William McFee wrote with authority about the sea, for not only was he the son and grandson of sea captains, but he himself spent much of his life at sea, rising to the rank of a chief engineer before settling down in Connecticut in 1922. Fortuitously, McFee was born at sea—to a Canadian woman who often accompanied her husband on transatlantic voyages—aboard a three-masted, square-rigged ship that his father had designed and built.
Shortly after McFee’s birth, his father retired near London. The boy was educated at several local schools and then apprenticed at an engineering firm near Aldersgate. Following his apprenticeship, he worked as an engineer and as a salesman for a laundry machine manufacturing company. Meanwhile, he read widely and became passionately interested in Rudyard Kipling and socialism, an odd combination that is indicative of McFee’s eclectic tastes. He occasionally lectured and became associated with literary men, which stimulated his desire to write. In 1906 he resigned his sales job to begin a five-year tour as seaman. His background in mechanics led him naturally to the engine room and to a position as engineer’s mate. Eventually, he became chief engineer on the SS Fernfield, establishing a garrulous fictional alter ego in his Chief Engineer Spenlove, the central figure of many of his later novels.
McFee’s first book, Letters from an Ocean Tramp, appeared in 1908. Four years later McFee came to the United States with the intention of devoting...
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