Contemporary Reviews of Racundra's First Cruise


Times Literary Supplement, 12th July, 1923. (E.E. Mavrogordato)

A Baltic Cruise

Helsingfors? – opposite Stockholm – most of us can place Helsingfors; Reval? – if allowed to generalise the east coast of the Baltic and treat it as a straight line, we could pass on Reval . But Oesel and Dago and Moon? We should put them down as miscreants in a children's rhyme. We learn from this book that they are islands off the coast of Esthonia – in fact they, together with the gulfs of Riga and Finland, were among the subconscious memories that made us a little doubtful in treating that east coast of the Baltic as a straight line. It was among those islands and the shoals with which they are girt that Mr. Ransome made the voyage of five hundred miles which he describes in this book. His ship was a thirty-ton centreboard ketch, built in Riga to his specification and to the design of a friend. He himself was master as well as owner, and his crew consisted of a lady, who was kept busy cooking all the time, and an ancient mariner. The nationality of the mariner may be given as Baltic, and he had more definite claims to consideration in having been a seaman in the Sunbeam; more than that, he claimed to have raced the Kutuzak in the Demooply; and when it is realised that these names are Baltic for the famous clippers, Thermopylae and Cutty Sark, it will be admitted that Mr. Ransome could not have done other than sign on this custodian of ten-foot dinghies for a cruise to Oesel and Dago and Moon.

Mr. Ransome makes us share his pride in his ship, and the thrill of satisfaction that is felt in picking up landmarks. The primitive man in us is puffed up if he puts out from Tottenham Court-road for Golden-square and makes a good landfall, and Mr. Ransome had to pick up real flashing lights. It was a considerable feat, for his compass was not pointing truly. There was this to be said for the defective compass: the Racundra had to be swung like a big steamer for correction of the error, and the process is described in loving detail. The people Mr. Ransome met on the islands and the coast were worthy of the names. The morals of Run÷ are so strict that the seal hunters who lived there tried a woman who had offended against their code by General Assembly and condemned her to death. But none of them would consent to be executioner, so they fastened her to the bottom of a little boat and set her adrift in a storm; the boat reached the coast of Courland and the woman – so the story goes – "continued her wicked career on the mainland where people are less critical." The seal hunters use flint-lock muzzle-loading guns. Strangest of all was a sea-captain put in charge of a stranded British ship by a salvage company. He had lived alone in her for two years waiting for the tide to rise and float her off; when offered newspapers, he refused them courteously, saying he would never have time to read them.

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Observer, 15th July 1923. (Anonymous)

In the Baltic

The Racundra is a 30 ft. ketch specially built for cruising in the Baltic, and the "Racundra's first cruise" is the record of her maiden voyage penned by her owner and master, Mr. Arthur Ransome. It was a five weeks' trip from Riga to Helsingfors and back. The first point of call was the little, forgotten island of Run÷, where life is still simple. Thence the Racundra sailed through the difficult Moon Sound to Reval, and so across the gulf to Helsingfors. Mr. Ransome has managed to get a true yachtsman's enthusiasm into his pages, and his readers will enjoy his vivid account of steering with a defective compass and his frank confession that he went to sleep at the tiller. He is no less at home on land, and his impressions of places are happily done, the description of Reval being specially attractive.

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Manchester Guardian, 16th July 1923. ('A.S.W.')

The reviewer responsible for this 'long and enthusiastic' review (Brogan Life, p. 263) was Arthur Wallace, for many years Literary Editor of the Manchester Guardian.


Racundra (owner and master Mr. Arthur Ransome, who is well known to our readers as a skilled navigator in the troubled waters of European policy), is that ideal craft that is just big enough to go anywhere. One need not sail such a yacht to Callao to get the most of her. It is the fact that one could that counts. It may be that one is merely dropping down, say, the Firth of Clyde on a summer night, picking up in turn the Cumbrae, Holy Isle, and Ailsa Craig lights, with the few well-chosen messmates singing chanties in the tiny cockpit, and on the starboard bow the Arran mountains, rising black from the sea in the moonlight to their caps of white cloud. No farther than the Hebrides this time, it is agreed, and yet –. There's an abundance of stores aboard of her – tinned meats and biscuits and fruits enough for a month at sea, and even a keg of the "right Jamaica" that the old bold mate Henry Morgan affected. Her water-tank is newly filled. Her crew have been through much and never fallen out nor shirked. As for herself, she will stand up to anything, with her broad-beamed thirty feet of length and her staunch, simple rig. Why not go on, and on, and see strange parts and different sorts of men and many wonders? No yachtsman but has this feeling if he loves the sea and trusts his craft and the men who sail with him. That is why Mr. Arthur Ransome's book will make most of them jealous. For he has had the courage of his aspiration.

Racundra, for long a dream demanding realisation, was built last year at Riga to the plans of her owner and of the "the best designer in the Baltic". She is a centre-board ketch, not quite thirty feet long, with a twelve-foot beam and a five-horse-power auxiliary which Mr. Ransome in the course of a 500-mile cruise in difficult waters and in sorts of weather disdained to use.

