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At sea

Posted December 11, 2013

If I was Joseph Conrad, which clearly I am not, I would not find a heaving ship a deterrent to writing. It is mesmerising to sail into the wide blue yonder,  the horizon a blank, a round curve to fall  off. The possibilities are endless …

The Maritime Museum in Hobart is as neat and crammed as a ship’s quarters. One small floor of the old Georgian building in Argyle Street holds history that spans aeons. From an Aboriginal bark canoe through to Dutch, French and English exploration. There is a case of early 19th century telescopes, sextants and quadrants – all that was needed to navigate the seven seas.Through to the history of whaling, the development of commercial fishery, the Tasman Bridge disaster … and there tucked away is another  piece of history that joined worlds. Big photographs of a wrecked ship on the banks of the Derwent River, the hull like the skeleton of a gigantic beast.

It is the remains of the  iron barque Otago, the only ship that Joseph Conrad captained. It was beached on the banks of the Derwent River in 1931 and gave the name to the suburb. Fans of the writer have come from around the world to photograph and souvenir it. Remnants can still be seen today.

Orphaned at 11, Conrad found his life on the oceans, but always described himself as a writer who sailed, not a sailor who wrote. He experienced pitiless nature and a life both confined and isolated. And always there, the ocean that hides so much below a smooth silvery surface. 

Bertrand Russell on meeting him told Conrad that what he found in his work was “the boring down into things to get to the very bottom, below the apparent facts’’.

The ocean boils outside the ship’s windows, the day fades, Conrad’s writing lasts.


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