The great age of fighting sail is an odd interest for someone who grew up thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. But as a teen in South Dakota I chanced upon C. S. Forester’s “Captain Horatio Hornblower” in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and the time of “wooden ships and iron men” during the Napoleonic wars has fascinated me ever since. I’ve devoured an entire canon of cannons (and carronades): Forester, Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope, and many others. I have made four–four!–traversals of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by the master of them all, Patrick O’Brian.
Each of these authors at some point in one of the books describes the woeful situation of a ship caught in the doldrums—those areas of low pressure near the equator where the wind and current die away. The sails hang loose and useless from the yards, their purpose reduced to providing some shade from the merciless tropical sun. The rudder won’t steer. The ship lies becalmed, surrounded by flat, oily water littered with the detritus of her crew.
There is only one recourse in this situation. The bosun sounds his call, the crew launches the ship’s boats, cables and hawsers are roused out and passed through the forward ports, and they begin to tow the ship. It’s backbreaking work in the heat, slow and painful, and the rough calloused hands of even the most veteran seamen crack and bleed on the oars. But they row on, until the ship at last finds that first fine hint of a breeze that will carry her onward.
In my journey with the Chaconne I have found the doldrums.
Gone are those heady first days when, with a fresh breeze at my back and a fine feather of a bow wave, I moved quickly through the first stages of learning the piece. Measures flew by, and I could look back in satisfaction at a long wake. It began to seem that my goal was just over the horizon, and a voyage I expected to last a year might be completed in just a few months.
Today that bow wave is a memory, and the long wake has vanished into the surrounding water with nary a ripple. I am becalmed. Playing through the first half of the piece that, just weeks ago, seemed so nearly in my grasp now reveals countless flaws and a lack of direction. The Chaconne, once a continent ripe for exploration, has now become an ungainly ship that has stopped moving toward her destination.
So what do I do? The only thing I can do. I launch my boats and rouse out my cables—a metronome, a pencil, my ears, my effort, my concentration. I apply my calloused fingers to the strings.
And I begin to row.