Hilaire Belloc on Sailing and the Salt of Reality: The Cruise of the Nona (1925)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   31 July 2019

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556)

Epigraphs

“Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half of foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality. (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), page 323—my emphasis added.)

***

“It is with Torbay [on the Devon coast] as with the Fowey coast [in south Cornwall]. I have known it only under such weathers as leave a hint of heaven: never have I opened Torbay in passing Berry Head but it was morning, with the young sea delighting in a leading breeze; and once, a draught to last forever, I came up under such a dawn and with so tender a dying crescent in the sky that I spent an hour in Paradise.

“What are those days of glory? They are not memories: are they premonitions, or, are they visions?

“They are not memories, though perhaps Plato thought them so, and our modern pantheists…called and believed them so.

I will hope that they are premonitions, hints granted beforehand of a state to be attained. At the worst they are visions of such a state lying all about us, the home of the Blessed, which we are permitted to glimpse at for a moment, even those of us sad ones who may never reach that place.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 160-161—my emphasis added.)

***

After receiving recurrent encouragement to do so, I have also now come to think that it would indeed be a worthy thing to do: namely, to frame and present some vivid and varied and unmistakably profound passages from Hilaire Belloc’s 1925 book The Cruise of the Nona.1 Moreover, it seems to me to be especially desirable to accent Belloc’s multiform passages on sailing and the salt of reality. For, considered together they also show his deep heart, and he himself often said that “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” (55)

Furthermore, his lengthy volume of almost 350 pages also contains a capacious and intimately challenging subtitle: The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash, with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners. Yet, surprisingly, this sustained overflowing, truly abundant book—written by an exuberant man in his fifty-fifth year of life—contains no index, nor any specific chapter-designations! Therefore, a keen reader of such a book might all too easily lose himself and not even be easily able to find once again those many inserted and refreshing expressions of wisdom and eloquence, and often of heart-rending poignancy which Belloc presents in passing and with a quiet implicitness. (The two above-quoted Epigraphs may well provide another hint to the reader of what Belloc will be willing to combine and to share with us with such candor and robust magnanimity—and with such unassuming and humbling modesty and with his frequent irony and humor.)

Let us now go directly to one of Belloc’s manifold and resonant passages to be found early in his maritime journey along the coast of Wales:

So we drifted down the narrow entry and out into the open sea [off Wales]; and all that afternoon, under a wind now slightly lifting, now falling again, we crept eastward and a little south, making more way as the sun declined, because the wind was shifting westward on to our quarter; and on that I was glad, for I desired to look into Port Madoc, which I had not seen since I was a child. I had vivid memories of it during a wonderful journey overshadowed by that air wherewith the Creator blesses childhood, lending to everything an active flavour of the divine; which is in three things, Clarity, Magnitude, and Multiplicity of strong emotion.

For the divine reveals itself in a special multiplicity, in an infinite variety. All that there is in colour and in music, and in line and in affection, and those added other raptures innumerable, such as we know not of nor can conceive—that is to be at last our beatitude: that is the fullness of being. In childhood our innocence permits us some little glimpse of such things; but with the passage of the years [if they are found to be without adequate Divine Grace] they are lost altogether. The light in the lantern goes out, and the living thing within us fails, and is stupefied, and dies….

If any man doubts the Fall of Man…let him consider this decay of heaven within ourselves as the maturity of our manhood develops. The more we are of this world and the more we know of it, the further we are drifting from the shores of the Blessed. (27-28—my emphasis added).

Shortly after this passage and his trying experience with the incompetent Welsh pilot (“a local trickster” (37)), we find Belloc now in a different spirit and he shows us other facets of his character and his nautical language:

Nona, cruising and voyaging Nona, wanderer over the seas of Britain, how in the solitude of your companionship my mind does lead me from one thing to another!….

The new day having come, we got the half-ebb [tide] a little before six o’clock, and threaded away down the Channel for the open sea.

I ought, I suppose, to have stopped in Port Madoc, and [to have] renewed the memories of my childhood. But a fig for the memories of my childhood, at six o’clock in the morning: at six o’clock of a May morning, and a nice little leading breeze, all cold a merry! The memories of childhood and the contemplation of the divine are for the evening; they go with candle-light, and with a wine I know, and with friends of twenty years. But, so help me He that made me, when I find the morning wind blowing well for the salt and myself freshly roused from a good sleep, I am full of nothing but the coming of the course and an eagerness for the line of the sea against the sky and the making of a further shore.

It ought to be more dangerous to float down on the ebb [tide] without a local trickster [like that dangerously feckless Welsh channel-and-harbour pilot bungling at night!], than to come up upon the flood [tide]. But fortune served, and the swirl of the ebb plainly marked the channel under that heartening [morning] light, with the glory of a new day shooting over the tops of the great and solemn mountains [of Wales] eastward, by the land.

