The Sea Captain’s Wife – by Beth Powning
‘When ships were made of wood and men were made of steel…’
A friend recommended this book, after hearing that I’m working on a memoir about my own times at sea with my husband & two children. Beth Powning’s novel tells of a woman’s life at sea in a very different time – the 1860s – when, as my husband has often remarked, ‘Ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.’
Azuba lives in a small port on the east coast of Canada, and longs to be the kind of sea-captain’s wife who travels with her husband, rather than a woman who sits at home in a dull, safe world, awaiting her man’s return. A long wait, since these voyages were often two years or more in length. Although Azuba marries her sea-captain, Nathaniel has no intention of exposing his wife – and their young daughter – to the dangers and privations of such a voyage. He leaves her at home until a minor scandal – caused by his wife’s friendship with the local minister – changes his mind.
What follows is a realistic and well-researched account of Azuba’s experiences at sea with four-year-old Carrie. The horrors of Cape Horn and a period of starvation in the Doldrums are vividly described, as is the equally heart-wrenching situation between Azuba and Nathaniel. As she discovers, he is a different man at sea – detached from her, his focus totally on the ship and his responsibility for every life aboard. Their relationship is complicated by his belief that she betrayed him with the minister. How this plays out is utterly convincing.
The periods at sea are relieved by lengthy stays in port. In contrast to the privations aboard, the couple with their daughter live in luxury hotels while cargo is being unloaded and fresh cargoes arranged. All very different from modern times, and yet I could relate to Azuba as a woman, and understand the complications of her relationship with Nathaniel. How this plays out – both emotionally and professionally – is so true to life, that I found myself nodding and sighing in sympathy.
Some reviewers have expressed surprise that women travelled with their husbands in 19th century sailing ships, although it was quite common, certainly in the UK. This beautifully written novel is stirring, authentic, and a great testimony to their courage and fortitude.