Something is not quite right on the merchant sailing ship Shamraken. All of the sailors are ancient, far older than the crew of a sailing ship ought to be. They no longer know how old they are or how long they have been out on the water. Why have they not returned or retired to land by now? The youngest, the “b’y”, started working on the ship when he was 15, and is now “five and fifty years”. He minds his elders. He goes to bed when they tell him to and humbly accepts their reprimands.
Anyone who has gone to a large family reunion can relate to this: how familial relationships are preserved, more or less intact, despite the passage of decades. And this is Hodgson’s point. The men have become almost like family to each other, “related one to the other; yet it was not so.” Not only that, but the sailors have reached a level of perfection in their work. They are unhurried and steadfast in doing what must be done to manage the ship. “Moreover, their hands possessed the ripe skill which comes only from exceeding practice, and which went far to make amends for the feebleness of age.”
In William Hope Hodgson’s The Shamraken Homeward-Bounder (1908), the author’s affection for the men of this crew and for the old merchant sailing fleets is clear throughout the story. Hodgson himself served aboard these ships for about 8 years, starting when he was 13 years old. He was of the last generation of sailors to do so. His experiences as an apprentice and sailor provided the source material for much of his fiction, and later in life led him to become a staunch advocate for better working conditions for the sailors.
The story is really more of an elaborate scene than a clear narrative. Not a whole lot happens until the very end. There is a relaxed, static quality in the author’s rendering of the dialogue and the routine chores aboard the ship. Things are very calm, leisurely, unhurried. The author has tried to replicate an older English dialect, which makes the sailor’s conversations initially challenging to read. There are sentences like this one: “Thet’s right ‘nuff, Job, fer yew. Each man ter ‘is taste. I wer’ tur’ble fond uv M’ria—“ But after awhile, the language is not very intrusive at all, and creates a strong sense of time and place.
The men sit around smoking pipes, reminisce about wives and girlfriends, and later sing a chantey as they hoist a sail: “Thar war an ole farmer in Yorkshire did dwell…’e ‘ad ‘n ole wife, ‘n ‘e wished ‘er in ‘ell…” At one point in the story Hodgson has the men on board the Shamraken lament the end of the merchant sailing industry: “It’s er weary thing to me as th’ old packet’s goin’. Six and sixty year hev I sailed in her. Six and sixty year!”…“It’s them durned freights!” exclaimed the Skipper. “We’re jest losin’ dollars every trip. It’s them steam packets as knocked us out.”
The men also begin to discuss spiritual matters and the afterlife, especially as the wind dies down—always a bad sign in a Hodgson story. The sky fills with a strange rose colored mist. “Above them, the unseen sky seemed to be one vast blaze of silent, blood tinted flame.” Reference is made to the pillars of cloud and fire that led the Israelites in the desert. Some of the men think they are approaching the throne of God, or heaven. As they gaze into a spot on the horizon that shines with an “unearthly red brilliance”, the men imagine they are seeing and hearing long lost family members and sweethearts.
However, the appropriate couplet for the meteorological event they are observing is: “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” This is literally the calm before the storm, a powerful cyclone. Hodgson makes it clear at the very end that while ‘heaven’ is still a question, drowning is a certainty. In the last few moments, the men look at the terror and doubt in each other’s eyes—and experience the end together, as a family.