- Paperback: 235 pages
- Publisher: Ketch & Yawl Press LLC (October 15, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0964173522
- ISBN-13: 978-0964173521
- Package Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,552,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Young Wrecker on the Florida Reef Paperback – October 15, 1999
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About the Author
The author, Richard Mead Bache, great-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and the grand-nephew of General George Gordon Meade, describes characters, geography, natural history, weather, tough times, and humor that all ring true today.
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The Young Wrecker off the Florida Coast, a veritable Trifecta of coming-of-age adventure, historical commentary, and travel memoir sweeps along the Florida Reef in a fast-paced and eminently literate telling about life aboard a wrecker in the mid 19th Century. The charm is that it is told from the firsthand perspective by an old man recalling his experience aboard a wrecker back in his youth. The young wrecker is, in fact, the innocent and curious pre-teenaged boy, Fred Ransom, who by happenstance finds himself accidently aboard a merchant ship sailing away from New York, where just hours prior, he had expressed to his father his fervent desire to explore the world.
Be careful what you wish for, young lad! He got his adventure in spades to be sure!
The Indian massacre serves as an example of a fictional rendition coming straight from a historical event, a literary approach that characterizes the book. The author makes the Howe family French by appointing the French name of Cluzel and instead of a visiting French doctor dying in the massacre it is Dr. Cluzel himself who is sacrificed in the fictional work, changing the details but retaining the fact of a massacred French doctor. In an eerie and horrifying passage worthy of Alfred Hitchcock's silver screen, the good Doctor Cluzel is separated from his wife and children whom he sends down a trap door to a watery hideout beneath their house. In the course of the next several hours the shivering and terrorized family endures the undeniable sounds of the brutal beating and inevitable demise of the father and husband, as he is wasted just inches above their heads while they hide in wait helpless to come to his aid.
The surprise attack by the Indians occurs late at night, only a few hours after the Cluzel family extended their gracious hospitality for dinner and entertainment to the Captain, his son George, and our lad, Fred, who disembarked the wrecker for the evening and were safely back aboard when the sneak attack occurred on shore.
So it goes, The Young Wrecker, based largely on the historical facts and events of the era presents a compelling account of life aboard a wrecking ship in the 1800s wrapped in a fast-moving and exquisitely told story with engaging characters in an ever-changing setting alternating the open seas with forays onto exotic island shores. A remarkable knowledge and detailed observations about the natural wonders and wildlife in the water and on shore abounds along with exhaustive details about cultures, traditions, geography, commerce, law, and 19th Century society in and around Key West and Cuba.
It starts off the bat with an unexpected turn of events leading from a simple walk up the plank of a ship in anticipation of seeing his friend, the captain's son one late night before the ship is set to sail. At a time before the convenience of instant communications, our boy Fred awakens from a snooze to find the ship already fast sailing away due to an opportune wind, without any chance of turning back or communicating events with his father back home. Fortunately, Fred is in good hands under the care and watchful eye the ship's captain who immediately assesses Fred's situation and takes over the boy's guardianship.
Weeks later when the ship arrives at Havana to undergo some repairs, Fred is moved from the Cygnus to the Flying Cloud, a wrecking ship loading up on sugar in Havana harbor. His guardianship is simultaneously transferred from one good and kind captain to another, who soon brings his own son aboard the wrecker, a boy slightly younger than Fred but one of good disposition who provides companionship for Fred. Meanwhile, Fred has made contact with his father through letters arriving in both directions on a wing and a prayer and Fred's father who provides a stipend to help defray the cost of his boy's keep. Facing the reality that passage back to New York will not be available any time soon and encouraged by the support shown by his father and the captain, Fred casts off any misgivings and decides to make the best of his lot and go for the adventure he so fervently sought before the onset of the whole ordeal.
With that, the adventure aboard the wrecker takes off in full fury and Fred Ransom, the young wrecker, is assigned the position of cabin boy with responsibilities meted out by the wise captain to earn his keep. In an impeccable narration that is both lively and informative, the narrator leaves no stone unturned in his exhaustive recollections of life aboard a wrecking ship in the 1840s and proffers incredibly vivid descriptions and insightful observations of everything around him down to the most exquisitely minute details.
The incidents, adventures, and fascinating encounters with nature and wildlife are too many to relate here. Bache's descriptive and comprehensive accounts of the Florida Reef, its origins, life cycle, inhabitants, and a discussion of the future of this delicate eco-system would make Jacques Cousteau proud. He explains, "The corals build the Reefs only in tropical climates. The Reef is a wall of limestone formed by the animals from the lime which exist in a state of suspension in the salt water. These polyps have the power of assimilating the lime, that is, the animals convert the lime to the purposes of their existence...and although lie does not become the food of these polyps, but on the contrary, their dwellings... The direction of a line of Reef conforms to the shore off which it is situated. If the shore is straight or curved, so, also, in the same degree will be the Reef..." The passage goes on to describe the formation and future of the Reefs.
