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S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943): From the…

S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943): From the Arctic to the Antarctic, Whaler,… (2006)

by Michael Tarver

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Could an author die during the writing of a book and no one notice?

That's the strange impression this book gives. For example, the last portion of the text, describing the loss of the Terra Nova, "is told here in the order in which it came to the notice of the author" (p. 189). I would take that to mean, "This is a bunch of un-worked-up notes." And that's exactly what it reads like. Author Michael Tarver gathered various accounts of the loss of the Terra Nova, but neither attempted to assemble them into a real story nor tried to sort through the discrepancies. As a collection of sources, the chapter is useful. But as an account of what happened, it's not very helpful.

Which is really, really too bad, because the Terra Nova was a ship well worth knowing about. She was built as a sealing and whaling steamer, and spent decades in that duty -- and then was pressed into arctic and antarctic service early in the twentieth century when expeditions toward both poles came to grief. The highlight of her career came when she took Robert Scott's doomed expedition to Antarctica. That duty over, she went back to being a sealer, and was the ship on which George Allan England sailed when he wrote his book Vikings of the Ice, the only real eyewitness account of a sealing voyage, and one in which he sailed with Captain Abram Kean, the greatest sealer of all time. (You may not approve of sealing. I don't like it much either. But it was a vital part of the Newfoundland economy. If you don't know about sealing, you simply don't understand Newfoundland.) Finally, in World War II, the Terra Nova was taken over to carry cargoes to Greenland, and in that role, she sank in 1943 -- not because of German action; after six decades of sea, she just wore out on a voyage, and there was no way to save her.

So this book serves a vital purpose. I just wish it served it better. There are many interesting photos, some useful maps, a lot of helpful appendices. But the main story is very disorderly. And unbalanced; the Terra Nova spend more than 80% of her career as a whaler and sealer, not an exploration ship -- but it is the exploratory voyages that get somewhat more than half the space; her other duties are an afterthought. Admittedly it's not easy to learn much about a ship launched more than a century ago and lost 75 years ago -- especially since most of her logbooks are gone, probably destroyed when the Germans bombed the offices of Bowring's, her owners. But more could have been gotten from the whalers' and sealers' records, and a more coherent account would have given a more real picture of a "working class" ship -- not glamorous, not pretty (in fact, incredibly dark and dirty and cramped and dangerous), but one which carried a lot of history with her to the bottom of the Atlantic. ( )
  waltzmn | Mar 9, 2018 |
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The selection of the whaler and sealer S.S. Terra Nova for polar exploration and relief duties on three occasions amounted to a total engagement of six years in the ship's life of sixty years.
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