Therefore, without misadventure, we came to the last marking buoy and took to the sea; running easily with the wind nearly aft, but a little on the port quarter, so that all was well. (37—my emphasis added)

We must not move on without first giving a little attention to Belloc’s reaction and commentary concerning that volunteer Welsh Pilot:

With the last of the light, and a westerly air which was but the suggestion of a breeze, we groped north anxiously for the opening to Port Madoc channel. How I should make it, even upon the flood [high tide], in the darkness, I knew not; for the sands [sand bars] there are miles wide, and this channel…shifts continually. But God sent me a pilot….

Nor was he a pilot, as the event shall show; but at any rate he belonged to that shore, and would have more knowledge that I. So I gave him the helm

The gliding [of the Nona] stopped; there was a slight thrill. She had hit Wales: an under-water, advance guard of Wales. The man at the helm was not apologetic, he was not humble, but he was at least subdued….I forbore to reproach him, not from kindness, but from cowardice….

To be coming thus into a very shoal fairway [the deeper channel], after dark, and to be in the hands of a pilot who was quite clearly one of God’s Three Great Welsh Fools—one of the triad, one of the Three Great Fools of Britain—was a strain to the temper, a strain to breaking point. It was no good my taking the tiller, for I had no idea of the channel, and only saw now and then, straining my eyes forward, a little blob on the darkness that would be a drum-headed buoy slowly drifting past as we lifted [off the sand bar] on the young flood [tide]. (31-32—my emphasis added)

Immediately after his delightfully humorous report and consequential detection of provocative folly, our beloved Belloc proceeds with an even deeper impish reflection, which is also full of irony:

I used to think that the irritation against fools was irrational and purposeless. Where it is written in Holy Writ [but done deftly and ironically so in Saint Paul himself!] that one should tolerate fools even with gladness, I thought that this was a general rule of conduct. But now I know it to be a counsel of perfection and, indeed, like so many things in the Old Testament, a counsel generally to be avoided. (33—my emphasis added)

The sustained artful charm of this rascal man is a fragrant enlivening balm. Do we agree?

Belloc also records with keen perceptions his meetings with two other men, one who seems to have been some kind of an exile, and the other was one who so generously supported all “sailormen” (123), and was especially now supporting the grateful Belloc himself.

After passing across Cardigan Bay, “a run of seventy-odd miles” (55), Belloc was first to meet a man, unnamed, who spoke “the most beautiful English” (55):

We let go the anchor, and, tying up our canvas [sails] in a very slovenly fashion, we hailed the shore and got a boat to come out, seeing that I had lost my own dinghy during the tempest in Bardsey Sound.

The man who came out to us in the boat hailed us as he approached in the most beautiful English….It was a privilege and an honour to be rowed to shore by such a man, for he was free of his conversation and all that he said was interesting, true, and well put….He asked us as we landed an astonishingly small payment for his services and then he promised to meet us again at a fixed hour to take us aboard [the Nona again]. In all things this man was worthy and a friend, for I could see in his eyes that he suffered exile. (55-56—my emphasis added)

Belloc’s second perceptive and very memorable encounter with a virtuous man began like this:

From the Cornish town [to the north] I had the next morning to make my way back to London; and Stephen Reynolds, whom I met, got her [the Nona] round the land safely to the ports upon the southern side [of the Cornwall peninsula, around Lands End, and perhaps beyond unto the likely larger port of Penzance], whence later I resumed this cruise2: Stephen Reynolds, that strongest-souled and most sincere of men, who desired and did good all his life. It is the meeting with such men, and the comparison of their public label with their true function, of their false renown or lack of renown with their certain standing in the eyes of their Maker, which lead all wise men to a perfect contempt for the modern world.

Does anyone remember him now of those who are reading this? Perhaps one or two, perhaps no one. He loved the poor: he understood the sea. He was a brother and a support to sailing-men, and he had charity, humility, and justice in equal poise. But the truth is, I take it, that our world is no longer fitted for governance by, nor even for advice from, its rare great men. It is fitted for governance by those who boast so exact an admixture of folly and of vice as makes them reasonably consonant with the stuff [or the mob] they have to govern. As for those who are too good for us, or too wise for us, why, the sooner they are out of it the better for them. And so it is the better with Reynolds….

