Who let the sea-dogs out? From knockabout pirate sim Sea of Thieves to pretty much every Assassin’s Creed since 2012, life on the ocean wave has never been more accessible, even if voyaging across azure-blue oceans usually involves little more than holding down a button to sally forth, reducing the complex elemental interplay of tide and sail into something a little more manageable. But these foam-flecked games still evoke something of that salty, swashbuckling spirit of romance and adventure.
I have vestigial slivers of sailing knowledge in my hinterland, having spent a term’s worth of secondary school Wednesday afternoons inexplicably in command of a single-sail Topper dinghy patrolling the opaque grey murk of a local loch. While presumably spending hours trying to coax a boom into a tacking turn my most vivid sense memories are of the warming post-session Pot Noodle. But in the many years since, I have devoured the Master and Commander novels of Patrick O’Brian, vicariously experiencing the excitement of life in the Napoleonic age of sail – all tall masts, grapeshot and weevil-infested ship’s biscuit – through the daring exploits of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his lubberly surgeon sidekick Stephen Maturin.
By god, the O’Brian books are exhilarating. Immersive, too, in that the reader is bombarded with antique sailing terminology and simply expected to keep up. On the page, I have experienced dozens of sea battles at the shoulder of Aubrey, a lifelong mariner with almost preternatural skill when it comes to handling his ship. But while lustily whooping with joy at another daring Lucky Jack victory, I rarely have the foggiest idea of what has actually occurred: how the deployment of a specific sail at a specific time has somehow given our gutsy captain the strategic edge over a less-skilled opponent. (In this, the unsure reader can commiserate with the equally bemused Maturin, who has been known to mutter: “Clearly something terribly nautical and fascinating has just happened.”)