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The Ocean Is So Big

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Mashford Brothers Ltd
Boatbuilders and Chandlers
Cremyll Shipyard
Torpoint
Cornwall
England

Miss Nancy Blackett,
Beckfoot,
Coniston
Cumbria

12th February, 1952

Dear Miss Blackett,

I write to inform you that the refitting of the twenty-three foot sloop Peter Piper has been completed on schedule. As you requested, she has been re-named Wild Cat Island, and the registration has been so updated.
We understand that it is your intent to attempt to cross the Atlantic single-handed in the sloop. Whilst we are of no doubt that she is suitable for the voyage (with one proviso), we cannot warranty her for such an undertaking, and would advise you to insure her for the full value with Lloyd’s of London.
In addition, we are concerned about the twin-staysail modification to the rig. Whilst we bow to Mr. Barton’s expertise and experience, we cannot help but feel that this is one innovation too far, and will prove difficult to manage in sea conditions. The issue with the fitting of the cockpit dodger, however, has been resolved satisfactorily.
We await your instructions regarding collection or delivery of the Wild Cat Island and arrangements for the payment of the balance of the account as per the attached invoice,

Yours Faithfully,

Clifford Webb, Manager

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Captain Nancy Blackett,
Beckfoot,
Coniston,
Cumbria

Captain John Walker,
Flat 14,
148 Regency Street,
Pimlico,
London

14th February 1952

Dearest John,

How appropriate that I should write to you today, of all days. I have had word that the Wild Cat Island is ready, and that crazy idea that we had that night in 1943, when you were home on leave, is finally about to happen. I remember clearly: it was a clear night, after blackout, so we had only the light from the moon and stars. We were sitting on your balcony, drinking some sort of elderberry wine - I recall it was dreadful stuff, best used as paint thinner, and so I shall pretend it was the finest rum - and you said that when the war was over, we should sail across the Atlantic.
“No,” I said, waving my tin mug around wildly. “We should sail around the world.”
I know that’s never going to happen, now. Too many things I regret, too many ships have sailed. I am not the marrying sort, it turns out, though I would have been a first-class first Mate for you, and there’s nobody else in the world for whom I would say that.
My solo adventure starts, wind and wave willing, on the 18th of May, from Plymouth. It would be a delight to see you there, or perhaps in London a week or two before?
Bridget visited with her young man just last week, as I’m sure you know. I was worried that no young man would be able to keep up with her: either on horseback or in life, but his experience in the Middle-East seems to fit well with her desire to remain in the region - and why should she not, after such success? Not only has she run the Walker Hospital to great acclaim, but her surviving the assassination attempt on Colonel Walter Stirling of the Times (whose continued presence in this world is entirely thanks to your Father, of course) is the kind of adventure we used to dream about.
It was good to see her, as it always is to see any of the Swallows. Do you see much of Roger at the moment? Last time I saw him I asked him what he did in the war, as you do, and he acted most strangely.
Peggy asks to be remembered to you, and we both send best wishes to Irene and the children.

Yours,

Captain Nancy Blackett, Pirate-Adventurer, soon-to-be conqueror of the Wide Ocean, master of the sloop Wild Cat Island.

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Captain Nancy Blackett,
Sloop Wild Cat Island
Location: Top Secret

Miss Dorothea Callum,
Department of English,
Bristol University,
Bristol

21st of May, 1952

Dearest Dot,

It was such a joy to see you at Plymouth, and for what I thought would be my last night on English soil. A pity that Dick couldn’t be there, nor any of the Walkers (though, as you know, I saw both Titty and John in London on my journey south), which is of course not to say that I don’t value the time we spent alone together. You have always been the most steadfast and truest companion and ship-mate, when wind and weather have scattered others to all points of the rose.

I was not expecting adventure this early in the voyage. Firstly, I must say that the twin-staysail - the benefits of which I extolled to you - has not performed as I, or Mr. Barton, anticipated. Rather than providing an opportunity for me to rest, the Wild Cat Island is the devil to handle when both are set, and I have been forced to jerry-rig a single staysail. Perhaps when I am out of the channel and taking advantage of the trade winds, they will prove themselves of more benefit.

