A cruise to Greenland with Rockwell Kent

July/Aug 2002

American iconoclast Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was, in his time, a lobsterman, shipwright, sailor, Casanova and, most of all, a significant and celebrated artist. Sometimes referred to as “the people’s painter,” his amazing woodcuts, pen-and-ink drawings and oils are collected in museums throughout the world. Perhaps his best-known woodcuts are found in the 1930s editions of Moby Dick and works of William Shakespeare.

Throughout his long life, Kent espoused a politically incorrect – at least to the establishment – socialist position that made him very popular in the Soviet Union and attracted derision and investigations in the post-war era in his home country. In the 1920s and ’30s, though, he was one of this country’s most popular and successful artists. (He also was a successful commercial artist, having designed the Random House house logo and Viking’s ship logo, decorations that are still used by the New York publishers.) He was also a writer of great skill, who told the stories of his adventures in beautifully illustrated books. One of these, N by E, is a charming classic.

This is the story, as Kent writes, “of an actual voyage to Greenland in a small boat; of a shipwreck there and what, if anything, happened afterwards.” Kent and two shipmates departed New York in early summer of 1929, bound, of all places, for Greenland. They were sailing aboard a 33-foot wooden cutter, called Direction, designed by M.H. Minot. The book, originally published in a limited edition, became very popular, then went out of print. It has since been recently reissued in paperback.

Each chapter heading is illustrated with a wood cut – the combination of these, along with the fantastical story, make this story leap from the pages. The chapter Navigation is illustrated with a beautiful rendition of a sextant. Kent, until this voyage a novice sailor and navigator, describes the almost religious experience he had when preparing to take a sight:

“I have had this instrument for years and never used it. Never knew how. Its mere possession moved me. Often I have opened its case and looked at it – so beautifully contrived and made, and its bright arc so cleanly and minutely graduated.”

“And now at last, at noon of the 18th of June in the year 1929, having for nearly 47 years knocked about the world €¦ I propose to take my sextant in hand, cautiously creep along the pitching, tossing, rolling desk of my small ship, mount to the highest place against the mast, twist my legs around the halyards, brace my shoulders between them, and, resting one eye as if it were on that fixed point of the absolute, the sun, and the other on the immutable horizon of this earth, find by triangulation where I am.” Kent and his shipmates wrecked Direction on Greenland’s rocky shores shortly after making landfall.

So let’s join our lusty navigator, learning his craft aboard Direction on June 18. (We will use the 2002 Nautical Almanac.) The initial DR is 55° 45.2′ N by 59° 45′ W. Height of eye is 10 feet. Index error is 1′ off the arc. A: What is the time of LAN at the DR position? B: If the Hs is 57° 27.7′, what is the latitude?

On June 19, 24 hours after the first sight, Kent prepares another noon sight. Direction has been steering 043° M, making 4 knots. Variation is 023° W. There is no deviation. C: Find Direction’s True course. D: What is the DR at the new position? E: What time is LAN?  

By Ocean Navigator