Saturday, July 7

Close to the Wind


The Beaufort Scale
by Peter Malone
Putnam 2007

Piggy-backing a bit on my addition to Poetry Friday I discovered a unique non-fiction picture book that really illuminates a somewhat obscure (to landlubbers like me) bit of nautical lore and arcana and makes it fascinating and beautiful.

Francis Beaufort was a British Naval Officer in the early part of the 19th century who, after five years of observation and rumination, developed the 13-point wind scale notation for recording wind conditions at sea that is still used to this day. Before they could accurately measure wind speeds there was no formal gradation of various wind conditions at sea until 1810 when Beaufort laid out his scale, not unlike the systems used for rating a hurricane's force or an earthquake's severity. Beaufort's scale uses the appearance of the sea surface, the effects of the wind on land, and what a typical man-of-war ship could expect in terms of its sail trim and speed.

Malone sets up the book this way: Each spread contains a page of text facing a beautifully rendered illustration. On the text side it begins with on of Beaufort's points on the scale, followed by the diary entry of a 12 year old boy aboard a fictional ship named the Zephyr, concluding with a paragraph and sidebar notes explaining some aspect of the diary's narrative. The information is always related to the text in some way, enriching the whole rather than tacking on trivial bits to make it somehow more user-friendly in a DK Eyewitness sort of way. I not only know now what a knot means in terms of a boat's speed I also know how it was measured with a fine spot illustration showing a typical knotted rope used for such purposes. And if I ever come across the reference of reefing a sail I'll not only know what it means I'll know precisely how it's done. It's also good to know that, if you are forced to sail near an enemy port in a storm, you can avoid being attacked by running their flag up your mast -- begging the unanswered question: how many flags did a ship have on hand for just such emergencies?

The diary entries themselves create a narrative as the Zephyr moves from a dead calm (Beaufort 0) at port in Italy across the Atlantic and through a a hurricane (Beaufort 12) off the coast of Barbados. This sort of structural force on a narrative can be harsh and yet Malone's handling of the information deftly weaves it altogether with practically no attention to the seams.

In addition, the book concludes with a short biography of Beaufort's military career, a map of the Zephyr's journey, a spread explaining the construction and labeling of a tall ship's various sales and masts, a glossary, and a short bit about the fate of ships after they were decommissioned (mostly made of oak, they were broken down and turned into furniture). That's a LOT of information to pack into 36 pages, yet it never feels forced or crowded.

The art isn't icing on the cake, it's a separate dessert in and of itself, and a flambe at that. Malone manages not only to capture the incredible detailing of the ship's rigging but from angles and perspectives you wouldn't expect: above and off the port side looking down, on an adjacent mast witnessing the reefing of the sails, bird's-eye-view looking down to show the condition of the sea. Simply outstanding.

I'm never quite sure who the intended audience is for a non-fiction picture book with this much information because it always seems to me like the target audience would view a picture book as "babyish". Hang it all, any kid (or adult) with an interest in sailing, storms or what life could be like on a 19th century sailing vessel should check this out.
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