Friday, July 13, 2018

The Cruise of the Good Ship Enigma

By Susan Gordon

Being a Chronicle of the Scandalous Maritime Performance of Two Scotchmen, Two Englishmen and Two Americans

July 1-13, 1909

Buried in the Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Papers (T-200), the ship’s logbook has no recorded provenance, and there is no explanation of why it resides in the THS collections. But lucky it is for those who appreciate British humor or, should we say, humour. The yarn was written as a witty remembrance of an equally amusing sail that was more than a century ago.

Written by six adventurers and neatly typed as a retrospect, this logbook is a jewel of lighthearted satire. The smart preface states that should the…

“…before mentioned worthies [peruse] this astounding volume, let him remember that the truth has prevailed only when more interesting than fiction.”

The seafarers left Portsmouth, England, July 1, 1909, rounded the Isle of Wight and Channel Islands, anchored at Cherbourg, and returned to England July 13. The sum of them, fewer than what had set sail, had been deserted at various ports along the way. Four defectors excused themselves from the voyage for a number of reasons--including romance.

Readers beware! The log is dotted with nonsensical references to wild animals and other curiosities.

Excerpt of the English Channel from a World War II newsmap, 1944. WWII Newsmaps, Tennessee State Library and Archives. Click here to view full map in the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

The title page presages their antics:

Willie Russell - Popularly known as McTavish, a braw brecht man frae the Heelands.

Major Monson - The warlike defender of “An Englishman’s Home.”

Jack King - The Straw Partition Magnate.

John Joass - The notorious defacer of our public thoroughfares.

Doc Lecron - The bloodthirsty torturer of Dental fame.

Dan Huntington - The Jerry Building King.

On Day One, the ship slipped her moorings with “superhuman effort,” and the travelers entertained themselves with a concert of scampish airs.

By nightfall, they had already lost their bearings, the vessel lying an unknown distance from their first important landmark: the Needles, tall pointed chalk stacks rising from the sea off the coast of Isle of Wight.

The evening of the second day was sublime. The sea was calm and the moon was full. On the third watch they again pronounced the ship lost.

“We commenced our arduous duties by lashing the tiller and comfortably ensconcing ourselves in the deck chairs - wind nil, the ostrich being fatigue.”

Next day the voyagers frisked in the sea, only to clamber back to drier climes aboard. Dan, above in the ship’s rigging, sighted the island of Alderney (Guernsey), his prize declared to be a round of drinks.

“Inasmuch as he was aloft, these were at once consumed by his friends.”

Upon spotting Alderney, the crew was yet out of sight of the Casquets Lights, the three historic lighthouses that guide sailors away from the treacherous rocks. They determined that their position was…

“…somewhere S & W but maybe N & E of the Casquets.”

By early afternoon the lighthouses were visible, but the sea began to rise and the mist made vision difficult. At mid-Channel a pigeon lit on the deck--the same one that had joined them for an earlier ride.

The pigeon that twice joined the cruise from the Journal of the cruise of the Good Ship Enigma, 1909. Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200), Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Recognizing the lighthouse on the Hanois reefs dead ahead, the travelers figured their location directly over the rockiest shoals. “We put about at once with a slight oath… and cleared the point.”

Next stop was St. Peter’s Port (Guernsey). There, they “reveled in the sunshine and all the comforts of a first class hotel.” Exploring the island revived their spirits. Still at St. Peter’s July 5, the resuscitated crew enjoyed swimming and diving from the ship…

“…a performance which the Harbour Master advised us was liable to a penalty of ten shillings per head. (See Armadillo)”

After provisioning their craft with lobsters and other delectables, they put out to sea.

Sailing the Jersey Channel was speedy, though wee arguments slightly colored the crossing. More trouble on their approach to the harbor where a red flag was run up.

“We at once put about when a voice from a smack called out, ‘Can’t you see that flag you idiot!’”

