A book like this comes around rarely. It reads like a gothic novel but has all the research and facts of a court presentation. It is a true story, but its truth may be instinctively denied by the reader, so terrible is its basis. Despite an absorbing and well-written plot, the reader may at times be tempted to stop reading – if not in revulsion, at least in prayerful contemplation – but the urge to turn another page will prove too irresistible.
In brief, The Custom of the Sea is a masterpiece of literature, historic jurisprudence, and English maritime history. Above all, it is a stark testament to Man’s will to survive.
It is a sailor’s book, but the ethical and legal points it raises will be debated with equal passion by lawyers, priests, housewives, CEOs, and others who may not know a bowline from a bow line.
It’s the 1890s and the “golden age of yachting” is in full swing in England. Tom Dudley has been commissioned to deliver a racing yacht, Mignonette, from Essex, England, to her owner in New South Wales, Australia. At first it is difficult for Dudley to secure a crew, there being some question regarding the yacht’s seaworthiness. But ultimately he is able to settle on three: two able-bodied seamen, Stephens and Brooks, and a young lad, Richard Parker, who is keen on adventure and the romance of sailing.
Off the coast of Africa the Mignonette is hit by a ferocious storm. For five days the ship runs barepoled with the hurricane-force winds until a rogue wave broaches and swamps her. With only a sextant, a chronometer, a wooden baler, and two tins of turnips, the men crawl into a 13-foot lifeboat and watch the Mignonette slip beneath the waves.
What follows are the horrific details of three weeks in an open boat with sporadic rainwater to drink and no food to eat beyond the turnips and a sea turtle they happen upon. Their suffering and agony intensify as each hour of each day passes with no ship sighted on the horizon.
On the 24th day Captain Dudley says, in little more than a whisper so swollen is his tongue, that the time has come to follow the well-established “custom of the sea.” Lots must be drawn to determine who will die so his body and blood might sustain the others. The deed done and their bodies now nourished, the three remaining men hang on until a German vessel sights them and returns them to England.
At home, a new wave of horror awaits them. Captain Dudley has done nothing to hide the truth of what happened in the lifeboat. To his mind, he has only done what others before him in similar circumstances have done for centuries, without punishment.
But the home office in London has been waiting for an opportunity to expose and forever outlaw the custom of the sea. The citizens of Southampton and other seafaring towns may greet Dudley and his shipmates as heroes, but English law regards them as murderers. The trial that ensues becomes as engrossing as the deeds in the lifeboat, as both sides argue their case before the bench, the press, and God.
However large one’s personal library may be, there are only a few books therein that have the power to leave a lifelong impression upon the reader. I predict this will be one such book.