The Grey Seas Under
by Farley Mowat

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Little, Brown; Boston; 1958
341 pages; 2 illustrations, endpaper map

April 2009


The gale ... had swung into the north shortly after noon so that it was now taking Franklin on the beam ... The cross-sea built up by the change in wind became more vicious for every mile that Franklin made to seaward ... in the indescribable turmoil generated by two sets of thirty-foot waves, running almost at right angles to each other. ...

The waves were in such conflict that they crushed the water of their substance beyond endurance and sent it pillaring wildly skyward. Franklin was half-drowned. Every door and hatch was dogged down as tight as human strength could make it, but still the freezing sea came in. Seas broke above her and poured down her funnels until the stokers worked in water to their knees. Water sluiced ankle-deep along the alleyways on the main deck and sent up stinking gouts of acrid steam from the hot ashes piled beside the chutes. In the stokehold the temperature rose to one hundred and twenty-five degrees, while in the wild world outside the salt spray was freezing to the steel.

Saving ships & men upon the ocean

The Grey Seas Under is Farley Mowat's history of a kind of ship that non-seafarers scarcely know exists. Foundation Franklin is an ocean-going salvage tugboat. Built as a very powerful Royal Navy sea-going tug, the ship was commissioned just too late for World War I, and after ten years of ordinary work or no work, it was brought over sea to Canada in 1930.

When we think of salvage, we're most likely visualizing undersea salvage, where experts in underwater work raise a sunken ship from the sea bottom, or extract its valuables. In contrast, a salvage tug's job is to rescue ships still on the surface of the sea, in trouble through mechanical failure, or severe storm, or both at once. Both surface and undersea salvage require considerable bravery and ingenuity. Undersea salvage seems to me primarily a problem, which the salvors can analyze methodically before taking deliberate action. Open-sea rescue, however, is primarily a challenge, the salvors determinedly racing to a stricken ship, locating it in probably thick weather, getting a line aboard and keeping it from breaking, pulling the ship safe to shore before it sinks. Ship and cargo, crew and passengers, in the latter case owe their return to port to a salvage tug like Foundation Franklin.

Determined tugboat work in gray storming

Franklin's epic career of salvage took place in the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean, including the open shores of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as well as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. There are a lot of ship rescues in Farley Mowat's dramatic history, both in open ocean and dangerously close to rocky shores. The technical details are explained easily. Balky captains or owners ashore may not want to commit to the expense of being saved, but Lloyd's Open Form covers the contingencies. Mowat explains the necessary business side of oceangoing salvage in the course of the book; hassles are sometimes frustrating, now and then funny to the salvors on the spot.

If there's a structural drawback in The Grey Seas Under, it's the necessary one that these rescues of ships by an ocean-going tug bear a family resemblance. Mowat doesn't describe every bit of work that Franklin ever did, but the major and even spectacular rescues are somewhat repetitive. Sunken-ship salvage has more variety. Occasionally submerged detail work is required by Franklin's experts to repair a damaged hull before a ship can be taken under tow. When we arrive at the World War II years, we see that Franklin adds to its usual risks the under-appreciated wartime dangers of the merchant marine, of a half-dozen years when the salvage ship itself might have been destroyed by a torpedo.

A brave ship with brave men.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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