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Hell Around the Horn

Evening Gray Morning Red (Irwin's review)            Evening Gray Morning Red (Cindy's review)


Cover Art: Hell Around the Horn

Hell Around the Horn

By Rick Spilman

Old Salt Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9882360-1-1, US$10.99 / £6.86
Also available in e-book format

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In 1928, when Captain William Jones puts in at Montevideo, he recognizes the hull of a derelict windjammer that brings back memories of his first sea voyage twenty-three years earlier. The Lady Rebecca sets sail from Cardiff, Wales with young Will as an apprentice. Before this journey that will take them around Cape Horn and on to Chile, he dares to imagine the worst that might happen. But none of these – man overboard, a fall from the rigging, tropical disease, or pirate attack – thwarts his pursuit of his dream of going to sea.

Fred Smythe, on the other hand, is an experienced seaman who forsook an education at Yale to run off to sea. While the notion seemed romantic, the reality doesn’t measure up, not with “the endless toil and miserable conditions” that accompany this life. Still each ship and each sailing is a new adventure, and signing aboard the Lady Rebecca is no different.

Captain Barker may be young, but he’s an experienced sea captain, and this time around, he’s part owner of the windjammer. Although his wife isn’t as enamored with sailing as he is, she and their children accompany him on the journey. But being a husband and father cannot be Barker’s first priority: that he reserves for the ship.

None of those who sail aboard the windjammer foresee the difficulties they will have to surmount or how long it will take them to reach their destination. The waters around Cape Horn are notoriously hazardous – fraught with strong winds known as the Roaring Forties, invisible icebergs, and towering waves – and not everyone or every ship that makes the attempt survives. Complicating nature’s wrath is the conflict of personalities aboard the ship that wear down some and rile others until life aboard matches the tempestuous sea.

Throughout this journey, Spilman's experience as a seaman shines through so readers feel as if they sail along with Will. While some jargon may be unfamiliar, it's fairly easy to comprehend what is meant throughout the narrative (or a quick check in the glossary will clear up any confusion). Some passages read so true that we experience whatever sensations the characters do. For example, when young Will first beholds the Lady Rebecca, he also speaks to a stranger. When he realizes he just spoke to her captain, he "shuddered for an instant in the realization that he had just spoken to the holiest of holies . . . ." (6) Hell Around the Horn particularly shines in truly showing what life aboard a sailing ship was like -- the monotonous routine, the always damp conditions, the constant threat of danger, and the insignificance of life when contrasted against the power of Mother Nature. By the time we "arrive" in Chile, we are as weary as the characters and equally as thankful to have survived. The journey doesn't end there, for Spilman throws in several unexpected twists while tying up loose ends. Equally absorbing are the author's notes, which discuss the last days of sail, the 1905 winter on Cape Horn, and the history behind the novel. For readers who enjoy nautical fiction and those who want to know what life aboard a merchant, rather than naval, ship was like, or those who dream of going to sea, Hell Around the Horn is a voyage that lives long after the back cover closes.

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Review Copyrighted ©2014 Cindy Vallar


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Cover Art: Evening Gray Morning Red
Evening Gray Morning Red
By Rick Spilman
Old Salt Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-943404-20-9, $4.99
Print ISBN 978-1-943404-19-3, $14.99

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Being the only man aboard who knows how to navigate, Thomas Larkin is voted by the crew to take them to Massachusetts after the captain dies at sea. It is a lonesome and frightening experience, but also a challenging one for a sixteen year old who began the journey as an able seaman. With the help of John Stevens, the bosun and a former privateer nearly twice his age, Thom gets them safely home. They are greeted by an undercurrent of dissatisfaction mixed with anger, for the Crown expects the colonies to pay for debts England accrued during the war. The presence of the British warship anchored in the harbor merely aggravates the tense situation in 1768.

While Thom and Johnny celebrate their homecoming, as well as new jobs on a forthcoming cruise, a press gang invades the tavern. Johnny escapes, but Thom is swept up and taken aboard HMS Romney. Feeling honor bound to save his young friend and knowing he can’t do so ashore, Johnny volunteers to join the Royal Navy. After taking the king’s shilling, he realizes escaping the ship is nigh impossible. To complicate the situation, Thom seethes with anger at being denied his freedom and Lieutenant William Dudingston is an arrogant man who hates colonials.

Patience and observation provide an opportunity to escape, but the arrival of a fleet of British warships intervenes and instead of getting away, the Romney weighs anchor and heads south for the Caribbean. Five arduous months fraught with challenges and dangers, both on deck and at sea, finally present a new chance to desert during a brewing tempest. Yet freedom fails to lift the haunting weight Thom has carried with him during the voyage. Sooner or later he will once again encounter his nemesis, Dudingston, of this he has no doubt.

Gripping nautical and historical fiction at its best, Evening Gray Morning Red is really two different books that span four years. The first half focuses on the pressing and escape, while the second presents a tantalizing depiction of the historical confrontation between the packet boat Hannah and the Royal Navy Schooner Gaspee off Namquid Point, Rhode Island – an event that united the colonies and was a precursor to the American Revolution. Spilman deftly brings the period, people, and situation to life in a way that a history can never achieve. While there are occasional misspellings, missing words, or too many words, none of these diminish the excitement, anger, or fomenting rebellion that marked the actual event. From first page to last, he whisks readers back in time to stand beside Thom and Johnny and experience all the emotions and intrigue they do. When the back cover closes, it’s like leaving good friends. You miss being with them, but the voyage was more exciting and fulfilling than you ever imagined. Highly recommended.

