Although not nearly as old as the sea itself, literature about the ocean and its inhabitants has been part of written language from the very beginning. In the ancient world it ranged from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 750 b.c.e.)where its implacable hero meets grueling terrors on his voyage hometo the biblical story of Jonah, whose spate of ill fortune would become an epithet for any sailor associated with bad luck. In more recent times, the literature of the sea has expressed itself in forms both real and imagined. There are innumerable published accounts of ocean voyages and the transformative effect of the sea upon writers; the best known and the one that virtually created its own genre is Two Years Before the Mast (1840) Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s coming-of-age tale of life on the brig Pilgrim. Undeniably, there is something about the nature of water that ceaselessly inspires authors to write about it, beyond the fact that it is both a means of livelihood and a source of recreation.

It is common knowledge that water covers three-quarters of Earth’s surface. Ironically, even as evolution reveals it to be the source of all life on the planet, it remains a region little understood and the last great unexplored frontier on earth. On or near the ocean’s surface, plant organisms in this biological matrix manufacture much of the atmospheric oxygen that is so vital to life on earth. At or near the bottom of the ocean, however, roam creatures as strange as any to be found in science fiction. In this area of perpetual gloom, life thrives in the vicinity of volcanic vents, a region once deemed to be a biological void. Of more immediate importance, though, is the fact that, in an age of diminished arable land and a rising world population, the oceans represent an enormous and mostly unknown protein resource. It is this fact that forms the backdrop to Redmond O’Hanlon’s book Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.

O’Hanlon, who has fashioned a career by writing about his experiences in such inhospitable places as the Congo and the Amazon, would seem to be the ideal person to challenge the North Atlantic Ocean. Although he was once a member of an elite British military group known as the Special Boat Service, he also has a considerable reputation as a credentialed scholar. His doctoral thesis concerned the relationship between nature and Joseph Conrad’s writings, and for fifteen years O’Hanlon served as the natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement, one of the most distinguished literary publications in the English language. Trawler, unlike Dana’s classic work, is not about a young man matching his physical prowess against the power of the sea. Indeed, O’Hanlon readily admits that he looks and feels every bit of his fifty-one years, and his frequent bouts of physical incapacity constitute the book’s most humorous episodes. In a very real sense, Trawler is an ironic response to the usual firsthand account of a sea voyage.

Most such real-life narratives are solidly rooted in time and, as in Dana’s book, are often presented as extended journal entries. Not so with O’Hanlon. Given the importance of this voyage, one would think that, at its inception, he would inform the reader as to the precise date that he boarded the Norlantean, the ship that figures so prominently in his tale. Instead, it is casually revealed in an aside that the trip takes place during a cold January somewhere north of Scotland. Rarely does the author clearly distinguish one day from the next. While Luke Bullough, the biologist-crewman and doctoral student who serves as O’Hanlon’s guide, states that a trawler is expected to return to port after ten days with a full hold, fouled gear forces O’Hanlon’s vessel to return with less than a full load. O’Hanlon has stated in an interview that the entire voyage lasted two weeks, something one would be hard-pressed to find by reading his text.

Why is the author so coy regarding time frames in a genre that is usually constituted by them? Given his literary credentials, one can only conclude that this was a conscious choice on O’Hanlon’s part, and one that addresses two time-related issues that come into play in the book. When Dana came to write his narrative, he was attempting to describe the Herculean tasks performed by himself and his fellow crew members during an epic twenty-four-month excursion. In the modern, mechanized merchant fleet,...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)