Long before the recent popularity of man-versus-nature books, exemplified by authors like John Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, there was Farley Mowat.
In his 80 years, Mowat has produced more than 40 books, many of which can be found on sailors’ bookshelves, dog eared and salt stained. Many of his books have been out of print for awhile, so it was good news to all of us to hear that The Grey Seas Under, a gripping narrative detailing the heroic exploits of the crew of the ocean salvage tug Foundation Franklin in the 1930s and 40s, was going to be reissued by Lyons Press. The republication will give a whole new generation of readers an opportunity to discover Mowat and the wild characters he put into his books.
Franklin was found in Hamburg in 1930, as detailed in Mowat’s book, rotting at the pier and wearing the name HMS Frisky. Built in Dundee in 1918, she was twin stacked and powered by a massive triple-expansion steam engine. She was 156 feet and 653 gt, with 1,200 hp. Originally the vessel had been built for the Royal Navy as an oceangoing tug. She saw little use, was sold and towed barges, but mostly she laid at the dock. She was perfect for the business of deep-sea salvage, for which the Foundation Company purchased her.
The Foundation Company no longer exists, having been bought and sold over the years and finally closing down in 1968, but the company that evolved from it is called Eastern Canada Towing. The company performs virtually no salvage work now, and the Franklin herself was scrapped years ago at a dock in Halifax. All that remains of the vessel is the original bell, which sits in the company’s office. Still, that is not to be unexpected for a vessel that had been built of riveted iron and was powered by steam. But if there ever was a heroic boat perfectly suited for the task of challenging the North Atlantic in sea conditions that would make the rest of us run for cover, this was the boat. And she was lucky enough to consistently have a crew aboard who could get the best from her.
Mowat said that he got the idea for writing The Grey Seas Under while on a sailing trip with his father. In an interview recently with us, Mowat recalled, "I was doing a sailing trip with my father in a Norwegian ketch, and somewhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence we moored alongside Foundation Josephine." He spent the evening with the crew of the tug and grew interested in the story of what they had done in the preceding years. During the course of writing the book Mowat joined the crew of Foundation Franklin on several salvage trips, and when the book was published in 1958 it was well received.
Mowat said that he was particularly impressed with the people he met on the tug. "I had served in the infantry during the war and I was very disillusioned, so when I met these men – most of them Newfoundlanders – so sure of themselves, so competent, so undramatic, it almost restored my faith in human nature."
Mowat might be best known to American readers as the author of Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing. He has written mostly about the Arctic, Newfoundland, Native peoples, the sea, and, of course, dogs and boats in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. The essence of the tale of Foundation Franklin is the heroics of the men who consistently braved hurricanes and huge seas to get to ships far offshore to rescue crews and salvage the vessels. The low-key manner in which these seamen did their jobs is almost beyond belief. One is reminded of Shackleton and his men and their ability to improvise and survive through unimaginable hardship.