Secondly, the bilge pumps are continually clogging, and clearing them is a messy and unpleasant job. I will have to get them fixed when I next make port somewhere with a well-equipped boatyard.

All of this mundanity is by way of me delaying telling you about the smugglers. It was the night of the 19th - I was two days out of Plymouth, heading a few points off WSW, close-hauled to the wind. The visibility was good, though I was having trouble with my starboard running light. As a result, I feel the smugglers may not have sighted me until it was too late. Out of the night, running dark, came a ketch. I’m sure you know that a ketch is a two-masted ship, which differs from a schooner by having a taller mainmast than the mizzenmast (a schooner has a mainmast and a foremast, the tallest mast usually being called a mainmast wherever it is situated). The ketch was on the other tack and I, being on starboard, had right-of-way. I was cursing both my luck - how unlikely is it that two small ships should be on a collision course in such a large sea - and the temperamental starboard light, and so my hail may have been a little more hostile than would be customary. “Starboard!” I called, cupping my hands - though I don’t know if it makes any difference - perhaps we could experiment when I next see you?

The normal course of action for a ship thus hailed would be to tack, of course, or to alter course to larboard and pass behind me. Instead, I was shocked to be replied to by a pistol shot! “Right,” I thought. “This ship is clearly up to no good, and it’s my duty to find out what kind of no good it is.” With the Russians acting so strangely these days, and of course the ongoing hunt for war criminals after the Nuremberg trials, my thoughts were of spies and fugitives. I bore away, of course, to pass behind them and then immediately doused my one remaining running light. Reasoning that the Wild Cat Island would be sufficiently low to the water that, if I tacked to windward, it might be tricky to see me, and I could follow the ketch to wherever it was bound. Although I have been disappointed with how well the Cat points, the management of the ketch was sufficiently poor that I was able to get the weather gage (that is, I was able to position the Cat further to windward than the ketch, allowing me greater freedom of movement and choice of point-of-sail). I followed cautiously throughout most of the night, sure that they would make landfall before first light (though I confess that as the night wore on, I started to doubt).

Indeed, land they did, in a sheltered cove that by my reckoning was ten miles south-west of St. Austell, perhaps somewhere just west of Penare. I continued further west, and discovered a landing place of my own. I moored the Wild Cat Island and crept back along the coastal path, arriving just in time to watch them unload their cargo by torchlight. My hiding place was a gorse bush, worse luck, and even as I write I can still feel some of the prickles in places I would rather not discuss. I don’t know what was in the packages that they were unloading, but there was no question of it being legal. Perhaps it was that wildness in me that you once said you so admired, but rather than contact the police or the coast guard, I decided to put an end to this myself. When the unloading was over, and I believed the crew (such as they were, for as I mentioned their boat-handling and general seamanship was well below an acceptable standard), I crept down to the ketch and boarded her! I made short work of opening the seacocks, and was back on land before the ketch had even started to settle. Then it was back over the headland - taking care not to silhouette myself against the skyline, of course, and to the Cat, where I now sit writing to you. I have also produced a dispatch for the coast guard, informing them of the smugglers’ activities.

I’m sure you’ll agree that I had no choice but to take action here. After all, they fired the first shot. As soon as I get an offshore wind, I mean to set sail, so this letter may take a time to reach you.

Your devoted companion,

Captain Nancy Blackett, Pirate-Adventurer, Scourge Of Smugglers, Master of the Wild Cat Island

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Captain Nancy Blackett,
Sloop Wild Cat Island,
Douarnenez,
France

Captain John Walker,
Flat 14,
148 Regency Street,
Pimlico,
London

25th May, 1952

Dear John,

I can’t believe it’s taken me six days just to cross the channel, and then, of all the ignominy, to have to be towed into Douarnenez by fishermen. Still, I’m immensely grateful to them. The boatyard has agreed to take a look at the bilge pumps, which are continually clogging, for a reasonable fee, though I’m concerned that the cost of this expedition is increasing rapidly. The level of water in the bilge had caused her to become unmanageable and it was all I could do to keep her afloat. You know how a boat or ship with water in the bottom behaves so unpredictably as the water sloshes about. One moment I would be sailing along on an even keel, and the next she would have breached or near as dammit. Already not the first time I have wished for a crew.

