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British midshipman literature set in the late-17th and early-18th centuries makes you feel like you’ve entered into an exclusive club, one which is nonetheless open to anyone who comes along and cracks the spine of the latest high seas adventure of a young man in flux.

A midshipman at the time was apt to be a 16- or 17-year-old boy who joined the King’s Navy with the expectation — or hope — that he’d eventually progress to lieutenant, and from there, if all broke well, to senior lieutenant, and on to captain.

This boy immediately took up a role as what we might now think of as management on these ships. The bulk of the crew were career-long sailors who could neither read nor write. Many of whom were victims, at one point, of England’s notorious press gangs, seized into service when they were drunk and stumbling home from the pub.

At which point, the King now owned you, and you would do his royal bidding at sea where you were likely to be impaled by a sliver of wood, flung from the rigging, ran through with a sword, or roasted in a fire. To compensate for the attendant risks of the job, you’d be plied with rum, and inebriated throughout most of your days.

More… “Novel Helmsman”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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As the ship sank I smirked. At the time I thought it wasn’t appreciated by the panicked crew members and passengers I was assisting onto rescue boats, but I couldn’t help it. Each addition to the drama — the arrival of a Coast Guard chopper overhead, the slight tilt of the ship toward Alaskan glacial melt, and, especially, the donning of the orange mobility-retarding life preservers — confirmed a suspicion that I was, in fact, the butt of some sort of cosmic joke.

That summer I landed a job as a steward on a small ship called the Wilderness Adventurer that carried sea kayaks for seven-night, soft-adventure cruises in Alaska’s Inside Passage. I turned out to be a pretty bad waitress and a slow cleaner of rooms.

The sky was never totally dark in June, and at night I would talk to Kelly, my roommate from Kansas who called passengers… More…