Sunday, September 4, 2011

Tales of the Zaca

A long time ago I was involved in writing a book about a sailor. That he was a sailor is not in question, but because this man was much more than that he captured the public’s eye and remains something of a legendary figure over one hundred years after his birth and fifty years after his death. When I was writing this book about this sailor I delved deeply into related research and soon became infatuated with the sea. Because as a writer I had everything in front of me – a blueprint of this sailor’s life – but I wasn’t content to construct sentences outlining his chronological adventures. I wanted to put something on the page that captured something of his spirit as a man and as an adventurer. This was, of course, the approach most modern biographers avoid. Such a path is fraught with peril. But what really made him tick? And where is his wandering spirit today?

I found out. It was there in a couple of books this sailor had read himself; two precious volumes that have over time collected dust on my bookshelf. But once in a great while I dust them off and again thumb through their pages, reading passages as my mood dictates. They are two books about a ship and my subject once owned that ship, the Zaca.
The Cruise of the Zaca by Templeton Crocker was published in 1933. It resembles Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in construction and tone. Darwin’s 1839 book is a combination scientific journal and travel memoir. Templeton’s Crocker’s book offers up some facts about the Zaca – it was designed by Garland Roch, a two-masted gaff-rigged schooner with topsails, built in the Nunes Brothers shipyard in Sausalito, California and set sail for the first time on May 8, 1930. According to Crocker Zaca was a Samoan word meaning “peace” but that may not be true. More likely Zaca derives from Chumash Indian and one source informed me he believes the ship was built with wood from the Zaca forest in California. Perhaps taking a lesson from Jack London (whose travel books are sadly also out of print) Crocker’s The Cruise of the Zaca offers myriad observations and enthusiasm for life. The book was popular and well-received and was the first public acknowledgment of the Zaca. Crocker’s travels aboard the Zaca take him from San Francisco to the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Pago Pago, Fiji Islands, New Hebrides, the Trobriand Islands, Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, Bali, Java, Singapore, Ceylon, the Suez Canal, Guatemala, Mexico and points in between. It’s a splendid book, unlike anything that might be published today, and very much a product of its author’s era.
The Zaca’s legend would be secured in 1938 with the publication of Zaca Venture by William Beebe, Director of Tropical Research with the New York Zoological Society. Darwin’s influence on Beebe is prevalent in Zaca Venture but makes a perfect companion to Templeton Crocker’s book. The Cruise of the Zaca and Zaca Venture may be too easily discounted as relics of a bygone age. They are much more than that, as are their authors and the Zaca herself (she sails the seas to this day). These are books about adventure which William Beebe reminds us means literally “That which comes to us or happens by design” and adds that “By adventure I mean the sudden breathless glimpse under the microscope of unexpected beauty and dynamic living in the world of life on a sliver of kelp, quite as much as the harpooning of a forty-two foot whale shark.” Some historians have referred to the 1930s as the last great age of exploration prior to the Space Age, and both Crocker and Beebe embody that adventuresome spirit. I would venture a guess that by 1938 the Zaca was the best known schooner in the world, but that fame would be short-lived and the Zaca’s travels across the seven seas would be truncated by World War II.
It would take a Tasmanian sailor to put the Zaca in the public eye again. And the name of that sailor I wrote a book about? I’m sure you’ve heard of him. His name was Errol Flynn. His travels aboard the Zaca are now legendary.

But that’s another story...

 NOTES ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS

TOP: Frontpiece photograph of the Zaca from Templeton Crocker’s classic The Cruise of the Zaca, 1933

2nd Photo: Frontpiece photograph of the Zaca from William Beebe’s Zaca Venture, 1938

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