Obituary: Frank Mulville

Tom Cunliffe
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:47

Frank Nugent Blood Mulville, writer and yachtsman: born Dinard, France 1 January 1924; married first Mary Watson (one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Celia Foster (two sons; marriage dissolved), thirdly Wendy Slack; died Maldon, Essex 3 November 1997.

Frank Mulville will be remembered as one of Britain's finest sea writers. His nine books are largely accounts of his own life and travels on salt water. His observations and fearless self-analysis raise them to the level of literature.

He was the youngest of seven children. His parents had met in Argentina but his early upbringing was in London, in Kensington. Family holidays in Brightlingsea introduced him to the smacks and barges that proliferated along the Essex shores in those days. He eked out his childhood winters improving his understanding of sailing theory with models on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, and respect for traditional rigs and hull forms stayed with him all his life.

Times were hard for the Mulvilles during the Depression and in due course Frank found himself on a ship back to Agrentina with his father. His book North Star to Southern Cross (1993), winner of the "Best Book of the Sea" award, recounts the agonies suffered by a susceptible foreign youth in a Spanish-speaking boarding school, contrasting them with periods of freedom on the pampas among the gauchos.

At the commencement of the Second World War, Mulville was back in London at St Paul's School, which he promptly left to apprentice himself to the Blue Star Line. In 1943, his ship was torpedoed and he organised a sailing rig for a lifeboat he shared with 45 survivors. Later in the war, he acquired Ratty, a sailing dinghy which he used as a tender for the tug aboard which he now served as an RNVR lieutenant.

He married for the first time soon after the war, but employment was hard to find. He tried window cleaning, journalism, selling pressure cookers, and founded a secretarial service which turned into a printing firm and is still in business. Two yachts followed, with voyages to Spain and Holland, but it was aboard his third boat, Girl Stella, a converted Looe fishing smack, that he made his name as a sailor.

A lifelong socialist and a member of the Labour Party, Mulville determined to discover the truth about early post- revolution Cuba for himself. He sailed across the Atlantic with his second wife, Celia, and their two sons, Patrick and Adrian. The writing that came out of this experience and a subsequent single-handed voyage to Cuba with his final boat Iskra (In Grandma's Wake, 1970, and Dear Dolphin, 1991) ranks among the most thought-provoking work of its kind. His description of life in a cane-cutting brigade, toiling with his comrades until they dropped in the dust and heat "for the Revolution" is particularly powerful. Girl Stella was lost in a traumatic shipwreck in the Azores.

It was at one of the lowest ebbs in the life of this creative man that he found the 30ft Iskra, a traditional wooden cutter built in 1930. Her workaday good looks appealed to this no-nonsense seaman and his easy relationship with her lasted for the remainder of his life. In her, he and Wendy, his third wife, sailed the Atlantic from the Arctic Circle to Buenos Aires. The stories of their many voyages run through his later books.

It is interesting to speculate how a man of Frank Mulville's curtailed formal education contrived to write with such sensitivity and technical skill. He himself had no doubts:

Just as the ocean wears away the rocks and bends the contour of the shore to its will, so it washes over a man's mind, smoothing the sharp edges, knocking off the conceits, flattening the prejudices so that he is left with a different instrument with which to govern his life.

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