Review: Vivien Horler
The Skipper’s Daughter, by Nancy Richards (Karavan Press)
South African broadcaster Nancy Richards is the daughter and granddaughter of ships’ captains, but she is not the protagonist of this charming book.
The daughter of the title is Richards’s mother, also called Nancy, and the book chronicles the six months or so the 16-year-old spent sailing around the world aboard a tramp steamer, the SS Nailsea Manor, with her father, Captain TW “Billy” Brooks.
Big Nancy, as she was known to the family, or Nancy Fancy Pants as the crew on board ship dubbed her, was taken on as the Captain’s Clerk for a shilling a month in 1938, the last year of peace before World War II broke out.
Nancy adored her father, but as he became more senior in the shipping line, he was away from his family for ever-longer periods – up to two years on occasion. Her relationship with her mother, Ethel, a former butcher and chandler, was less cordial, so when the opportunity arose to sail away with her father, there was no contest.
But Ethel was anxious. She had been told by a gypsy fortune teller that a dark-haired member of her family would drown at sea, and she had already decided her son would not follow the family tradition into the merchant navy.
Maybe the prophecy would come true for Nancy, she feared. In the event it wasn’t Nancy – it was Captain Billy himself. That isn’t a spoiler, we hear of the drowning in the prologue, when many years later on a flight together, Richards asked her mother: “But what actually happened, you know, when he drowned?”
And for the first time Nancy told the whole story to Richards, planting the seed that eventually became this book.
What helped the project was the fact that Nancy had kept a journal or log of her voyage with her dad, and this forms a lively and important part of the narrative.
The SS Nailsea Manor sailed from Liverpool in July 1938 bound for British Columbia via Curaçao. For the first couple of days Nancy was seasick, but soon recovered and was fine by the time the ship called at Ponta Delgada in the Azores, where father and daughter went ashore to see the sights.
Among the younger officers on board were Sparks, the radio operator, and the Second Officer, one Ron Richards, and they provided Nancy with much cheerful companionship. Years later she married Ron – a move that upset Ethel greatly.
On the ship Nancy did her share of the chores, from taking sun sights with a sextant, learning Morse, acquiring the basics of navigation – her father was appalled by her maths – and painting the wheelhouse.
She was even allowed, on occasion, to take the helm, writing: “On the long stretch down to Australia [from North America], I really became quite the proficient sailor. I had to steer the ship at some stage during the day. The first time I was taken to see the white wavy wake following the ship at the initial attempt, but eventually I became adept at keeping a straight course.”
The voyage took them through the Panama Canal, up the west coast of the US to Canada, and then across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii – Nancy was fascinated by the surfing – and on to Australia. All along the way the captain, Nancy and the officers were entertained in ports by the company’s agents, shown around, and introduced to many people who became Nancy’s lifelong friends – friendships kept alive by prodigious correspondence.
The n, in Adelaide, just before Christmas, the unspeakable happened.
Years later, Nancy told Richards in answer to her question as to what had really happened: “Oh it was all too awful. I think I blotted it out. I was just a child really. Poor Ron.”
Nancy was brought up hard by grief, but found redeeming love. This is a short but delightful read.