National Geographic : 1978 Aug
7 FIGUREHEAD OF JOSEPH CONRAD AT MYSTICSEAPORT, INC. MYSTIC, CONN. .... l Woodcarver's art rode with captains courageous in the days of sail. Figureheads are almost as old as sailing itself. Early Egyptians used them. So did Phoenicians and Vikings. They decorated prows of their ships with carved heads of horses, birds, and wild eyed dragons. These, the ancient mariners believed, invoked the protection of guiding spirits. Dawned the age of explora tion, the spirits were largely for gotten. But not the figureheads. In England trained hands carved everything from Poseidon with his trident to St. George in wooden armor. Colonial craftsmen brought the skills to America. In a vacant sail loft near the wharf the ship builder would chalk on the floor full-scale plans for the figure head he envisioned below the bowsprit. The carver marked out the design on a block of sea soned wood and shaped it with mallet and chisel. Some figure heads he drew from live models, perhaps the shipowner's daughter. Often a carving personified the ship's name-Twin Sisters, for example. Or Joseph Conrad,whose figurehead is portrayed here. A tribute to the renowned writer-seaman by another of the same breed, the magnificent head came into being shortly after Capt. Alan Villiers ac quired the old Danish square rigger Georg Stage and renamed her in honor of Captain Conrad. "A sailing ship had to have a figurehead," he declared. "The lovely sweeping lines of her cut water looked wrong without one." So he asked his friend Bruce Rogers, the renowned typographer, to carve the bearded likeness. Captain Villiers sailed Joseph Conrad around the world-a 57,800-mile voyage that lasted 555 days. He followed in the wake of early navigators, round ing Cape Horn under sail, as they did, and with their zest for exploration. Villiers described the voyage in the February, 1937, GEO GRAPHIC, echoing a haunting passage from an even earlier issue: "The unchangeable sea preserves for one the sense of its past, the memory of things accomplished by wisdom and daring among its restless waves." The writer? Joseph Conrad. To Conrad those restless waves were peopled "with unforgettable shades of the masters in the calling which... was to be mine, too." And so they also are to Cap tain Villiers, as witness his many adventure-filled narratives about men, ships, and the sea. In August, 1968, he took GEOGRAPHIC readers to Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, living museum of America's sailing past. "I rubbed my eyes and looked again," he wrote. Among a maze of spars and rigging he had spied the jutting figurehead of the Joseph Conrad,now permanent ly moored as a training vessel. It was a memorable moment he shared, this sequel to a saga that appeared more than 30 years ago. But such moments have come to be expected in the pages of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.