When Jack London Hit the High Seas
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more to Jack London than dogs and snow.
By Carl Pettit
Something nagged at Jack London as he set sail for Hawaii. While he was an accomplished yachtsman, neither he nor his friend Roscoe Eames had much open-water experience. The great writer would later confess that at the time he “doubted if [he] could tell a sextant from a nautical almanac.”
He may have earned his fame penning epics about dogs and snow, but London loved the sea. As an adolescent, he’d plied his maritime skills as an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay. Once his writing took off and he’d collected enough money, he decided to build a ketch and sail the world. His core crew consisted of Eames, Martin Johnson and the author’s second wife (and Eames’ niece), the irrepressible Charmian. She was a crack shot and a “fearless woman” who was “fully game to take to the seas,” historian Clarice Stasz tells OZY: the perfect sailing companion for London.
Man had betrayed us and sent us to sea in a sieve.
But an eager crew doesn’t a ready ship make. The building and outfitting of the Snark (named after a Lewis Carroll poem) became a public debacle. The ship’s engine, delivered from New York, had a flawed bedplate. Editors pressured London for stories he’d promised them, while local papers ridiculed the entire adventure. A federal marshal even appointed a “little old man,” as London described him, to watch over the Snark until the writer could pay the last of his creditors.
Finally, on the morning of April 23, 1907 — with a ton of problems still unresolved — London and his crew boarded their vessel and departed San Francisco for the wild Pacific. London and Eames taught themselves navigation on board and miraculously landed the ship on Oahu, Hawaii, 27 days later, having devised repairs on the fly. Doina Cornell, author of Child of the Sea: A Memoir of a Sailing Childhood, sailed the oceans with her family for seven years and says, “The key is not to panic” and to be “good at improvising.” Describing the first leg of the journey, London wrote, “Man had betrayed us and sent us to sea in a sieve.” And while favorable weather afforded them enough leeway to “pump every day in order to keep afloat,” he complained that “more trust could be placed in a wooden toothpick” than in the Snark.
While in Waikiki, London spent two days learning to surf. He never managed to stand up on a board and suffered terrible sunburn, but his essay “A Royal Sport” helped introduce the sport to the mainland. The Snark then made for Molokai, where London and Charmian explored a leper colony — and discovered that far from being a place of horror, it was a settlement populated with people who were full of joy and laughter. From there, the adventurers headed to Maui and climbed (on horseback) the vast Haleakalā volcano before setting off for the Marquesas Islands.
After almost two months at sea, the party arrived in Nuku Hiva, where they attended a feast in which meat wrapped in green leaves was, according to London, carried into camp “in imitation of old times when they carried in long-pig” — a euphemism for “human flesh.” London was keen to visit the inhabitants of Typee, also known as Taipi (human-flesh eaters). Expecting to find beautiful people, as described by Herman Melville in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, London instead came upon a decaying society, “afflicted by leprosy, elephantiasis and tuberculosis.” His eyes were opening to both the wonders and weaknesses (e.g., susceptibility to Western diseases) of cultures he’d never encountered before. Stasz believes London’s Snark exploits forced him to confront commonly held (and often erroneous) concepts of “racial types” throughout the Pacific, which would be reflected in his later writing. His Hawaiian short stories valorized island mythologies, for example, while his South Sea Tales betrayed a “concern for the relationship between the white intruders and the indigenous people,” Stasz says.
The crew’s next stop was the Society Islands, specifically Tahiti and Bora-Bora, where they experienced stone fishing before heading off to Fiji and, eventually, the Solomon Islands, where they endured “Solomon sores” (a tropical infection) and chronic sickness, yet soldiered on as best they could. Although London was an amateur doctor of sorts, doling out all kinds of mercury-laden remedies aboard the Snark, he eventually succumbed to a debilitating, mysterious illness.
Following London’s convalescence in Australia, the cruise came to an end in Sydney nearly a year and a half after it had begun. Years later, London would reflect on the truncated trip that was meant to last seven years: “It is easy enough for me … to say that it was enjoyable. But there is a better witness,” referring to the woman who’d been with him from start to finish.
When London told Charmian that he must head back to California, “the tears welled into her eyes” because the “happy voyage was abandoned.” And while the expedition was cut short, it inspired the stories London would write about the cultures of Hawaii and the South Pacific and of his travels, which he once told an editor helped him “grasp the true romance of things.”