The California Run ISBN: 9781946409553, Penmore Press, a historical e-book copyright and written by Mark A. Rimmer.
Plot: Achilles, a newly commissioned clipper ship sets sail from New York to Frisco with a Whaler Captain, who also was a Quaker, in charge. His daughter, Emma, who has accompanied him for several years and is an experienced seaman, is with him. He has a quite brutal 1st Mate and a 2nd Mate, Nate Cooper, who is a young experienced seaman but is in his first, somewhat insecure assignment as an officer. The ship is to depart for San Francisco at the same time as a similar ship, Sapphire, captained by Jonas Blunt who has made the journey before but seemingly is quite addicted to alcohol. No similarly destined cargo ships have left New York in several weeks so not only will the first arrival gain the best prices for their cargo, but also will win for the owner a sizeable bet made with the owner of the other clipper. The story, following mostly Achilles’ journey in the dangerous trip ‘around the Horn’ (the southern tip of South America) is fraught with problems of weather, tides and similar indigenous to the journey, but also sabotage, murders and a mutinous crew. Nate and Emma are forced into most unusual positions and the competitive race becomes a tightly contested one. A number of other interestingly portrayed characters also aid the plot: Sarah Doyle, formerly Lady Thompson’s maid who was supposed to await the next ship but instead assumes the position of her former employer; Henry Jenkins a man whom she has duped out of his money, who becomes a crewman on the Achilles after being shanghaied: Gideon whom the unprincipled owner of Sapphire, Thaddeus Oglesby, has made sure for his inclusion in Achilles’ crew for the purpose of sabotaging it so his ship Sapphire can win the race; Thomas, Oglesby’s incompetent son; a bordello owner with 3 of her girls; a brutal 1st mate and other crew members that play interesting parts in the tale. This is a story replete also with abundant details of the structure of the old ‘square riggers’ and their handling in various seas, currents, fog and wind.
Discussion: This tale of a race between two clipper ships from New York to San Francisco in the early days of the ‘gold rush’ when Frisco still was Yerba Buena is a fascinating tale on several levels. At this particular time supplies were short and the residents of Frisco were largely dependent upon those that could be brought by these ships. These newly designed ‘greyhounds of the sea’ could make the journey from New York to Frisco in 100 days and were much in demand. Unfortunately, upon arrival the crews mostly would ‘jump ship’ to attempt to enrich themselves in the gold fields. Resultantly, Frisco harbor was literally overfilled with empty ships unable to obtain sufficient crew to return for another run. The only way sufficient crew members could be obtained was by ‘Shanghaiing’ them. A ship’s captain could pay a combine of bar owners who would drug the drinks of patrons and waterfront thugs who then would deliver them aboard the paying ship. More frequently than not these individuals knew nothing about sailing but were forced to learn rapidly by brutal first and second mates. The author, as “presently one of only a handful of captains worldwide who is qualified to command a fully-rigged ship the size of the clippers” is eminently qualified to write about these ships and does a remarkable job of interspersing fascinating ‘lessons’ into this well-plotted story. Only two caveats must be provided. The story’s early description of shanghaiing crews is so intertwined with the Yerba Buena details that at least this reader was momentarily confused as to the point of departure of the ships. Secondly, many of the details of the vessels, seamanship, weather, tides, use of the sextant and similar material may be a little too pedantic for some readers. However, and parenthetically no doubt, as one who has done a considerable amount of sailing and also made a ‘trip around the horn’, I found the discussions of use of the sextant, tides, winds and points of reference especially fascinating. Unfortunately, or perhaps most fortunately because of the weather, my Horn trip was made in a relatively large motor vessel, but it was enough to bring each feature presented quite sharply to mind.
Conclusion: A totally fascinating historical tale that should appeal to anyone who enjoys sea stories of the period and even more so if you have sailed and/or had the opportunity to ‘go around the Horn’.
5* Fascinating tale of the Clipper Ships; regrettable caveats for a few readers.