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The Cruise of the Kate by E. E. Middleton

The Cruise of the Kate

by E. E. Middleton

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    John_Vaughan: Both authors hold firm opnions that color the experience of cruising the English coast.

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Endearingly eccentric account of a solo cruise around England in a sailing boat in 1869. At a low point in his career — he'd left the army after a dispute about back-pay and had become obsessed with a project to compose an English verse translation of the Aeneid that no-one wanted — Middleton happened to read John MacGregor's The voyage alone, and was inspired to get his own small boat, built in Lambeth according to MacGregor's design. Like RLS's An inland voyage, also inspired by MacGregor, Middleton's book is seen as one of the pioneering texts of cruising as a hobby accessible to middle-class people. (As the son of a senior colonial official, with close relatives in banking and shipping, Middleton evidently wasn't exactly a pauper, but he wouldn't have been able to run the sort of luxury yachts his contemporary the Prince of Wales went in for.)

Although he had worked his passage to Australia and back on one of his uncles' merchant ships as a teenager, Middleton had no previous small boat experience, and knew next to nothing of navigation, so the project to sail around England was quite ambitious. Starting from the Thames, he sailed along the south coast and through the Irish Sea to the Clyde, then through the Forth-Clyde Canal and back to the Thames via the east coast. The whole cruise took him about three months.

As Arthur Ransome points out in the introduction to the reprint, Middleton made things harder for himself by sticking close to the coast and going into port every night. This was clearly motivated as much by his total incompetence in domestic matters (he literally couldn't boil an egg: he ate them raw!) as by his lack of navigational skill. It becomes apparent from what he says about the couple of occasions where he has to make a longer sea-passage (crossing the Bristol Channel, for instance) that he only carried a tiny amount of fresh water, but had two four-gallon casks of sherry on board. Something else that becomes very clear when you read this account is how much the invention of the auxiliary engine has made life easier for small-boat sailors. If Middleton wanted to get into port, he had to row or look for a tow. His difficulties were exacerbated by the limited availability of up-to-date charts and navigational information: he frequently curses the vagueness and inaccuracy of the Pilot Book which is his main source of information. Obviously fishermen and skippers of coasting vessels in the sixties still relied mostly on local knowledge.

Middleton was somewhere in that narrow band between the "English eccentric" and the madman. Jonathan Raban describes him as "a man whose head was peppered with stings from the swarm of bees that he kept in his bonnet". He had controversial and definite ideas on everything from capitalism to the design of lifeboats, and frequently shares them with the reader. Although the text of the reprint apparently omits many of his "irrelevant digressions" we still get enough of his little rants to get a flavour of how much one would have wanted to avoid sitting down next to him in a pub. Amusing from this safe distance, but probably rather alarming in real life. We also get enough excerpts from his version of Vergil to see why it wasn't a success... ( )
1 vote thorold | Dec 20, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Middleton, E. E.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jordan, K. C.Mapssecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ransome, ArthurIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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