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Books: Last Frigate

3 minute read

CRUISE OF THE CONRAD—Alan Villiers —Scribner ($3-75)Three years ago in Copenhagen as he stood watching the 52-year-old Danish training-ship Georg Stage, “last surviving frigate in the world,”Sailor-Author Villiers had to pinch himself to prove he was not dreaming when a bystander said it was for sale. In every port from Boston to the South Seas he had hunted for a sailing ship only half as perfect. He bought her on the spot, renamed her the Joseph Conrad, prepared to sail her around the world, to “keep a form of art alive upon an earth which had grown, it thought, beyond the need of it.” Applicants for the cadet part of his crew were plentiful but it took weeks to pick cadets who were not too obviously neurotic misfits. Of women applicants he could have had enough to pack the Joseph Conrad in a day. On Oct. 22, 1934, carrying a crew of eight nationalities, looking like the ghost of Bligh’s Bounty, the 212-ton, three-masted Joseph Conrad sailed from Harwich to follow the route of Captain Cook around the world. Chronicling the 57,800-mile voyage which ended two years later, Author Villiers lets his prose swell under full press.

Narrowest escape from disaster was at anchor off the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, seawall when the Joseph Conrad was driven aground by a squall on New Year’s Eve, smashed against a pier as the salvage tugs were moving her off. A $10,000 repair bill came near grounding the expedition then & there. “Ports,” warns Author Villiers, “are bad places for ships and men.” Luck was with them in the only other mishap of the voyage when they grounded on a coral reef in the South Seas.

Sonorously romantic when describing the beautiful performance of the Joseph Conrad at sea, or when he describes the islands of the South Seas, Author Villiers is crisply honest about the seamy side of the voyage. Financial worries led his grievances, but he stuck to his vow to “make no films, advertise nothing, perform no stunts,” letting publisher’s royalties from past and future books bear the main expense. Personnel problems were plentiful among his boyish crew, but chief offenders were the finicky U. S. college boys, who were apt to be diligent only about seducing native women. The radio brought a whole world’s unwelcome troubles. Of the ship chandlers he bought from, only three around the globe were not robbers. End less red tape poisoned the ports. Mostly the natives along the way were pleasing, but he could not see their deterioration without thinking sadly that they had been less harmed by white men’s bullets than by their civilized blessings.

Broke at the end of his voyage in New York, Author Villiers looked for a buyer.

A controlled note of bitterness pervades his farewell as he came away from the drydock where the Joseph Conrad lay alongside the swanky yachts which she would presently resemble when refitted by her new owner, 24-year-old G. Huntington Hartford, grandson of the A. & P. stores founder.

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