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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’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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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…