I am intending to depart from here within the week, and to arrive at Vigo no more than five days later. Assuming that I do not run into any treasure galleons on the way, of course.

Yours sincerely,

Captain Nancy Blackett, Pirate-Adventurer

PS. I appear to be drawing some attention from the newspapers. Two different reporters have accosted me for interviews. Very strange.

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Captain Nancy Blackett,
Sloop Wild Cat Island
Location: Casablanca

Miss Dorothea Callum,
Department of English,
Bristol University,
Bristol

7th of July, 1952

Dearest Dot,

Yesterday, I made port in Casablanca. It is not quite as we imagined it would be from the picture with Bogie. The heat is remarkable - I had thought that I had grown used to it over the course of the last two weeks since I departed Gibraltar, but being at sea has a cooling effect, not least from the wind. Here, although the locals tell me that it is cooled by the Canary Current, it seems stifling. The Wild Cat Island is in need of some running repairs, so I envisage being here for only a few days, and then it is around a week, perhaps a fortnight if the winds do not favour me, to the Canary Islands.

There was one singular incident worth telling you about. I was in a market in Old Medina, near the Eglise San Buenaventura - a church built before the turn of the century, when a man - a local, by his appearance - came up to me. “Captain Blackett,” he said, in perfect English. I was, of course, startled that he knew my name. “We have a mutual acquaintance,” he said. “I am an old friend of James Turner.” Of course he was. Uncle Jim’s friends and admirers seem to be spread around the whole world. I had little time to respond before he continued. “Would you perhaps join me for dinner, as I have a proposition to make to you.”

He must have noticed from my expression, or my posture, that I thought that he was importuning me. “Oh no, Captain,” he said. “A business proposition of sorts.” When confronted with a choice between adventure and good commonsense caution, I have always opted for adventure, and so I agreed to join him that evening.

It took me a good while to find the house, hidden off one of the tiny alleyways not far from the port itself. It was an unprepossessing entrance archway - little more than a crack in the wall - but once I had stepped through I found myself in the most delightful of courtyards, well-lit and full of sound and welcome. I was met by Karim, and we sat down to eat what is called Tagine. It is a tasty spiced stew of chicken, served in a strange conical pot which I think may also be called “tagine”. There were bowls of rice and a particularly flavoursome bread which I have since purchased to serve as Ship’s Biscuit for at least the first few days of the next leg of my voyage.

It was only after the meal that he made his proposition. “Captain Blackett,” he said. “I have a package that I need to be delivered to Gran Caneria - I understand that is your next destination?”
I allowed that it was - I could hardly disavow it as the local newspaper had reported both my arrival and my intended departure on their front page that very day.
“The package is neither weighty, nor particularly valuable, but I need it to be delivered discreetly. And un-opened.”
Of course, I agreed, my curiosity piqued. We sat and talked of Gibraltar, and the Canary Islands, and my Uncle - who, it turned out, was a long-time correspondent of Mr. Karim’s, them having met during Uncle Jim’s adventures before the Great War. As I took my leave, he handed me the item, wrapped in an oilskin for the journey. It was a flat rectangle, perhaps a foot and a half by a foot in its largest dimensions and no more than five inches thick, even with the oilskins

I had almost completed the return journey to the Wild Cat Island safely when I was accosted by a boy. This is not an unusual occurrence here - there seems to be no end of people willing to offer their services as a guide for vastly inflated prices - but I was surprised by how much he was apologizing to me. Over and over again he said “I am sorry.” I bent down, attempting to ascertain what he was apologising for, when I felt a sharp blow on the back of my head. Cursing being taken in by such a ruse, I fell to my knees, and heard only footsteps running away. Mr. Karim’s package was gone.