She was to be a cruising boat that one man could manage if need be, but on which three could live comfortably. She was to have a writing-table and book-case, a place for a typewriter, broad bunks were a man might lay him down and rest without bruising knee and elbow with each unconsidered movement . . . She should not be fast, but she should be fit to keep the sea when other little boats were scuttling for shelter. In fact, she was to be the boat that every man would wish who likes to move from port to port, a little ship in which in temperate climates a man might live from year's end to year's end.

Her owner had meant to sail her first to England, but she was launched too late in the year for that. He sailed her instead fro Riga to Helsingfors and back, threading her way among the islands that strew the Esthonian coast. He had two shipmates. Of the cook, who seems to have been kept outrageously busy, he writes: "She became a sort of juggler, keeping plates, cups, saucepans, kettles, teapot, coffee-pot, thermos flasks and Primuses in a whirl of perpetual motion. . . . The Primuses roared continually like blast-furnaces in Northern England. And we, relentless and without shame, called continually for food. Of the three of us, The Cook, without a doubt, was the one who worked her passage." The other, the Ancient Mariner, was in charge of a tiny harbour for small craft at Riga when Racundra's prospective owner first came on him.

Many, many years ago he sailed on the famous Sunbeam of Lord Brassey. He had been a seaman on the ThermopylŠ, which he called the Deemooply, and had raced in her against the Kutuzak, in which odd Russianised name I recognised the Cutty Sark. . . . "I am an old man," he said, "and I should like once more to go to sea before it is too late." And I, of course, agreed with joy, for there is no such rigger in the Baltic as the Ancient Mariner who has know what it was to sail in the ThermopylŠ in the days of her pride. He spoke of Racundra always as "our ship," and as we sailed his ambitions for her grew with every day. "When we are in the Mediterranean," he would say, "we must make a canvas double roof for the cabin, or it will be too hot in there." And then, "She'll find the long waves of the Atlantic child's play after this. It won't be till she's near the American coast that she'll have anything as bad."

Truly, good shipmates these. They had their jeopardies and excitements while Racundra was finding herself. The compass was in error – no light matter in the tricky waters of Moon Sound – and until they had the ship "swung" at Helsingfors – an operation which Mr. Ransome describes very clearly for the landsman's benefit – a guesswork allowance had to be made. Her highly decorative sidelights would not stay in, nor would the binnacle light, and, mot of all, off Baltic Port on a dirty night her mainsail gaff-jaws gave and the whole mainsail came down "in a tumultuous and entangled mass"

Then began a wild but in a curious way rather enjoyable night. . . . There was Racundra with her mainsail gone, proved incapable of beating under staysail and mizzen, rigged as they were in a temporary manner, careering through steep seas in a pitch-dark night with no sidelights and a binnacle lamp that would not burn. On the face of it, misery. Yet there was no misery about it. It was my own thing, this careering business out here in the dark, and I had the joy of possession . . . Wind and sea had clearly made up their minds to knock us and blow us to Finland, or, if, if we insisted on working sideways, to plant us on Nargon like many good ships before us. Racundra and I were of a different determination, and as we careered in the dark over waves that that always seem bigger at night I had the definite impression that Racundra was enjoying it also in her fashion. I found myself, who do not sing in happier moments, yelling "Spanish Ladies" and "Sumer is icumen in" and "John Peel" at the top of my voice.

That was a night to remember among those that go to cement a friendship between a man and his boat. But the whole cruise, we can see, is but the beginning of a joyful partnership of which we shall hear more. And whether for yachtsman or landsman Mr. Ransome and Racundra make good reading. In this volume we put in at little Baltic islands whose people and villages have scarcely altered with the passage of centuries, we meet with seal-hunters in a craft of queer rig, who use a flint-lock gun and have only the slenderest acquaintance with the uses of a camera: we hear the tale of a British ship stranded for two years on a lonely Baltic rock and of how her captain filled in his time most happily with fishing and shooting while he waited not too enthusiastically for the waters to rise high enough to float him. The Ancient Mariner drops an occasional reminiscence full of character into the log of the cruise (his tale of the German skipper who bought a coil of good rope, after inspecting a sample, from a miscreant in a boat alongside, only to find, when he had paid for it, that it had just been stolen from his own foredeck, is typical). But best of all we have the zestful, changeful day-to-day life of Racundra herself. She finishes her first cruise gamely, rushing upon Riga by night, heavily reefed through mighty seas, with an equinoctial from the north roaring behind her. Her owner's joy in her is as excellently infectious as his account of the cruise is vivid. He has, moreover, used his camera to good purpose, and the thirty illustrations of Baltic ports and peoples greatly help the book.

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New Statesman, 21st July 1923. (Anonymous)

A detailed and sympathetic review: Arthur must have enjoyed this one!


