable qualities were those that did not garner as many headlines as his nautical daring-do: gratitude and generosity. Having been rescued from the sea by people who were themselves on the edge of starvation, he endured months of deprivation along with them. This is what drove him to always be certain he was financially comfortable. But he remembered how generously they had shared from their scant provisions, and so lavished donations on them for the rest of his years. His saloon regulars trusted so much in his generosity that they would support the poor simply by leaving cash in a jar on his bartop.

Lagniappe: I encourage anyone who reads this to read the entire Afterward. Some of it is a rather tedious account of the chain of ownership of the various sloops and dories mentioned throughout the book, but part of it is a surprising confession by the author himself.

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