There's something magical, for me at least, about the era of the large commercial sailing ships that once plied the oceans of the world. "Hard Down! Hard Down!: The Life and Times of Captain John Isbester from Shetland" evokes that lost world with an immediacy that is remarkably compelling. The book has been written by Captain John Isbester's grandson, Captain Jack Isbester, who spent 35 years in the Merchant Navy and served as Chief Officer on the topsail schooner, Sir Winston Churchill. There can be no-one better qualified to understand the life and achievements of his grandfather, which are presented to the reader in a engaging and accessible style that makes this book a joy to read. The book is nicely illustrated with period photographs, with scans of letters and charts, and with maps and diagrams that help bring to life some of the more technical aspects of operating a large sailing ship.
Captain John Isbester was born in Shetland in 1852 to an illiterate mother and a father who sailed for the Antipodes without marrying her and never returned. He went on to become a master in sail at the age of 32 and to serve as a ship's captain for three decades. His career would end in personal tragedy in the Pacific Ocean in October 1913 while trying to save the life of a member of his crew.
The story starts by looking at John Isbester's childhood in Shetland and his early years as a fisherman. In the spring of 1871 at the age of 19 he travelled to Liverpool to look for work on large square-rigged ships. He found it, as an ordinary seaman on a ship bound for Calcutta. He later sailed as a seaman to many other parts of the globe, including New Zealand, where he tracked down his long-absent father who was working as a gold-miner.
In 1876, at the age of 24, John Isbester became an officer and we gain an insight into the fresh challenges he faced as a result. We also find out more about his home life, with his marriage in Shetland in 1884: indeed, one of the achievements of this book is the way it sets its subject's career in the context of his family life. Elsewhere in the book we read about John Isbester moving on to serve as a ship's captain; of voyages his wife made with him; and of his taking command in 1900 of the mighty Dalgonar, one of the largest three-masted square-rigged sailing ships flying the red ensign. The second half of the book is devoted to Captain John Isbester's time in command of the Dalgonar, and here we really gain an insight into the world in which he lived - and across which he repeatedly sailed. The book concludes with in-depth coverage of the loss of the Dalgonar, and of the captain himself.