But I wish that I could come across him again in this world, somewhere at the meeting of sea and land, and talk with him again about the schools of fishes, and the labours of those who seek them along our shores, and the souls of sailormen. (123 –my emphasis added)

Belloc was especially grateful, but also quite embarrassed by his likely failure after he, once again, had “sickened at the attempt” (124) out on the sea so as to turn “the point of Cornwall.” (124)

Later on, Belloc is given another bitter trial because of the crude and wrathful manners of a slick rich man at sea, and Belloc thus ironically finds some momentary (but quite impolite) relief by uttering himself a vividly imaginative and eloquent malediction (which we shall also aptly forgive):

What is less forgivable in the rich is their contempt for the usage of the sea, and their forgetfulness of its brotherhood….As with this man [“so rich that he must have stolen it…and his face purple with passion” (217)], his monstrous great ship soon steamed away down westward, and I sincerely hope that he struck that honest reef, the reef called Calvados, in a fog, making for Deauville [on the coast of France], and was drowned. (217—my emphasis added)

But Belloc was later to speak of an even greater trial, especially for his little boat:

I take it that there is no trial more trying in the sailing of a little craft than taking her through blinding weather at night inshore—whether that weather be blinding through feather-white slants of snow or through violence of sudden rain. (210—my emphasis added)

While we are absorbing and feeling such a situation ourselves, Belloc also intermittently presents us with another poignancy warmly remembered, and conveyed in his intimate personalizing of an inshore land formation, the Pillars of Old Harry and His Wife:

You are out of this main stream just before the ebb begins, and another, younger flood [tide] takes you up past Old Harry and toward Poole [a large seaport village on the Dorset coast].

Old Harry is an isolated chimney of chalk rock which still stands, expecting doom. He had a wife standing by him for centuries—a lesser (but no doubt nobler) pillar. She crashed some years ago and now he is alone. He cannot wish to remain so much longer, staring out to sea without companionship. I think he longs for his release. (207-208—my emphasis added)

Belloc will also teach us important things about truth, after first linking it to active sailing:

My [sailing] companion had never held a tiller, but he was very expert at all sports, and I thought to myself, “I will see whether so simple a thing as steering a boat [“at the fall of darkness”] cannot be easily accomplished by a man at the first trial. Then shall I be able to get whatever I badly need, which is a little sleep.”….I had given him his course [on the compass], and naturally, he had lifted [discovered] the light [on the horizon, the specific target and nautical marker] in good time. But he, for his part, could not get over it; he thought it a sort of miracle….that so clumsy a thing as a tiller and a rudder, and so coarse an instrument as an old battered binnacle compass, should thread the eye of a needle like that; it was out of all his experience….

That things should turn out so gave him quite a new conception of the sea and the sailing of it, and he talked henceforward as though it were his home.

This corroboration by experience of a truth emphatically told, but at first not believed, has a powerful effect upon the mind.

I suppose that of all the instruments of conviction it is the most powerful. It is an example of the fundamental doctrine that truth confirms truth….On this account, it is always worth while, I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense….yet it is worth making, for the sake of the truth, to which we owe a sort of allegiance…because whenever we insist upon a truth we are witnessing to Almighty God. (47-49—my emphasis added)

And, as Hilaire Belloc repeatedly said throughout his writings: we must always loyally remember proper proportion, “that quality vital to truth, the sense of proportion.” (254—my emphasis added)

Here now we have some hearty Rabelaisian glimpses of Belloc’s earlier life of sailing and singing, as was mentioned in passing as he was then aboard the Nona and going south to Cornwall:

For we designed to beat in again after a few miles, and so make our way down Channel towards the Cornishmen. There was certainly quite enough wind: “All the wind there is,” as an old Irish sailor said to me once during an Atlantic gale so abominable that he and I could not walk against its icy, sleeting December fury, but had to crawl forward tugging along the rail by main force, all up the windward side….That was a passage worthy of remembrance….I learnt from a stoker two songs: one called “The Corn Beef Can,” and the other called “The Tom Cat.” They are of the great songs of this world. (107—my emphasis added)

Considering now how we may also fittingly present many other of Belloc’s insights, we shall sometimes shorten the presentations themselves as well as the framing context and background of his substantial thought and varied tonal words. See the following page-references of Belloc’s lengthy book for an elaboration of his own helpful verbal shorthands:

For example, “an hypothesis” is not to have the same standing as “a fact” (77); those like Belloc who are also “much alive to the mystery of things” (81) such as “the mystery of tides” (96); anchoring properly and courageously facing “all the wind there is” (107, 209).

