Boating encyclopedias and dictionaries tend to sail along prescribed waterways; they tell you how to change the spark plugs on your outboard, list 10 important safety checks before setting out on that cruise, illustrate the parts of a sail from tack to clew and include handy instructions for reading a chart. They are useful, often indispensable, aids for the weekend sailor. But unfortunately, they are also dull, written in a clear but tedious prose, and thus hold almost no interest for the landlubber who does not revel in chipping paint off a hull bottom. Such books, in short, have no truck with the romance of the sea.
Not so The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea, a 971-page encyclopedia from the Oxford University Press ($35) that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the novels of Joseph Conrad, loved Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk or is just plain fascinated by nautical lore in general. Compiled by a distinguished group of contributors, primarily British, the Companion's purpose, in the words of editor Peter Kemp, is "to bring together in readily accessible form a range of marine information which can otherwise be gleaned only with the help of an extensive library." It succeeds.
A random sample of the 3,700 subjects covered by the Companion gives some idea of the scope of the information offered: Atlantic Ocean, Buccaneers, John Paul Jones, Daniel Defoe, Figureheads, Battle of Guadalcanal, Horatio Hornblower, Hydrodynamics, Captain Kidd, Magellan, Mermaids, Rigging, Scurvy, Sea Songs, Sinbad the Sailor and the Titanic. Each entry is followed by an essay, often vibrantly written and occasionally displaying a subtle touch of British humor. Thus we learn that William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, had "career problems" after the famous mutiny because of "a continuing difficulty in getting along with other people."
Though it includes detailed articles on navigation, meteorology and shipbuilding, nautical history is the Companion's strongest suit. We learn that the Romans in 55 B.C. were the first to order their seamen to wear blue; that in 1187 a merman was caught off the Suffolk coast but unfortunately got away (see Mermaids); that King Midas might have invented the anchor; that Captain James Cook was the first to observe tattoos and that Samuel Pepys devised the 21-gun salute.
The major figures of naval history receive the longest biographies, but no one is slighted—not Cook, Columbus or Lord Horatio Nelson. Even Lady Hamilton, Nelson's longtime mistress, is given half a page. The lesser, and sometimes more unsavory, personalities of the sea are not neglected, either For instance, there is an entry on Anne Bonny, an 18th-century female pirate. The daughter of a respectable attorney, she fell in love with and secretly married the pirate Calico Jack on a trip to the West Indies. They were eventually captured, and Jack was sentenced to be hanged. The peevish Bonny, who was saved from the gallows because she was pregnant, said of her husband that she was "sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a man he need not have been hanged like a dog."
Nautical language, those special words and phrases that sailors developed during their long months at sea to describe a specific event or object on a ship, peppers the Companion. A number of entries have a familiar sound: filibuster, pipe down, scuttle butt, son of a gun, blood is thicker than water, no room to swing a cat, cut and run, devil to pay, etc. Often a word's original meaning was lost by the time it reached shore. "No room to swing a cat" did not mean that there was insufficient space to torture the ship's tabby, but that it was too crowded to wield a cat-o'-nine-tails with full effect. A "son of a gun," the reader learns, was a male child born in the area between the guns on the gun deck of a navy ship, presumably the only place available for a sailor's wife to bear a child. Quotes the Companion, " 'Begotten in the galley and born under a gun. Every hair a rope yarn, every tooth a marlin spike, every finger a fishhook, and his blood right good Stockholm tar.' " In other words, a sailor.
Fault can be found with the Companion if one looks hard enough. American readers might feel slighted on finding that the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea are accorded only half a page, while those of Trafalgar and Jutland, in which Britain took part, get two full pages, and some of the word definitions are confusing. If by chance a landlubber needs to know the meaning of "reef-cringle," he might be put off by an entry that begins: "Thimbles spliced in the *bolt-rope on the leeches of a square-rig sail at the ends of the *reef-band." Because each asterisk indicates a separate entry for the word so marked, it takes some doing to untangle the mystery of the reef-cringle.
But the Companion offers the yachtsman or nautical buff far too many hours of pleasurable browsing for such quibbling. In his introduction, Editor Kemp quotes an 18th-century admiral, who in a letter to his wife, assuring her that his life at sea was not such a hardship, wrote, "To be sure I lose the fruits of the earth, but then I am gathering the flowers of the sea." The Companion is an enormous bouquet.