A cast of memorable characters, including Jack, the Newfoundland dog, enhances the reader's appreciation for the struggles and trials of day-to-day life aboard a wrecking vessel in those times and gives pause when things go wrong for them. In short order Fred meets the motley and sometimes surly, sometimes sanguine crew members who are always up for a caper or adventure and include an Englishman, an Irishman, a Norwegian, some Key West Conchs and Hannibal, the affable black cook. But within days of his living aboard the Flying Cloud, young Fred, along with the crew, witnesses in horror as a great white shark overtakes and devours Norwegian swimming in an attempt to remedy a snapped line.
An important discussion about the purpose of the wrecker includes an explanation of just how wrecking differs from piracy. The Reef provided opportunity for fortune as well as risk for disaster and the wrecking ships stood ready to intercept and salvage crew and cargo in the case of a mishap that happened often enough in the turbulent waters. Salvageable cargo was laboriously removed from the stranded ships and stored systematically in warehouses in Key West where it lay in wait for a judge to determine what part of the salvage, or the value thereof, went to the wrecker for its efforts in the rescue. The laws and processes of adjudicating rewards to the wreckers were so complete and the wrecker captains so characteristically honorable, that any nefarious dealings typically came from the side of the wrecked and not the wrecker. In fact, it was not uncommon for ships to be intentionally hung up on a reef in perfectly still water solely for the sake of obtaining the money for the insured cargo, thereby risking the lives, vessels, and resources of the wreckers, not to mention wasting their time unnecessarily.
The author's ability to integrate fact with fiction displays his genius and keeps the reader both entertained and educated as he describes Havana harbor, attributing its filth and unhealthy state to "the bay, which, filled with numerous shipping, from which filth of all kinds is constantly discharged, lies under a tropical sun that must breed disease from its almost stagnant waters." In addition, a tide of a meager one to two feet prevented the necessary influx and reflux of water required to cleanse it.
He provides a comprehensive description of Key West including its geographical setting and lay out, invoking the damage caused by past hurricanes and acknowledges the importance of the wrecking industry to its economy as "the chief business of the town consisted in fitting out and supplying the wreckers, and all the people were devoted to nothing else... everyone was an owner of a wrecker or a captain of one, or a mate or sailor or some female relation of these."
He describes the meager vegetation other than ubiquitous lime and coconut trees on Key West and the stark lack of local produce grown, creating the need for importation from the mainland and Havana. Conchtown, the quarter of the island was home to the so-called Conchs, wreckers who were either originally from the Bahamas or native born in Key West and were purported to be great divers possessing legendary lung power enabling them to remain submerged for inhuman durations and stories abound about how they could find even the smallest items lost to the murky ocean bottom fathoms below.
No study of Key West's history is complete without considering turtles, their habits and the process of harvesting turtles and their eggs, a process known as "turtling."
Fred and George join the captain one day in May for an excursion and approaching the beach the captain points out some marks in the sand explaining they are turtle tracks leading to a turtle's nest. As they leave their skiff and walk ashore, the captain says, "...I'll show you how to find a turtle's nest. The Conchs taught me; and what they don't know about fishing, turtling and egging, isn't worth knowing. You must know that turtles choose a moonlight night and high-water to come upon the beach to lay their eggs.... It takes them only a few minutes to lay their eggs, and then, down they souse into the water."
The captain goes on pointing out how to find the nest and the boys set about stabbing the sand with pointed sticks to unearth the hidden eggs. From one nest alone they found a hundred seventy eggs.
After that experience, the boys acceded to the more advanced practice of "turning turtles" as the captain lays out in painstaking detail the differences between the egg laying habits of loggerheads, hawksbills and trunk turtles. Scanning the coast from their skiff in complete silence and darkness, they finally witnessed the gleaming shell of a huge turtle lumbering its way up the sand to deposit its eggs. In all haste they flew from the boat and up the embankment where the three exerted profound effort to flip the mighty creature onto its back, the captain remarking "It is one of the biggest that I ever saw." With the arrival of members of the crew, the captain and boys captured one more of the hapless critters by turning it too, then proceeded to transfer both turtles, providing a combined weight of over three hundred fifty pounds, to the awaiting wrecker, which task required a tackle to hoist them aboard.
Inhumane and distasteful as capturing turtles is to the modern reader, it must be remembered that in the context of 19th Century South Florida, turtles were an important food staple that gave rise to a turtle canning and turtle soup industry in Key West. "Turning turtles" as a way of harvesting them also served to keep them fresher in transit between long distances. In fact, so vital was this industry to the area's economy, culture, and traditions that it is developed as more than just a glancing point of interest in much of the Key West literature.
The Young Wrecker on the Florida Reef is an amazing piece of period literature that deftly combines fact with fiction and takes the reader on a runaway adventure through a time and place alive with the excitement of exploration. Told from the perspective of a firsthand memory, it inspires appreciation for the history and early days of Key West and the impact of the Florida Reef on the economy and lifestyle and culture of the region.
Also not to be missed are the delightful sketches providing illustrations for the 1007 Ketch & Yawl Press edition. The book is universal in its appeal and would delight any reader at many levels of sophistication from pre-teen to old age.