This book shows Mr. Arthur Ransome in a new light. We see him becoming the owner and master of the thirty-foot ketch, Racundra, the building of which in a yard at Riga almost convinced him of the truth of the saying that fools build and wise men buy. For the builders were nearly five months late; the summer was mostly wasted, and it was only when the year was almost too far advanced for Baltic cruising that an exasperated Mr. Ransome was able to take possession of his still unfinished boat and put to sea.

Yet, despite unpainted wood, cleats that were not fastened, and ungalvanised nails in the cabin work, which had laboriously to be replaced by brass screws, the perfect behaviour of Racundra soon gave Mr. Ransome the quite proper pride in his boat and in his own success as master, which is half the charm of this delightful account of the first cruise from Riga to Helsingfors and back. The cruise lasted five weeks and covered five hundred miles. The crew were the cook, of whom we hear little, and a quaint figure of an aged seaman, white-bearded and gnome-like, who had sailed in Lord Brassey's famous Sunbeam, and had so long ago spent fifteen years of his youth in Australia that, when Mr. Ransome rescued him from looking after dinghies at Riga, he had almost forgotten his English. Mr. Ransome gives fascinating accounts of the places visited, amongst which were mediŠval Reval and the lonely island of Run÷, which he describes with reason as the most romantic island of Northern Europe. The two hundred and seventy inhabitants are Swedes, but speak an archaic Swedish and live in an atmosphere of the Middle Ages. The men are seal hunters:

Each seal killed belongs not to the lucky hunter but to the community as a whole. The land has been divided into workable farms, and if a family increases it cannot acquire fresh land. It merely adds the necessary room space to the farmhouse and often does not even do that. If a son marries, he builds himself a bed, which is set up in the room of his parents, and twenty years later, if his son marries and the grandparents are still alive, another bed is built.

But the main charm of the book lies not in such topographical matters but in the account of the daily life on board. All kinds of weather were met. The run in to Riga on the homeward voyage was especially exciting, for by then it was so late that bad weather was bound to be expected. Racundra, however, behaved superbly and thoroughly justified Mr. Ransome's faith in building her to his own special requirements.

For she was a boat not quite on ordinary lines; her beam was enormous and her cabin made an ideal place for a writer to work in. We fancy we shall hear of Racundra again; we sincerely hope so, for we have already an affection for her, and merely to read her detailed description is enough to make anyone's mouth water Ś anyone, that is to say, who is not a speed-maniac.

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Saturday Review, 28th July 1923. (Anonymous)

It is difficult to avoid the impression that, in giving the list of sails carried by the Racundra, the author is trying, without great success, to conceal his uncertainty in commenting on the nautical details of the book.

Another1 writer, who has had a more continuous, if less sensational, experience of Russia, has issued a volume which yachtsmen will read with envy and any type of holiday-maker with delight. But whereas Mrs. Sheridan has launched herself into the vortex, or vortices rather, of European politics, Mr. Arthur Ransome trimmed his sail and set out for Baltic harbours and islands to leave as far behind him as possible all memory of Riga or Red Russia. The thought of building his own boat to sail these waters had long filled his mind, and the type of craft he built, in the despite of its builders, will be found lucidly described in an appendix for the benefit of other possible yachtsmen. The Racundra was a snub-nosed ketch nine metres in length and three and a half in beam. She had a staysail, a balloon staysail, a small square-sail, a trysail, and a mizen staysail. These details the expert will gloat over , but the general reader will find even more exciting the obliging pig of Roog÷, the Run÷ seal-catchers, and the strange story of the Toledo of Leith. They will be very grateful for the clear description of the mystery called "ship-swinging" and a little horrified to learn that the cabin had space for a typewriter. They will be consoled for that desolating thought by the information that the motor-engine she carried was not used on a single occasion during her five-hundred mile voyage, and will learn with interest of the muzzle-loading flint-lock, which the Jacobites might have used, surviving into the days of "Big Bertha." They will, in fact, look forward with pleasant anticipation to the Racundra's second cruise, her first having been so unqualified a success.

1 The previous review had been of In Many Places by Clare Sheridan who had, among her many other adventures, gone to Russia to sculpt busts of the Bolshevik leaders.

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Spectator, 1st September 1923. (Anonymous)

"Houses," says Mr. Ransome, "are but badly-built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay transition . . . The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting-place." That being so, Mr. Ransome built a boat, or, rather, had a boat built – a centreboard ketch, not quite thirty feet long - and in it, in company with an excellent and indefatigable cook and the Ancient Mariner (an old English seaman who had lived so long in Russia that he had almost forgotten his English), he sailed from Riga, through the Esthonian islands, to Helsingfors and back, a distance of about 500 miles. His experiences and adventures in fair and dirty weather, the places he visited, the primitive life of the Esthonian islanders, some extraordinarily beautiful anecdotes and the charm and humour of Mr. Ransome's writing, form a book of which there is little to be said than that it is altogether delightful – a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

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I am grateful to Wayne G. Hammond for help in identifying these reviews