Farley Mowat had already written a book titled "The Boat Who Wouldn't Float," so he could very easily have called this volume, "The Ship Who Wouldn't Sink."
"The Serpent's Coil" is a companion book to "Grey Seas Under" and continues the story of ocean-going salvage tug operations in the Atlantic. "Grey Seas Under" chronicled the adventures of the tugboat `Foundation Franklin' before and during World War II. "The Serpent's Coil" takes place after the war and tells the tale of ships battered by the consuming fury of not one but three hurricanes (the "serpent's coil" of the title) in the autumn of 1948.
The author blends mystery, life-and-death adventure, and humor in his tale of rescue and salvage operations on `the Great Western Ocean.' The mystery centers around the disappearance of so many ex-wartime Liberty freighters in mid-ocean. Most of them were in ballast when they vanished, and it was assumed but never proven that shifting ballast caused the freighters to turn turtle and sink so rapidly that no message could be transmitted on the `how' or `why' of their plight.
`Leicester' was an ex-Liberty freighter fitted out in peace-time rig, newly under the command of Captain Hamish Lawson. He met his ship for the first time while she was taking ballast---"a sludge of sand and gravel dredged from the bottom of the [Thames]"---in preparation for a voyage to New York. Lawson had originally been scheduled to take command of another ex-Liberty freighter (called Sam-ships by the sailors, because they were built for the wartime Lend Lease program by `Uncle Sam'), but the `Samkey' had disappeared on route to Cuba. "'Leicester' was the twin sister to `Samkey'; built in the same yards, to the identical design. The only difference was that she was younger by a year..."
Captain Lawson's freighter was halfway between Ireland and Nova Scotia on the Great Circle route to New York when the first storm struck. `Leicester' rolled more than her Master liked, but she weathered the gale easily enough. His main worry was the ship's malfunctioning radio, without which he couldn't receive weather reports or transmit his own position. The Atlantic was not a good place to be in the middle of the hurricane season, without a radio.
Sure enough on the morning of September 14th, the crew of the `Leicester' found themselves sailing under another threatening sky:
"Lawson watched the ominous black arch [of the hurricane bar] for a quarter of an hour, and even during this short interval it seemed to grow, humping up from the horizon, spreading east and west. Above it, and around the hemisphere of sky, the high clouds were thickening, growing more opaque. A light, aimless breeze that seemed to come erratically from every point of the compass had begun to play about the ship. Lawson noticed that there were no gulls or other seabirds anywhere in sight."
The Sam-ship tried to dodge the hurricane, but it was much too late for such maneuvers. Within the hour, `Leicester' found herself enmeshed in the roaring hell of "The Serpent's Coil."
Mowat certainly knows how to tell a suspenseful sea story! The rest of his book describes the travails of `Leicester' as she founders but does not sink amidst the coils of the first hurricane. Her adventures afterward are entwined with those of the salvage and rescue tugs, `Foundation Lillian' and `Foundation Josephine,' plus another, even more savage hurricane that struck while the Sam-ship lay helplessly at what was supposed to be a safe mooring.
"The Serpent's Coil" and its even more exciting companion, "Grey Seas Under" are gripping testaments to the daring and skill of Canada's master seamen. Even the sections of these books that were strictly concerned with salvage operations kept me reading ahead at full steam.