When I had recovered, I retraced my footsteps back to the house, to apologise and inform Mr. Karim of what had transpired. When I found the place, however, it was deserted, and the only sign that anyone had been there for years was the faint odour of tagine in the air.

I do not know what to make of these strange events, and hope that you have some insight that you can offer. It is possible that the mail might reach me in Las Palmas, or failing that it could be forwarded to Barbados,

With much love,

Yours,

Captain Nancy Blackett, Adventurer

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Captain Nancy Blackett,
Sloop Wild Cat Island,
Las Palmas,
Grand Caneria
Canary Islands

Captain John Walker,
Flat 14,
148 Regency Street,
Pimlico,
London

9th August, 1952

Dear John,
It has taken twenty-nine days for me to reach the Canary Islands from Casablanca. I believe this is a record for tardiness that is likely to stand for some time, unless someone decides to swim it. I could regale you with all of the circumstances that have lead me here, but that would be dull. Instead, I will recount just one incident.

It is impossible to get a complete night’s sleep while sailing single-handed. There are always things that need to be doing, even when the ship is carrying minimal canvas, unless one heaves to (and what a waste of time that would be). So I sleep in twenty-minute bursts, waking at every stray noise. On this occasion, the noise I woke to was the crack of thunder. It was one of those moments of clarity, when you are stabbed awake by the realisation of something terrible. In this case, it was that I had too much sail set to weather a storm. I was trying the twin-staysails again - I feel sure that I can make them work, except they do make the Cat roll terribly, and because the wind was light and north-easterly, I was running with the full rig set. I knew that I had to drop one (if not both) of the staysails and put a reef in before the storm properly came in, and I was out of my bunk (such as it is) before I had finished the thought. Once on the deck, I decided to reef first and worry about the staysail later, because I could tell the sea was already rising and the wind was coming in. I have reefed - in less urgent situations - at least forty times already on this voyage. Curse this day to be the one where the mainsail halyard jammed in the cleat! The wind was starting to whistle in through the stays and I could feel the Cat starting to roll more violently. A wave washed over the bow and threw me out to the extent of my lifeline.

As much as I complain about Mr. Barton’s ridiculous staysails, his insistence that I should fit lifelines and the cockpit dodger (that cunning roof that keeps sun , rain, and spray off me for much of the day) has saved my life and provided much comfort.

Knowing that I had to free the mainsail from the boom, or we would be taken by the first serious gust of wind, I went to cut the halyard free of the cleat, only to drop my blasted knife and watch it disappear over the gunwhale. In desperation I yanked again on the halyard, and blow me if the whole cleat didn’t come out of the woodwork! This was a blessing, in that I was able to drop sail and put the double reef in, but I am sure that you would have done a better job.

In fact, I can see you laughing at the image of me struggling with the jammed halyard now, safe in the knowledge that your Royal Navy ships do not have such things as sails, and you do not have to reef but instead just drive on through wind and tide like you were driving an automobile.

Suffice it to say that the next day I was unable to either raise or lower the halyard until I had cleared the jammed cleat and then secured it back in place, a task that took most of the day to accomplish.

It is one of the oddities of a solo voyage that one comes to be comfortable and contained in the solitude, whilst still longing for company - not least so that I can sleep, and your calmness and competence are much missed. At times like the above, I think “what would John do”, and this is one of the thoughts that keeps me going. I arrived yesterday at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and have already purchased both a new ship’s knife and - partly for spare, and partly for a souvenir - what the natives call a “nife” - it has a wide-blade and a rounded handle inlaid with horn and bone. It is a fine thing, and exactly the sort of thing that an adventurer would bring back from a strange port.

I continue to be harassed by the press - three more were poking around the dock today. I am sure that a solo crossing of the Atlantic by a man would not draw so much attention, and their questions are asinine.

