Pirates and Privateers Review
The California Run
Reviewed by Cindy Vallar
“. . . an arresting depiction of shipboard life during a 15,000-mile journey around Cape Horn.”
Harry Jenkins has two particular skills – wooing women and acquiring their valuables. Of course, his latest victim came with a father who’s now intent on reclaiming his daughter’s honor. That necessitates a hasty escape from Ireland, which is how he comes to be in New York. One might think Harry has learned his lesson. Alas, such is not the case. He needs to increase the distance between his vengeful pursuer and that requires money, so a new target is needed. Much to his chagrin, Lady Margaret Thompson seems immune to his charm. Then miracle of miracles, she suddenly pursues him and helps him acquire a ticket to San Francisco.
The past eight years were pure torture for Sarah Doyle, lady’s maid to Lady Margaret Thompson. On the eve of their voyage to New York, her employer postponed their trip and on a whim, Sarah appropriates her identity and luggage and sails to America. Nor has she taken this chance only to be duped by Harry Jenkins, so she separates him from his ticket and baggage and, for good measure, convinces two strangers to waylay Harry so she can board the California-bound clipper as Mrs. Harry Jenkins.
If told to kill someone, Gideon has no problem doing so. He’s not a hired killer, although he does enjoy using his knife. No, he owes Thaddeus Oglesby and will do almost anything for him. After all, his employer is one of the most powerful men in the city. Not even the law can touch him. Oglesby also owns Sapphire, the Yankee clipper upon which Gideon normally serves as second mate. The ship is soon to depart for San Francisco, but this time without Gideon. He’s to hire on as one of the crew of the Achilles to make certain she does not reach San Francisco first. Even if that means sending the newly-built clipper and those aboard to the bottom of the sea, for his employer has no intention of losing the race to California, the $50,000 wager, or the rich profits the first ship will garner once her cargo is sold in the gateway to the gold rush.
Being the second mate of Achilles is both an honor and a worry for Nate Cooper, who’s never served as a watch officer before. His first introduction to the chief mate proves less than welcoming, since Robert Biggs seems to rely heavily on a belaying pin and the lash to make the crew carry out their work. Nate disagrees with such tactics, but he’s not in a position to object. He knows only too well that he will have to prove himself every day of the 200-day voyage that he is the best seaman for the job, not only to himself, but to the captain, the chief mate, and the crew. Nor will this be an easy task, for the men of the forecastle are a mix of crimped landlubbers – one of whom is Harry, who hasn’t a clue about sailing, and nine Swedes, who barely speak English – and packet-rats, unruly bullies who’ve crewed aboard the transatlantic Liverpool packet ships.
Someone who shares his misgivings is Emma Jacobs, the captain’s niece. She has accompanied him on his voyages for three years, although this is the first stint on a clipper. During that time, she’s become an adept navigator and when rumblings of replacing Nate with another crewman as second mate begin, she intervenes and begins teaching him the art of navigation to better secure his position.
Set in 1850 during the California Gold Rush, The California Run is an arresting depiction of shipboard life during a 15,000-mile journey around Cape Horn. The unique and entertaining characters provide a volatile mix to which are added a thief, a saboteur, and a murderer. Interspersed throughout the story, rather than interwoven into it, are explanations about the ships and her crews. While this lessens the tension somewhat, it provides newcomers to nautical fiction with a good grounding in what it was like to be a merchant seaman when the fastest ships ever built sailed the seas.