Raising the Blue Peter!

I’m an avid reader of the Patrick O’Brian seafaring novels, featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin. People either love these books, or they don’t “get” them, looking on with studied patience as O’Brian groupies go on and on about a particularly magnificent moment in volume 14, The Nutmeg of Consolation. It’s a bit like showing tolerance for an unfamiliar and seemingly inexplicable religious practice.

The books take place in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Readers become intimately familiar with the rhythms and rituals of life at sea: the turning of the glass and ringing of the bell every 30 minutes; the six four-hour watches that structure the day; the morning swabbing of the decks with holystones. The depiction of the tedium of life at sea is fascinating, if you excuse this seeming contradiction in terms. And then there are the battles – wow!

There comes a moment in each novel when the ship is fully supplied, the orders are in hand, the sails and spars and lines are repaired, the paint is fresh, the brass is gleaming, and the tides and wind are favorable. At that moment the captain raises a special flag – the Blue Peter (blue with a white rectangle) – to signal to all crewmen that the ship is sailing in twenty minutes. The crew members then tumble out of the pubs and places of lesser repute and stagger into available longboats, row like crazy, haul themselves onto the ship, and sail off to battle Napoleon… and to entrance readers.

This is an apt metaphor for the work I’m doing with nonprofits –helping them get to the point when they can raise the Blue Peter. These organizations are refitting and getting ready to sail in some economically choppy seas. (“Funding cuts off the starboard bow! Rising benefits costs off the port!”) By rethinking strategy and refocusing leadership and reconfiguring their development plans, they are now more ready to go out and fulfill their missions.

Unlike Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, these twenty-first century nonprofits can expect to avoid cannon fire, sword fights, typhoons, and a diet of salted meats, dried peas, and hardtack. But I do assume that some days the winds will be less favorable than others and that they’ll encounter unexpected challenges. The key is to be as prepared as possible – fully provisioned, well-staffed, and ready for whatever comes. A business consultant friend of mine is fond of quoting the poet Emma Wheeler Wilcox’s lines, which describe the wonder of ships to go east or west, according to their destination, regardless of how the winds are blowing:

‘Tis the set of the sails,
And not the gales,
That tell us the way to go.


Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • How did I know you’d be a Jack Aubrey fan?? I’ve read a dozen of the books, and love the sideways way the author brings you into their world. It’s hard work at times, but you feel rewarded for it.

    • You’re right, Dan. Like many worthwhile undertakings, Patrick O’Brian requires commitment. Once you get the hang of the early-19th century sea lingo and customs, and once you accept the violence that’s central to their lives (they are, after all, at war), it’s quite a ride. And I confess that it helped me in the early volumes to have “A Sea of Words” — a book that provides background essays and defines about 5,000 of the trickier words and phrases — at my side!

      As Captain Aubrey would say, “Give you joy, sir!”

  • Andres Fraga
    April 22, 2012 5:15 pm

    I too am a great fan of the series, listening to unabridged versions while driving in my car. However, after the Yellow Admiral but before Blue at the Mizzen, I know that Dr Maturin’s wife dies, and so does Barret-Bonden. What happened? My local library doesn’t have that book on CD and so far, Blue at the Mizzen gives no clue.

    • Hi, Andres —

      I confess that I’m only through volume 17 (The Commodore), and at this point the beautiful, troubled, and enigmatic Diana is alive if not all that well. I plan to weave in the final three volumes of the series over the course of my spring and summer reading, and based on your note she doesn’t survive volume 19, The Hundred Days. I don’t think I’ll have the answer for you until about late June, and I trust you’ll get the answer from another source before then. You might try http://www.hmssurprise.org, where O’Brian-ites seem to gather on-line. I’m sure they’ll have the answer for you. Enjoy!


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