We now more attentively present some additionally memorable sentences of Belloc:

“We met him with gratitude: he was of that very considerable class known as the Good Rich, with whom are the Penitent Thieves, the Reformed Drunkards, the Sane Professors, the Womanly Furies, and all other candidates for heaven.” (92)

“The Nona is like those women who are peevish and intolerable under all conditions of reasonable happiness, but come out magnificently in distress. I lie; for the Nona is never peevish and intolerable.” (109—my emphasis added)

It is no use to argue nor much use to command in the face of imbecility.” (110—emphasis )

“The Faith is an attitude of acceptance towards an external reality: it is not a mood.” (117)

Well, what will come out of that welter, that corruption into which the decomposition of the Christian culture is now dissolving? What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion.” (122—my emphasis added)

Our only peace is doing God’s will; which includes going to pieces in the fifties, or sixties, or seventies, like an old disreputable, sodden, broken-down hulk [and sailboat] too long adventured upon the sea.” (186-187—my emphasis added)

“Poole harbour has traps within as well as this grinning trap of an entry, and the worst of these traps is the patchiness of the holding-ground [for anchors]. Unless you know where to drop anchor, you may be dragged in Poole, upwards, upon as fierce a tide as I know….But with all that, and although the Nona has caught fire there (the sea brings all adventures), Poole is a harbour that will always have good memories for me; and perhaps the Nona will go there at last to die.” (209—my emphasis added)

“And while they so thought [about the future] in terms of the only thing they knew, there had already arisen [in the 7th Century], in a place remote and utterly insignificant, among tribes of a few hundreds without power, culture, or tradition, under conditions utterly negligible, the flaming spirit of Islam.” (246—my emphasis added)

“It is in the irony of Providence that the more man comes to control the material world about him, the more does he lose control over the effects of his action; and it is when he is remaking the world most speedily that he knows least where he is driving.” (228—my emphasis added)

“For it is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.” (293—my emphasis added)

“Once I spent the whole day drifting with the tide from the two Etaples Lights to the Dune, and very nearly all the way back, but even that did not persuade me to a motor, for, of all things abominable to God and His Saints, I know of nothing more abominable than machinery and petrol and the rest on board a little cruising boat. I would rather die of thirst, ten miles off the headlands in a brazen calm, having lost my dinghy in the previous storm [in Bardsey Sound], than to have on board what is monstrously called to-day an ‘auxiliary.’ The name is worthy of the thing. By auxiliaries the Roman army perished.” (296, 23, 55—my emphasis added)

“What gives me great pleasure in them [the “Channel Pilot” and the “West Coast Pilot”] is that they are also picturesque. The unknown authors let themselves out now and then, and write down charming little descriptive sentences praising the wooded heights above the sea, or sounding great notes of warning which have in them a reminiscence of the Odyssey. One paragraph I have put to memory, and often recite to myself with delight. It runs thus (after praising a particularly difficult passage or short cut behind a great reef of our coasts): ‘But the mariner will do well to avoid this passage at the approach of the turn of the tide; or if the wind be rising, or darkness falling upon the sea.’ I like this. If I could write Greek, I would write hexameters, translating that noble strain into the original of all seafaring language….” (305-306) It recalls Homer himself, whom Belloc cherished.

Turning to statements of any reality after a dose of advocacy [or a “the habit… of propaganda”] is like getting out into the fresh air from an intolerable froust [a stale and cramped and hot stuffiness, or congestion].” (323—my emphasis added)

So, too, is it with the freshness and spaciousness of Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic Homeric Sailor .

CODA

Now we shall fittingly see and hear some of sailor Hilaire Belloc’s final preparations for the coming home—with the salt of reality—to the last harbour of his beloved Nona:

A great full moon rose up out of the east, out of the seas of England, and the night was warm. There was a sort of holiness about the air. I was even glad that we had thus to lie outside under such a calm and softly radiant sky, with a few stars paling before their queen.

We slept under such benedictions, and in the morning woke to find a little air coming up from the south like a gift, and introduction to the last harbour. We gave the flood full time (for they do not open the gates, and cannot, till high water); then, setting only mainsail and jib, we heaved our anchor up for the last time, and moved at our pleasure majestically between the piers, and turned the loyal and wearied Nona towards the place of her repose. (327-328)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). All further references to the book will be from this text, and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2After his exquisite tribute to Reynolds, Belloc later openly said: “I confess to a complete ignorance of going round the land, that is, of turning the point of Cornwall, and of passing from the northern to the southern coast. Three times have I set out from Saint Ives [on the northern coast] with the firm intention of passing the Longships, and putting her round up-Channel. Never have I done so….Had I ever fallen so low as to put a motor into the Nona, she would have gone around like a bus or a taxi; but under sail alone it was forbidden me. Each of the three times I started with a light wind and was becalmed; and at the end of the each of those calms I drifted back so far upon the flood [tide] that I sickened of the attempt….That is why I sent the Nona round the land.” (123-124—my emphasis added) Was the Nona sent by sea, after all, or by a trailer and vehicle, instead? I do not know. The ambiguity has stumped me.

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