Land Ho!

The circle of the sea’s horizon in Joseph Conrad’s memoir

Extract from original essay published in New Welsh Review, 2019

It’s the ship’s cry at first sight of the longed-awaited shore: Land Ho! A triumph for your compass bearings if it’s just where you were meant to be, not so good if the beguiling tides have taken you off tack and brought you to a strange bluff, unknown territory as ominous as no sight of land at all. That is why, wrote Joseph Conrad, any decent crew must always be alert to the mystery and ‘unfathomable cruelty’ of the sea.

The first summer after I moved into my own tiny lookout near the water’s edge, a small flat I had rented on the second floor of a converted Victorian guesthouse, I had the privilege to read an original 1906 edition of The Mirror of the Sea, prior to its republication just over a century later by Little Toller. Conrad’s personal account of his mariner’s life is both memoir and deep meditation on the ocean, the human spirit and our relationship with the natural world.

Master mariner, he was also master of the sea as metaphor for navigating through life’s vicissitudes. Caught up in the rage and caprice of competing winds, squalls and dense fog, he calls out from the page: ‘To see! To see! – this is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity. To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence’.

My own fascination with the sea has drawn me to live close by it for the past fifteen years. Now, the closest I have been so far at a few hundred metres from the shoreline, I am blessed with fuchsia sunsets, the dance of the moon over water, winters of starling murmurations and summers of salt lips and long sea swims. I have also been dragged under by what seemed an innocuous wave on a calm sunny day, stung several times by jellyfish, have looked on motionless with fear as storms thundered in waves taller than houses at high tide and shattered over the promenade, and been lifted off my feet by winds shrieking inland to claw their way through the cliffs near my home. I have learned over the years, that even safely back indoors, the winds come to find you in winter, their brackish tongues licking through every crack and flimsy frame, screeching in discord night after night, ‘You fool! Don’t you know, we never sleep?!’

Still, I love it. Still, I am apprentice to the sea’s strangeness and know that compared with those whose livelihoods depend on it, I am mere a mere toe-dipper, an ocean tourist, keen but woefully ignorant. Conrad, albeit from the safe surface of the page, was going to take me out of my depth into the vanishing days of the golden age of sail, before the steamship with its machinery and fire ‘stepped in’ as he described it, between man and sea. As it was Conrad, who had spent twenty years at sea traversing the globe, served in the British and French merchant navies, survived explosion, shipwreck, tropical storm and fever, I knew it wouldn’t be a dainty leisure boat excursion.

The morning after the book arrived I took it outside and sat in the bright sunshine, the sun sparkling on the soft ripples of the water, a light haze lifting as a small fishing boat came back to shore, a seagull perched above the helm. What, I wondered, kept Conrad and his crews heading out into the Atlantic for months at a time in a volatile sea that lurched from what he recounts as its ‘majestic monotony’ to ferocious gale? From the moment of departure, the ship’s routine was the key: ‘There is health in it, and peace, and the satisfaction of the accomplished round; for each day of the ship’s life seems to close a circle within the wide ring of the sea horizon’. With the routine came years of hard graft perfecting the techniques and skill of handling masts and sail; but it was far more than that for Conrad, ‘a higher point – a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill’. It was an art, inspired by love and his passion for the sea not as a navigable element, but as an ‘intimate companion’. ‘Love’, he wrote, ‘is the enemy of haste; it takes count of passing days, of men who pass away, of a fine art matured slowly in the course of years’. The modern steamship, carving its perfunctory channel with no intimate connection to nature, was the antithesis: ‘Its effects are measured exactly in time and space as no effect of art can be … Punctuality is its watchword’.

Conrad’s devotion was tested countless times, none more chilling than his account of rescuing the storm-battered crew from a Danish brig in an episode he described as ‘initiation’. Catching sight of the sinking boat, his own crew set out to save the survivors in waters deceptively calm after the storm, dragging the pathetic, broken men tumbling into the rescue craft. As they pulled away just in time, Conrad turned round to witness a swell ride smoothly over what remained of the brig and blot it out effortlessly, leaving only a small white stain on the surface that ‘diminished swiftly, without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun’. ‘Gone!’ shouted the bowman, then took a firmer grip on the oar to row them back to safety.


In that moment, the indifference of the sea to both human pain and courage, revolted Conrad: ‘Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its heart. Open to all and faithful to none … to love it is not well’.  From then on, he saw it with very different eyes: ‘I saw the duplicity of the sea’s most tender mood … I had looked coolly at the life of my choice. Its illusions were gone, but its fascination remained. I had become a seaman at last’.

I put the book down for a pause. It was not so much the sea’s unforgiving hostility as the stark truth of its cynical indifference that unsettled me. I hurried indoors as if running for cover, went to the kitchen and decided to cook something. I needed to find my land legs again.