Writing at sea: from log to blog (2)

Artist and writer John Kelly looks at how the ship’s log has long contributed to literature and the visual arts.

These sometimes urgent chronicles formed the basis of the work of later writers including Melville, Philbrick, O'Brien and Golding, some of whom would also place themselves into the dangers of long sea journeys.

Pilot Books and The Ancient Mariner

Many of the log entries of the 18th and 19th centuries were illustrated, depicting details of the structure of the ships as well as the topography of the coast. One aspect of the early voyages of discovery was the search for sheltered harbours, port locations and for suitable places for settlement. The 'Pilot Books' offered panoramic views of extensive coastal features.

As a literary source the log provided and still provides a backdrop for the poet and the novelist. Much of the material for The Ancient Mariner would come from first-hand experience of the encounters with ice and even with the ways of the albatross. Coleridge owes much to the travels and log entries of the astronomer William Wales, who travelled to the south with Cook in the 1770s. Wales would later become master of mathematics at Christ's Hospital School where he taught the young Coleridge and no doubt would have told of his earlier life at sea. These images would ferment for years before Coleridge produced his masterpiece:

“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, the furrow followed free; We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea”.

The log still holds an essential part of a ship’s activity, whether written, recorded digitally or even forming part of a blog. Untoward events still occur at sea and it is in the log that this would be recorded. Modern-day sea travel of naval and merchant craft still rely upon this routine daily record.

Star Trek and logbooks in space

Travel in space, that other great ocean, is told in the log format as the journey goes on, not in space cars or space trains but in spaceships. From Star Trek's Enterprise the captain’s log would inform his superiors of what was happening on the mission and record historical facts for future generations:

“Captain’s log. Stardate 4513.3. After having been taken over by an android, the Enterprise has been underway at warp seven for four days. Now we are entering orbit around a planet which has never been charted”.

Beyond fiction the notion of a log continues. After the recent visit of the Spacex Dragon spacecraft, in his latest blog entry ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers reflects on what he calls an important milestone for space flight. He writes:

“The Dragon cargo ferry only visited us for a short while (time). It left after a week. But it was an impressive mission for me personally, as I helped dock and later detach it from the Space station. It was an impressive mission also for the thousands of people on Earth who worked on Dragon and indeed for the whole of mankind”.

The continuing need to record experiences at sea or within the vastness of space fulfils a basic human function, providing accountability and understanding in the most hostile and remote environments.

This post is a guest blog by artist and writer John Kelly. You can contact him by email.

View logbooks in our Archive catalogue

Read part 1 of 'Log to blog'