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Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar

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Cover Art: Evening
                Gray Morning Red
Evening Gray Morning Red
By Rick Spilman
Old Salt Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-943404-20-9, $4.99
Print ISBN 978-1-943404-19-3, $14.99

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This author's first two fictional works took readers aboard oceangoing ships rounding Cape Horn. In this book, the scene shifts primarily to coasting vessels and colonial ports of America before the Revolution. Rick Spilman puts the same amount of "salt" into this maritime tale as his others, which makes for yet another great read.

The book is divided into two parts, “Evening Gray” and “Morning Red.” Like the weather these words usually refer to, the first half of this book is the “gathering of the storm,” which introduces us to the characters involved in the story, the growing unrest against England, and the “stormy” events to come in the novel’s climax.

Thomas Larkin, a young sailor schooled in the art of navigation by his seagoing grandfather, is the story’s main protagonist. He uses that knowledge to help his vessel return to Boston. A grateful owner, Mr. John Brown, offers Thom and Johnny, the acting-Mate, a berth on a different ship readying to sail out of Providence in the Rhode Island colony.

As they enjoy their first night ashore, everyone in the tavern is attacked by a press gang. A violent struggle ensues; Thom is taken and Johnny gets away. In a few days, he bravely volunteers on H.M.S. Romney just to help his friend desert.

The story shifts to the Romney, a 50-gun ship, where the treatment of sailors is harsh, especially for the pressed men. This leads to despair and anger, two emotions that don’t serve Thom well. The horrors of a flogging drive this point home. But escape seems nearly impossible as the weeks go by.

Endless cleaning, drills in sail-handling, and working the great guns keep the crew occupied while in port. Before Thom and Johnny can act on a plan to desert, a fleet bringing transports full of soldiers to occupy Boston arrives. The Romney takes aboard the departing Governor Baron, who is returning to England after a stop at St. Kitts in the Caribbean to check on his property there.

Once anchored at Basseterre, the crew is denied liberty, but boatloads of slave girls arrive to help ease their disappointment. Johnny finds Thom on the fo’c’sle staring to the north instead of relaxing below.
“She’s just over there beyond the point. Twenty miles? Thirty miles? Can’t be any further.” When Johnny asks what Thom’s referring to, Thom whispers, “St. Eustatius, Statia. We get to Statia and we’re free.”(Kindle 100, EPUB 89)
While the governor and senior officers are ashore, a bad storm brews. It offers a chance to escape, but the risk is high.

“Morning Red” begins as Johnny and a fevered Thom arrive in Newport, Rhode Island. Mr. Brown’s physician moves Thom to Mr. Brown’s house in Providence. Angela Brown, his daughter, is happy to become Thom’s nursemaid.
Thom seemed to be tacking against a flood tide, making good distance on each leg, only to be carried back again by the current. He knew that as long as he wasn’t driven onto the rocks, he would finally see slack water. (Kindle 166, EPUB 138)
This wonderful description of his mindset reminds me of the prolific writer William Clark Russell (1844-1911), whose every analogy is nautical.

Johnny is working at his uncle’s chandlery in Newport. One day, he sees John Hancock’s former sloop, Liberty, being used as a revenue cutter to enforce the Molasses Act and stop all “smuggling.” As more and more merchants’ vessels are seized, the colonists’ anger grows. It is unjust to interfere with honest trade by loyal subjects of the king. After one seizure turns violent, the colonists take matters into their own hands.

Mr. Brown eventually offers Thom a position as Mate on the Hannah, a coastal packet that makes the Providence to New York run. He joins Captain Joshua Haney and the crew that same afternoon just before Hannah leaves the wharf.

His education begins as the sails are raised and set. Haney is quick to point out that navigating by the stars is “‘[w]orth nothing to a coaster man, of course, ’less you know the currents and the tides and every shoal, ledge and rock . . . might as well stay ashore.’” Thom relieves the man at the helm and grasps the tiller. As he gets the feel of the sloop, Captain Haney begins naming every island they pass and “all the headlands, hills, and coves, commenting on the tide and currents, the shoals and bars, reefs and boulders along their course . . . .” (Kindle 187, EPUB 157) After a night at Newport, their voyage continues as do Captain Haney’s lessons.

The coasting voyages become routine until a black, armed schooner named Gaspee sails down harbor. Thom recognizes her commander, Lieutenant Dudingston from the Romney. Dudingston’s seizures of vessels mount as does the ire of the merchants and Governor of Rhode Island. Then one June day, after leaving Newport bound for Providence, Gaspee pursues the Hannah. Thom has worried and dreamed of confronting Dudingston. As Thom nears his other nemesis, Namquit Point, he knows what he needs to do to end his fear of Dudingston and Gaspee’s depredations.

In the past year I’ve read and reviewed four books about the Gaspee and other revenue schooners. The first was a pleasant fictional read which first acquainted me with the burning of the Gaspee. The second was a non-fiction work, The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee, and in my review I said there was no possible way Gaspee was lured to Namquit Point.

Now I read Spilman’s entertaining book and everything that occurs is so plausible. Hannah’s captain didn’t lure Gaspee all the way through Narragansett Bay. It was a split-second decision that resulted in the Gaspee running aground.

The way Thom is brought into contact with Dudingston also moves the story off of the coast and below decks on a man-of-war. Everything that happens aboard Romney rings true, as does the escape in the hurricane.

The efforts put into the character development of Thom, Johnny, Mr. Brown, and Angela give me hope that this is the first book in a series that will do very well entertaining readers. This novel is a well concocted tale from start to finish. As with his other books, when you read Evening Gray Morning Red, you’re captivated by this author’s rich descriptions and events and escape from your own thoughts and reality.

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Review Copyrighted ©2018 Irwin Bryan

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