Our dapper gents aboard the launch from the Journal of the cruise of the Good Ship Enigma, 1909. Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200), Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Upon landfall at St. Martin (Jersey), the crew made a beeline to the luxury hotel Pomme d' Or. Having celebrated completion of the first leg of the voyage, they boarded a train to…

“…the historic pile known as Mount Orgueil [castle]. The undaunted crew went boldly forward to investigate the natural beauties of the situation and might be presently observed bounding from crag to crag (See Mountain Goats.)”

“A beautiful specimen of the Jersey Lily” advised them on the best sightseeing. Then it was off for lunch at The Helfine, where the proprietor’s daughter met with the crew’s approval.

“We were joined by a party of buxom girls, presumable of the ‘Made in Germany’ brand.”

The Germans objected to smoking which “rather damped [the Captain’s] ardour,” but a certain barmaid easily captured his heart.

“By the time he had consumed a glass of green mint, he considered himself one of the family (For subsequent proceedings see Gorilla).”

On July 7, the cruise was interrupted by troubling seas. Willie did not like the height of the waves, and Doc remarked on their unnatural color.

“Sail’s off, said Dan heaving a sigh of relief, his feet beginning once again to attain their normal temperature… [The men] sallied forth one by one upon their usual hunt. (See Alligator)”

Then it was off to the famous lighthouse at Corbiere, on the Jersey coast. The Captain, discovering a pool of clear water…

“…removed his clothing and plunged in... The living inhabitants of the pool, such as crabs, eels, etc., were immediately struck dead. Presumably poisoned (See Grocer).”

Lunch on the train was memorable for…

“…an alluring French waitress [who caused] their neck mechanisms [to be] greatly disordered.”

At St. Aubyn (Normandy), the Captain enthusiastically performed the “Bar Stangled Spanner.”

On the eighth, they undertook an expedition to the Devil’s Hole crater (Jersey) in the company of a “fair visitor” who had every member of the crew vying for her attention.

Hamming it up for the camera from the Journal of the cruise of the Good Ship Enigma, 1909. Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200), Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Morning broke bright on the ninth, and the crew sprung to life at the sight of two ladies on the quay. Following breakfast were “sparkling flashes of wit and repartee.” Seeking new adventures, the crew readied the ship for sail.

“Our last impression of the island was a lonely white figure showing every sign of dejection, while in the background rejoicings were in progress among the aborigines.”

They left St. Helier (Jersey) in a heavy sea, rounded the Cape of La Hague in northwestern France and made port at Cherbourg. They hastened to the Café de Paris before indulging in games of chance at the casino. The results were disastrous.

“Socially, however, all was merry and bright (See Paupers). What followed is wrapped in the mists of impenetrable obscurity.”

The mammoth gale which delayed their departure was thought to be “due to the Trade winds (See Ostrich),” so they made the best of another day ashore. The crew spent most of the time sleeping under a tree overlooking the harbor. John left for Paris, and “a deep gloom settled over the crew, now only half of its original size.” Three sailors remained.

Storm’s up! The crew wearing their oilskins from the Journal of the cruise of the Good Ship Enigma, 1909. Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200), Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The crew next set a course for St. Catherine’s Point (Isle of Wight). With the sight of land on the skyline…

“…great was the amazement of the crew to discover that it was actually the point we were aiming at.”

During the run from Cherbourg to Isle of Wight…

“…the greatest instance of literary and [poetic] inspiration was made…and is here set forth.”

Their literary pièce de résistance, a takeoff on the noteworthy Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, was titled “The Ryme of the Three Mariners.” For poetry’s sake, “Ryme” should be read tongue in cheek.

Passage to Southampton resulted in the loss of McTavish, which was “well for McTavish and better for the Crew.” This departure left Bob and Dan, who were off to London for a refit.

The voyage had come to an end, and the crew of the Good Ship “Enigma” returned to their homes.

“One truth… it is safe to place upon the record--a better Crew, better fellows or better friends never sailed a ship or stayed ashore.”

Crew of the Good Ship “Enigma” from the Journal of the cruise of the Good Ship Enigma, 1909. Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200), Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The log is part of the Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-200) at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett


  1. What an absolute masterpiece of British wit and silliness! However it found its way to the THS and TSLA, thank you so much for sharing this delightful concoction with us.