A young suburban woman steps onto a cargo liner, in search of escape from the predictability of “an Adelaide life”; a surgeon recovers from a rare tropical disease in the Merchant Navy; a country shepherd takes care of cattle on a passenger vessel bound for the unexplored antipodes. At Sea weaves together these three seafaring narratives, three generations of South Australians, across one hundred and fifty years. The three are connected by the thinning bloodlines of family. But it is through their relationship to the sea, amid the structure, repetition and monotony of daily life on board that they form the deepest bonds. In the common search for adventure, identity, and a place to belong, the three— me, my father, my great great grandfather — are brought together in At Sea to breathe new life into the notion of what it means to be an Australian, in motion.
In 1986, I travelled from Melbourne to Oslo on a Norwegian cargo liner. At Sea follows my passage. In the book, my journey is accompanied by that of my father from Melbourne to Southhampton in 1956 when he left Australia as ship’s surgeon on the M V Aramaic. Our two stories are framed and, quite literally, made possible, by Warwick Langley’s passage on the H M S Buffalo in 1836, aged 25, from Portsmouth to Adelaide.
At Sea crosses genres as well as generations: the narration of my own journey is both memoir and travel story, at times venturing into creative non-fiction to ensure the force as well as the surprise of the writing. My 22 year old voice is found looking back at the journey today 28 years later, at a remove that animates the memories. My father’s voice is discovered in the diary and letters he sent to his mother and father while he was at sea. In the telling of his story, I as the narrator, learn who he was and, in so doing, meet a man I did not know. My father’s maternal great grandfather, Warwick Langley, earned a passage to Australia on the Buffalo as caretaker of the animals of Captain John Hindmarsh, the to-be governor of South Australia. Warwick was illiterate. The Buffalo’s passage is well-documented thanks to the significance of the voyage and the importance of its captain to South Australian history. Predictably, these documents are written from the perspective of those who occupied the upper decks. Warwick’s experience of poor living conditions, illness and death on the lower decks is rarely represented in official histories of the Buffalo. At Sea retains all factual details of the Buffalo’s journey, including the route, the seas and weather conditions, the routines of daily life. Warwick’s story is fictionalized, a fiction based on details in the ship’s log and other documents such as diaries, letters, historical accounts kept in the State Library of South Australia.
At Sea marries fact and historical fiction, uses diaries, historical documents and memories, to write a new historical perspective of South Australia’s first settlers, a perspective that in turn informs a unique vision of the Australian tendency to travel in search of the self.