The Sea is a Magic Carpet is the story of Peter Padfield's life changing experience crewing for Alan Villiers on board the replica Mayflower II. A must read, says Julia Jones

The Sea is a Magic Carpet
Peter Padfield
Peter Davies (1959)

Peter Padfield begins his first book with a quote from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea, comparing the experience of sail and steam.

‘The taking of a modern steamship round the world (though one would not minimise its responsibilities) has not the same quality of intimacy with nature, which after all is the indispensable condition to the building up of an art…’

Padfield was born in India in 1932 to an Army family.

He was educated in England and then trained for the merchant navy on HMS Worcester before joining P & O. By the time he happened upon a magazine article describing Alan Villiers plan to sail the replica Mayflower II across the Atlantic he was in his mid-20s and on the verge of boredom.

‘If ever I got my feet wet,’ he writes of his life as a navigating officer, ‘it must have been the crew scrubbing the decks. It was a pleasant life and on the passenger ships it was fun, but it had little to do with sailoring, just as after a time the ports had little to do with foreign countries.’

The voyage on Mayflower II was the beginning of a change in Padfield’s life.

In The Sea is a Magic Carpet he includes one ‘standard P&O voyage (potentially of much greater interest now than then) and further chapters of exploration in the Pacific.

The change in his life, it seems, was not so much from steam to sail but to the intellectual adventures of research and writing.

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He also developed his talent as an artist, sketching the intricate curves of Mayflower II’s sails and rigging.

Peter Padfield’s later career took off with his strong defence of Captain Stanley Lord in The Titanic and the Californian.

This was followed by some studies of collision avoidance at sea and then a stream of highly regarded works of naval history, novels and World War II studies.

Eventually he settled in Woodbridge, Suffolk, where he sailed a gaff-rigged 1900 Norfolk shrimper replica on the River Deben.

Peter Padfield died on 14 March 2022.

We may want to remember the sentences from this, his first book, where he writes that his voyages ‘proved to me that it is still possible to find at sea some of the qualities that go to make up the boy’s day dream from the top of the ocean cliff; still possible to understand the mystical excitement of Conrad; possible to find one’s own Treasure Island. The sea can still be a magic carpet.’

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