The Falcon on the Baltic by E.F. Knight


In his introduction to the Mariner's Library edition of The Falcon on the Baltic (1951) Arthur Ransome attempted to explain the very special appeal of this book:
Grown-up people (if those who love sailing ever grow up, which I doubt) are like children in taking particular pleasure in stories that tell of adventures that might happen, with luck, to themselves. In these days few can own or look forward to owning large vessels. The cost of building even small ones is fantastically high and growing higher, while the wish to own a boat is felt no less urgently by those who cannot afford it than by those who can. And (boats being feminine) for hundreds of young men and young women Knight's little vessel has seemed and will seem
That not impossible She
That shall command my heart and me.
There are still ship's lifeboats to be picked up cheaply and, if you are content with good crawling headroom and do not spoil them by some ridiculous superstructure, you can still make reasonable vessels of them, vessels in which you can move from one port to another, sleep and cook aboard, anchor in creeks where you can hear curlews instead of other people's wireless, and at week-ends, and on holidays, live in ecstatic discomfort. To all for whom such vessels are a dream of the future or a happy memory of the past Knight speaks as a personal friend.
When the Mariners Library was being planned, Ransome wrote to Rupert Hart-Davis on 5th November 1949 (Letters, pp. 329-330):
  Cruise of 'Alerte'. Nothing against it at all.
  I think another book of Knight's is far more likely to find buyers, and that is
  The 'Falcon' on the Baltic (NOT 'Cruise of the Falcon' which concerns a much bigger vessel).
  Reasons. Alerte was was a big vessel, crew of 13, with 4 paid hands among them, whereas the little Falcon was a converted P. and O. lifeboat, and her crew was Knight himself and one hand. Now lots and lots of people at this day are converting ship's boats and planning cruises in them. The whole adventure is one possible even to the young men of this day in spite of Government Restrictions. I remember what enormous pleasure I had in that book as a young man. I remember what enormous pleasure W.G. Coillongwoood had in it as an old one. It is a real beauty of a book, from the sailing point of view, and from the merely human. It is without one single dull paragraph, and this cannot be said of the Alerte book and still less of the earlier book concerned with a much bigger Falcon.
  The 'Falcon' on the Baltic is by far the best book qua book that Knight ever wrote.
  If you have not read it, I can lend you a copy, but God preserve you if you lose it, for I read it at least once a year.
  It is really a first-rate BOOK, whereas the other two, though good enough in their way, are without whatever the thing is that makes the difference.
As a newcomer to the book, what struck me most from the 'merely human' point of view was the personality of Knight himself: his huge enjoyment in everything he did, his interest in other people and tolerance of their foibles, and his sense of humour. He has some good stories to tell, and he tells them well. The following example is from Chapter 6:
"There is a fine hill in the Plantaage," said my companion, "and from the summit of it you will be able to see the country for a great distance around."

It interested me greatly to hear that there was such a thing as a hill in Holland.

"But where is it?" I asked, looking round the interminable plain, "I can see no hill."

"It is just over there; but you cannot see it, for it is hidden by that bush."

With Knight as our travelling companion we find ourselves visiting the travelling circus in North Woolwich where the Siberian wind turns the artistes blue with cold: we battle against the Falcon's leak and against the ill-intentioned boys of the Zuider Zee: and along the way we are welcome guests at many local festivities and meet many sharply-described characters such as the vain young man of Veile in Chapter 12 who reduces Knight and his companion to helpless laughter. Among the many memorable episodes, the crossing of the North Sea in the wind and rain in Chapter 3 is likely to strike a chord for any fan of Arthur Ransome, since it irresistibly recalls the crossing by the Goblin in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

I am grateful to Ian Baines for his loan of The Falcon on the Baltic.

Tim Johns