I became a fan of South African sea novelist the late-Geoffrey Jenkins in my late teens/early 20s, when my fascination with all things marine and submarine blossomed – not many years before I learned SCUBA diving and went to work with dolphins for an all-too brief period. I collected the classic Fontana editions with the brilliant Chris Foss wraparound covers and thoroughly enjoyed them. But a few I was never able to grab, and recently found a mint copy of his 1981 novel A Ravel of Waters at a truly amazing second hand book dealer.
South Africa, as a country bordered by three oceans, has produced a number of noteworthy sea-writers, Anthony Trew and Wilbur Smith amongst them. Jenkins wrote principally about the sea, with a military espionage/thriller twist. His first novel, A Twist of Sand was published in 1958 and over the following twenty years he produced some epic adventures set around the stormy coasts of his native Africa, and in the Southern Ocean which fascinated him. Some would say he was somewhat written out by the 1980s, his 1984 outing Fireprint I remember struck me as a bit forced, lacking the creative spark of his earlier work.
A Ravel of Waters was hailed as a long-awaited comeback piece, and I enjoyed his dramatic turn of phrase when describing the wild Southern Ocean, one of his favourite localities for drama (see especially the brilliant Scend of the Sea and Southtrap). The story features the then-current technical proposal to bring back sail power for commercial carriers, and do so with space-age flair, hi-tech materials, computerised control, critical design developed with wind-tunnel experimentation to get far more power from sails than was ever dreamed of in the golden age. The experimental tallship Jetwind is on her maiden proving voyage, the vital leg of which is from Argentina to South Africa, through the turmoil of the far south. One can sense the writer’s enthusiasm when discussing the mechanics of re-imagined sail power, he is at his most passionate when bringing the vessel to life.
In 1981, the political situation down there revolved around Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, which erupted into war the following year. The novel takes place in the period of unrest between Britain and Argentina, though the Galtieri regime is not mentioned by name, nor does the name of Thatcher appear anywhere. This was also deep in the Cold War and the east-west tensions of the period form the over-riding background, that sees an Argentine extremist and his cadre ally themselves with the Soviet Union in preparation for a Falklands incursion with Russia’s tacit support, involving taking over the Jetwind as a political pawn.
The hero is Peter Rainier, a young solo yachtsman who has just crossed the same stretch of ocean in another hi-tech sailing vessel. This prompts him to be offered command of Jetwind after her skipper dies in a mysterious accident, and the vessel’s Argentinian first officer puts her about to Port Stanley in the Falklands where she is laid up for reasons no one can determine. An Argentine warship is dispatched to impound the ship, but Rainier gets them to sea in a hair-raising night escape. The first officer must of course hijack them, and takes them to a rendezvous in mid-ocean where a Russian naval contingent is using a vast grounded iceberg as a secret harbour. The iceberg known as Trolltonga was a genuine object, the largest ever observed to that time, it calved from Antarctica in 1965 and its last remnants melted in the latitudes of New Zealand in 1978; Jenkins used it with artistic license as the locality for his finale some years after that date.
The First Officer, Grohman, comes across fairly manic, as might be expected, but somewhat cardboard in his bad-guy-ness. One must remind oneself, no one on this ship is over 28 years of age, not even those ex-Navy and secret service, and it is a little difficult to relate to men of determination and action who are half one’s years. Ships at sea typically benefit from the experience of many years at the senior level, and though the circumstances are somewhat extenuating, it’s very youth-oriented.
The romantic interest comes between Rainier and the sailmaker, Kay Fenton, a romance which blossoms somewhat haphazardly, crystallizing when Kay goes overboard in a fall from the yards and is rescued by the skipper in a small-boat action. However, Jenkins’ age certainly plays a part in his expression – he was 61 when this book was published and when it comes to romantic dialogue he has twenty-somethings speaking in the vernacular of the 1940s – few young, dynamic types in 1981 called each other “darling.”
I feel Jenkins underplayed the ending. Short sentences are a fairly transparent device to imply pace, and his staccato narrative jars against his smooth expression earlier in the book. The closing chapters would have been too late to introduce new characters, so the Soviet naval squadron remains impersonal, mere background to the conflict of the principals. The action is at least a little contrived – times and distances are mysteriously ignored – are we dealing with fifty metres or five hundred? We have a few minutes before everything blows up, can a man in a survival suit really swim X distance in the time available? Can a cold water survival suit really cushion a man against a fall from the heights, inside a cylindrical metal mast? And so forth.
The Russian naval flotilla is blown sky high during an operation to refuel from a special reserve sunk on the oceanic bank which had grounded the berg – somewhat convenient, perhaps, yet Jenkins mysteriously underplays the episode. Perhaps we are inured to vast SFX sequences in Hollywood blockbusters, the sort of imagery this novel cries out for, but the visuals of the narrative fall short by today’s expectations.
Overall, A Ravel of Waters was an entertaining read, at its best when rhapsodizing about the mechanics of sail propulsion and the lonely, terrifying reaches of the Southern Ocean. If you enjoy a pacy thriller with action and exotic locales, and can overlook the odd shortcoming in dialogue and narrative, it’s well worth a look, and the international tensions of the pre-Falklands War period are interesting to look back on from nearly four decades hence.
Cheers, Mike Adamson.