Heart of Oak:

A Sailor’s Life in Nelson’s Navy

By James P. McGuane ’64 (Norton)


McGuane, a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s high seas adventure novels, turned that interest into this documentary/photo essay on sailing life in the Napoleonic era. Sharp, textured photographs of items recovered from shipwrecks and studies of Admiral Nelson’s HMS Victory offer a “you are there” view of life on a British Navy ship 200 years ago.

The author’s captions, which mix facts with fascinating narrative, breathe historical life into the relics. Next to a photo of a hot tar ladle, for instance, he writes: “Sailors have an expression for a formidable task for which they are ill prepared: ’We’ve got the devil to pay and no pitch hot.’ Filling a seam with oakum and tar was called ‘paying’ the seam. The ‘devil’ was the last, outboard plank on the deck; it was difficult to get at and required a lot of filler. Similarly, when a sailor went overboard he was ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea.’”