April 17, 2012

Childers the rebel

THERE PROBABLY aren't many keen sailors who haven't read a book called The Riddle of the Sands, by Robert Erskine Childers. It's a fictional novel dealing with Germany's preparations for an invasion of England in the event of war, and it enjoyed immense popularity in 1903 when rumors were rife that Germany was about to do just that. It quickly became a yachting classic and hasn't been out of print since. I have to admit I wasn't much taken by it, but I'm obviously out of step because hundreds of thousands of copies of the book have been sold, and continue to sell.

What most people don't know, however, is how Childers met his end. He was born in London and was a clerk in the House of Commons from 1895 to 1910, apart from military service in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899. His chief hobby, as you might have guessed, was sailing. He cruised the North Sea and the Baltic in a 7-ton converted lifeboat called Vixen, and it was this background that enabled him to write The Riddle of the Sands.

When war actually did break out in 1914, his knowledge of the German coast gained him a commission in the British naval reserve. He first served aboard a seaplane carrier but later joined the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty.

He served with some distinction, earning a Distinguished Service Cross, but after the war he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cause of independence for Ireland.  To this end, he joined the Irish Republican Army and was captured while running guns in his yacht, Asgard.

He was shot by Free State soldiers in November 1922 in Wicklow at the age of 52 — a sad, untimely, and undignified end for a very talented sailor and writer.

Today's Thought
Books, like proverbs, receive their chief value from the stamp and esteem of ages through which they have passed.
— Sir William Temple, Ancient and Modern Learning.

Some people are like a Slinky, not really good for anything except to make you smile when you shove them down the stairs.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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