“The diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake is a significant contribution to American maritime history.”

— Dr. Brooks Miles Barnes, co-editor of Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands.

Golden Light

The 1878 Diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake

By James B. Kirk II

It's a book that resuscitates a life — Captain Thomas Rose Lake’s — and a time and place seen through his eyes. History needs its passionate pursuers. Golden Light is alive with such attentiveness”

— Stephen Dunn, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


ISBN 0-945582-85-4
5" x 7" Hardcover,
324 pages, illustrated

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it gives you the opportunity to read titles you might otherwise overlook. Golden Light: The 1878 Diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake, for example, is not the kind of thing I would usually put at the top of my must-read list. Based on the diary of a New Jersey oyster sloop sailor who rose to the rank of captain at the age of 21 and then died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 22, it appears much too prosaic and regional at first glance. This is not, after all, a clipper ship captain battling his way around Cape Horn; the sloop Golden Light was just a humble little 45-footer that made her living hauling shellfish, fish oil and potatoes to help feed the people of New York as she made her way up and down the Atlantic Coast between the Chesapeake Bay and Manhattan.

Still, in this simple story of a simple sailor there is a certain grace and tragic elegance that will speak to any sailor with a sense of history and a longing to better understand the age-old rhythm of life under sail, thanks in large part to the work of editor James B. Kirk and his extensive footnotes, which help put Capt. Lake’s words in their proper historical context.

In fact, it’s a good thing that Kirk put in the time that he did, since the original text is a bit on the bare side. Only moderately educated, Capt. Lake’s spelling is "creative" to say the least, and he used little if any punctuation. Furthermore, his daily entries are generally brief to the point of being almost cryptic.

Still, thanks to Kirk’s hard work in filling in the gaps, the story comes to life in such a way that you can almost smell the salt air of the New Jersey shore as Capt. Lake writes about everything from his business up in New York City to loading ballast to visiting his fellow sailors and female acquaintances on shore. Then there’s unloading his cargo onto the picturesque old oyster barges that were once permanently moored at the foot of West Tenth Street in New York Harbor; waiting for storms to pass or for the turn of the tide before making sail; and chores like drying sails, slushing the mast and scraping the sloop’s bottom all in a day’s work.

"Thursday: Clear. Wind NE 6 AM.," Capt. Lake writes, one day, shortly before setting out on yet another trip up the coast. "Tried the pump and found her (Golden Light) leaking. 75 strokes a hour. we toock 30 bu. of potatoes out of the hole. Tried to find it but could not. in the afternoon whent a shore on the beach. 3 PM Wind SE. Began to blow."

Granted, it ain’t Ahab ranting with Shakespearean eloquence against a killer typhoon. But then again, it’s in simple words like these that you can hear a bygone age and way of life truly coming to life. Then there are those passages that refer, with almost stoic brevity, to Lake’s worsening health.
"Thursday: A little fogy in the morning. Wind at E I felt very bad. 8 AM. I give up and hired a man in my place. I woes so wheek I could hardly stand." Then, just a few days later: "Saturday: Clear. Wind NW. left the whorf 4 AM. got down to the inlet 9 AM. Still sick and no appetite. 10 o clock AM Wind came NE." Finally, Capt. Lake writes: "Wind W. a two reaf breaze in the morning. I whent down a board the Sloop and got my clothen." At this point the reader knows, thanks to Kirk’s footnote, that Lake will never sail aboard the Golden Light again.

"History," as Kirk writes in his introduction, "concerns itself, perhaps too often, with only the grand and glorious events of nations and the giants who shaped them, but to appreciate fully the history of any period, something more is needed: the essential human factor the flesh and blood that thrilled to the wind blowing softly over the meadow the heart that lifted at the song of the thrush." This is just that kind of work, a book that shows how ordinary people used to go about their daily lives.

Maybe it’s because I majored in history in college, but I’ve always believed that one of the appeals of sailing is the fact that every sailor is part of an ancient way of life, a tradition stretching back to the dawn of recorded time. Golden Light is not a conventional narrative. It’s probably not for everybody. But for those sailors who enjoy boats and the sea in part because of the men and women who passed before them, it provides a rare and vibrant glimpse into sailing’s fascinating workaday past.

A Day in the Life
by Adam Cort

for Sailing Magazine July, 2004
This review is reprinted in its entirety, with permission, from Sailing Magazine. Copyright ©2004

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