387: Tales of the Seven Seas by Dennis Powers

by Gerard


387.5092: Powers, Dennis M. Tales of the Seven Seas: The Escapades of Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien. Lanham, MD:Taylor Trade, 2010. 263 pp. ISBN 978-1-58979-447-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 380: Commerce, communications, and transport
  • 387: Water, air, and space transportation
  • 387.5: Water transportation
  • +092: Biography

Recently, there have a few books with which I felt as though I was just going through the motions. I’d slog to get through paragraph after paragraph just to say I’d read it, and hope that the next one is worth it. The first ones that come to mind is the book about Herod the Great last week and the Chinese language and culture book last month.

But, then, like a delightful oasis in a dry landscape of prose, I get to one worth reading. Dennis Powers’s Tales of the Seven Seas is an energetic book about Captain Dynamite Johnny O’Brien. He was one of the last few great sailors to span the age of masted frigates and skilled sailing and the age of steamships. It was a very fun tale to read.

Born in 1851 in Ireland, O’Brien became a ship’s boy at the age of 15. Having a penchant for rabble-rousing but a determined amd forthright mind, he became master of his own boat by 25. Then followed 60 years at the helms of various boats throughout his life. He was brought up in the last years of the Age of Sail and never lost the zeal of his early years. His nickname—Dynamite—comes from an incident where he risked his own life to secure a load of dynamite from a percarious situation in the hold.

He dutifully learned everything there was to know about sailing, and then, when steamships began to outgun and outclass the competition, he learned those as well. His travels took him all over the Pacific. He met Jack London in Alaska, and later in life, the great actor Buster Keaton. His tales of sea life inspired each of them to pass along the vision to the American public (in London’s The Sea Wolf and Keaton’s The Navigator).

The only detractions in this book are the lack of bibliography or footnotes and the confusing terminology. I know it’s not meant to be a scholarly history of the period, but it would help to know where Powers got his background information from. Plus, a lot of narrative is gleaned from interviews and journals from O’Brien himself, so it’s a bit hard to separate the man from the myth. Also, Powers doesn’t seem too interested in ensuring that his boat-lingo is 100% correct. There are a few times where he confuses decks and apparatus and it gets a bit sloppy.

All in all, though, it was a very entertaining book.