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Classic review: The Riddle of the Sands

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When Davies appears, he is dressed in “an old Norfolk jacket, muddy brown shoes, grey flannel trousers (or had they been white?) and an ordinary tweed cap.” Carruthers has naturally brought along proper yachting clothes, appropriate to a pleasure cruise with lots of drinks and good food and chaps to raise the anchor, trim the sails and what not. As it turns out, the Dulcibella is just a thirty-foot flat-bottomed boat, drawing very little water when the centerboard is up. Davies admits he can actually sail her alone, though life is easier and more pleasant with a companion.

Childers makes sport of Carruthers’s early days aboard the Dulcibella, and for a while the novel is almost a reprise, with a slight reduction in number, of Jerome K. Jerome’s comic "Three Men in a Boat." But gradually, as Carruthers and the reader are introduced to the intricacies of sailing a small vessel in tidal estuaries, amid shifting sand bars, the narrative begins to darken. Why did Davies want Carruthers to join him? Could it have something to do with the latter’s fluent command of German?  Why does Davies repeatedly urge that they should work their way into the North Sea, where he had been sailing a few weeks earlier? His curiosity aroused, Carruthers skims through the ship’s log and discovers that the pages covering three days in early September have been torn out.  

Compared to modern spy novels, "The Riddle of the Sands" develops very slowly.  For much of its first third, the book seems primarily an account of in-shore sailing on the Baltic, with occasional storms for excitement. Little wonder that the novel has been regularly reprinted as a classic of nautical fiction, and long been a particular favorite of amateur yachtsmen.  

Still, these early pages do chart Carruther’s education in seeing, since piloting, navigation, and general seamanship require close observation of wind, water, and weather. To a great degree, Childers’s novel revolves around detecting that which is hidden, whether a channel or a sandbar, a secret operation or a person’s true self.

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