Far Tortuga is a beautifully written, poetic adventure story, a haunting tale of men in conflict with the sea, one another, and themselves. Peter Matthiessen has crafted a spare and eloquent elegy to the ravaged Caribbean and to those men who have sailed and strived on that sea all the days of their lives. This book is full of the lore and legend of the Caribbean and of heart-piercing descriptions of the natural world, but it does not romanticize the life of the sea, nor is it weighted down with portentous symbolic meaning, as are many sea stories. Far Tortuga is a starkly realistic and unsentimental story of hardship and defeat.
The plot has three intricately interwoven strands: the rhythms of the sea and the sky, the last voyage of the Lillias Eden, and the internal struggles of the men who sail on this ill-fated vessel. It could be argued that the protagonist here is not Raib Avers but the endangered, impassive world of nature. The human characters do not even appear until the twelfth page, and all but one of them have disappeared by the last page while “the sun, coming hard around the world” is on page 406 as on page 5. “White birds” move across the “black beach” on the first morning as on the last. Twelve of the fourteen chapters begin with a reference to the natural world. Virtually every page reminds one that the wind and the stars and the sun and the sea are awesome, enduring, and alien.
The central plot line is lean and simple; it charts the course of Raib’s ship, the Lillias Eden, a ragged, sixty-foot schooner, and its equally ragged crew as they sail south out of Grand Cayman in search of the last turtles of the season. Captain Avers needs a good catch to complete the conversion of this aged schooner to power, but his quest seems doomed from the outset because he sails without a chronometer or running lights or life jackets or fire extinguishers or a radio which can send messages. Furthermore, one of the schooner’s propeller shafts is bent; one of its engines has a mysterious vibration; one of its cat boats leaks; the masts have been shortened; the rigging is worn and slack; the sails are patched; the helmsman cannot see forward beyond the partially built structure which is to be the new pilothouse; and the crew is composed of “two drunkards, one thief, and five idiots.”
The Lillias Eden sails south for three days to the turtle reefs off the coast of Nicaragua. Raib wastes a day trying to register with the Nicaraguan customs officials and then...
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Raib Avers is captain of the Lillias Eden, a schooner that travels the West Indian turtle banks between the Cayman Islands and the coast of Central America, primarily Honduras and Nicaragua, capturing green sea turtles. Son of another turtle-boat captain, Andrew Avers, Raib tries to round up a suitable number of turtles with the help of and often despite his sometimes quarrelsome crewmen. Raib needs to catch as many turtles as possible before they move south to lay eggs.
Raib has tried to modernize the Lillias Eden, converting it from a wind schooner to an engine-driven vessel, but the ship is a ramshackle mess, replete with defects such as a bent engine shaft. The captain cannot afford the additional modifications to make his craft truly seaworthy. There are complaints that Raib relies too much on the wind, preferring to zigzag instead of going straight. Some of the crew also object to how inferior their vessel is to competing ships, but generally they have faith in any ship built in the Caymans because of the superiority of the wood there.
The crewmen of the Lillias Eden talk about all manner of topics, from the navigating skills of the green turtle to ghosts, often revealing their prejudices, especially when intoxicated. Vemon Dilbert Evers, the most outspoken and colorful of the men, is not alone in denigrating Spanish-speaking countries, claiming that the people of Honduras and Nicaragua do not care about life. The turtlers, as the crewmen are called, are proud to be from the Caymans, where ethnic background is of little concern. They are suspicious of the boat’s engineer, Miguel Moreno Smith, who calls himself Brown because he is Spanish and seems unstable. Raib teases the men for...
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