Jack London made two big mistakes during his “Cruise of the Snark” adventure. Either mistake could have caused London, his wife Charmian and their crew to perish at sea. The first mistake was trust.
Roscoe Eames and his wife raised Charmian London, Jack’s second and much loved wife, into womanhood and Roscoe and Charmian were very close. So, when Roscoe offered to take on navigation duties for “The Cruise of the Snark,” Jack never thought to question Uncle Roscoe’s claim to be a competent navigator. He soon found out how dangerously wrong he was.
It was only after the crew sailed out of San Francisco Bay April 23, 1907 on the Snark, into the high seas, headed for Hawaii, London discovered that Uncle Roscoe couldn’t handle the sightings of the sun and stars during the rough boat movements on the open ocean, or the exacting calculations required to know their position. London was shocked to discover their perilous situation and quickly decided he had better learn navigation himself, because if he didn’t, they would all be lost at sea.
There are no landmarks at sea, so the only way a mariner can know his position is by observation of the sky, time, and calculations using navigation formulas. The Snark carried enough drinking water for a passage to the Hawaiian Islands. A mistake might take them past Hawaii into a vast and empty ocean and death by thirst.
Fortunately, there were books packed on board explaining navigation. London studied them and put theory into practice while under way. But as much as London studied, he couldn’t know for certain if the theory he understood was correct. The
only real test would be if they actually arrived safely. Thankfully, they did. After twenty-seven very stressful days and nights at sea, the Snark, rounded Diamond Head and landed in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. It turned out London really did know exactly where he was every minute of the journey. Jack London had mastered navigation!
In the Hawaiian Islands, London learned surfing on Waikiki Beach; he introduced the new sport to thousands of readers, who followed his journey through magazine articles he wrote and posted along the way, published in Woman’s Home Companion and Cosmopolitan magazine.
Jack and Charmian rode on horseback through the irrigation scheme on Maui, leading to waterfalls tourists see today along the road to Hana. They visited the leper colony on Molokai; they explored, on horseback, the dormant volcano Haleakala that Jack called “The House of the Sun.” But he didn’t coast downhill from the Volcano on a bike as some of us have done in the present day.
The Snark left Hilo, Hawaii on October 7, 1907. It is roughly 2,633 miles south from the Hawaiian Islands to Nuka Hive in the Marquesas Islands. To travel this route, a 45-foot Ketch like the Snark could potentially encounter unpredictable, variable winds, and then, very predictable lack of wind in an area called “The Doldrums.“
When a boat is in “The Doldrums,” there is no dependable wind at all. The boat can make movement because of the current, but there is no pressure against the sails –no force to move a boat along. Unless a boat like the Snark runs into a lucky wind, those onboard the boat could run out of water and perish.
The published “Sailing Directions For The South Pacific Ocean” warned would-be mariners:
“There is great difficult of making this passage across the trades. The whalers and all others speak with great doubt of fetching Tahiti from the Sandwich Islands. Captain Bruce says that a vessel should keep to the northward until she gets a start of wind before bearing for her destination…”
This is where Jack London made his second mistake. He never read the sailing directions. So, not fully understanding the danger, Jack London sailed the Snark southward, out of the reliable trade winds and into the variables. Tacking to keep ahead of the wind and then finally loosing the wind, the Snark finally just floated there, not moving, stuck under the hot tropical sun, and then, in the suffocating black breezeless night.
London wrote, “An added joy of arriving in The Doldrums was the discovery that through an accident, we had lost over one-half of the supply of fresh water that remained to us.”
It was a very dangerous situation. The Snark was alone at sea in an area other vessels avoided because of the danger. There was no other ship that could come to their
rescue. If they would perish, they would perish alone. Back in the United States, friends of the Londons began to worry.
The New York Times reported,” Friends of Jack London, the author, are beginning to feel alarmed over his failure to arrive at the
the Marquesas Islands. …London left Hilo October 7 in his little boat, the Snark and is about a month overdue.”
By November 26, 1907, the Snark had finally passed through “The Doldrums.”
“In the midst of a heavy squall, the wind shifted suddenly to the Southwest. It was the Trade at last,” London wrote. Ten days later, they sailed smoothly to leeward of Ua-huka to Nuka-hiva and the bay of Taiohae. Against all the obstacles of nature, they made it across the Pacific Ocean.
London had named the Snark after Lewis Carroll’s 1876 nonsense poem, “The Hunting of The Snark,” in which 10 individuals sail off across the sea on a boat to find “The Snark,”an imaginary creature. Carroll wrote:
“They sought it with timbles,
They sought it with care,
They pursued it with forks and hope
They threatened its life with a railroad share.
They charmed it with smiles and soap.”
Jack London’s pursuit of his imaginary Snark included the idea of circumnavigating the world.
He wrote, “In a general way we know that we shall wade through the South Seas, take in Samoa, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, New Guinea, Borneo and Sumatra, and go on up through the Philippines to Japan. Then will come Korea, China, India, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean.”
Alas, the journey ended in Sydney, Australia, where London spent five weeks in the hospital recovering from a tropical illness. London and Charmian came back to the United State by commercial passenger ship, leaving the Snark in Australia. They never boarded her again.
“The mysterious malady that afflicted my hands was too much for the Australian specialists. It was unknown in the literature of medicine. No case like mine had ever been reported,” London wrote.
“The Cruise of the Snark” is different from most of London’s other books. It is about his real life adventure as he lived it – the great moments of discovery and joy and the difficult ones and the mistakes.
It is a description of a man and wife adventure team, who faced obstacles and through sheer pluckiness, determination and a great deal of just plain luck overcame those obstacles. They had a grand adventure in a time before radio communication, satellites, and digital everything.
I had a fascinating time reading London’s words aloud, learning about his personality and finding his voice for the Listen2Read audiobook recording of “The Cruise of the Snark,” I even able to tell the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in Beche De Mere English. You can see pictures of the adventure and hear previews of the audiobook, here:
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