I intend to depart Gran Caneria on the 16th or 17th for the longest leg of the voyage. The trade winds should carry me safely across the ocean, and the next time I write I will be in a hammock on Barbados, with my fine nife strapped to my waist and a cool drink in my hand.

Yours

Captain Nancy Blackett, Adventurer, Master of the Wild Cat Island

 

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Archivist’s note: This letter was never posted, but remained with Aunt NancyMiss Blackett’s papers. It is not known whether Dorothea ever saw it. Janet Sanders, Beckfoot, 1983.

Captain Nemo
The Nautilus
Upside Down For All I Know
Somewhere

Dearest Dottie,

This voyage seems doomed to end in failure. I missed Barbados. It was right there and then it ran away from me. I have slept no more than ten minutes a day for at least a week, probably longer. If it was not for the jar of benzedrine pills that I bought in Las Palmas, I fear I would have been long ago lost at sea.

Yesterday, my poor little submersible was attacked by a giant sea monster. Tentacles rose up out of the ocean and lashed the hull, their suckers slapping against the sides. I was thrown to and fro in the cockpit, holding onto the wheel with my knuckles white. I shouted at it, again and again, howling into the wind. The ship listed violently and my head hit against the dodger.

I don’t know how long I was out for, but when I came to the Cat had come to rest in the branches of a tree. Whether born there by the monster or some freak wave, I could not tell. Parrots came and roosted on the taffrail (the rail around the stern of the ship), and talked amongst themselves. At one point, one of them - a large, grey, parrot with a self-important air, offered an unsolicited critique of my sailing skills, which, as my vessel was at that point perched precariously on a plant, and not actually afloat, I felt unable to refute. I remembered that Polly - the parrot that Uncle Jim gave to Titty - was far politer than these were, and so I proceeded to lecture them on the vagaries of wind and tide for at least an hour, before I decided that I simply had to write down everything that had happened for you.

I have thought of you every day of this voyage. I have thought of your joie de vivre - the enthusiasm and vivacity with which you approach everything in life. The thought of you has kept me alive and sailing throughout the hard times, and the misadventures. I would dearly love to spend my life as your Captain, were you and circumstance to allow it.

The birds are laughing at me.

Dot,

I don’t know if I’m going to send this letter or not. I passed out just after I had finished writing the above. When I came to, the parrots had been replaced by a single frigate bird, soaring above the stern of the Cat. Dominica lay just off the port bow, and I was able to anchor in the bay and sleep again. It seems unlikely that she ever rested in the arms of a tree, or that parrots criticized my sailing. There are things I have written though, that however spurred by waking dreams and hallucinations, are true. I suspect that they are too true to be ever spoken, and that saddens me. I shall leave this letter as it stands, and we shall see what happens.

Your Loving Captain

Nancy Blackett

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BARBADOS 1 13 PM 9 OCTOBER 1952
HARBOURMASTER BRIDGETOWN BARBADOS
PLEASE REPORT ANY SIGHT NANCY BLACKETT SLOOP WILD CAT. CAPT J WALKER RN.

LONDON 10 03 AM 10 OCTOBER 1952
CAPTAIN JOHN WALKER
RE NANCY BLACKETT SLOOP WILD CAT. REGRET NO NEWS. J CAPE HARBORMASTER

LONDON 11 30 PM 21 OCTOBER 1952
CAPTAIN JOHN WALKER
NOT DUFFER BUT SLOW. ARRIVED DOMINICA PRINCE RUPERT BAY. HAVE CROSSED ATLANTIC. HEALTH GOOD. NB

GLANVILLIA 8 13 AM 22 OCTOBER 1952
CAPTAIN NANCY BLACKETT
CONGRATS. ALL RELIEVED. WHERE TO NOW? JW RN

LONDON 16 32 PM 22 OCTOBER 1952
CAPTAIN JOHN WALKER
NEW YORK. EST 15 NOV UNLESS EATEN BY WHALE. NB