Desmond X. Holdridge

Whaler and fishing vessels near the Coast of Labrador, William Bradford

Whaler and fishing vessels near the Coast of Labrador, William Bradford

I’ve been learning about Desmond X. Holdridge, starting with a quote about boats from his book about sailing around Newfoundland and Labrador:

For boats, even the uglier ones, are among the loveliest creations of man’s hands, and though owning them brings a train of debts, hangnails, bruises, bad frights and all kinds of worries not experienced by those who content themselves with more practical vices, the relation between a man and his boat is as personal and intimate as the relation between husband and wife. –Desmond Holdridge, Northern lights: A voyage into danger, 1939

Holdridge was an explorer and author who lived a short, but interesting life (1907-1946). It was filled with dangerous expeditions and the extreme versions of the nautical disasters that I thought only I could create. He died in an automobile accident near Baltimore (Democratic Advocate, April 19, 1946).

When Holdridge was 14 he fitted a rowboat with a sail. Soon after, he was caught in a squall and crashed the boat. At age 18 he and two others sailed a 32-foot schooner for six months around Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador. A five-day gale battered his boat to pieces on that trip but they were rescued by another schooner.

Holdridge was again feared lost at age 21. He visited Labrador in to find evidence of Martin Frobisher’s colony from his search for the Northwest Passage in 1576, possibly on Resolution Island.

Not long after that, Holdridge went on an expedition to the jungles of southern Venezuela. His camp was attacked one night, but the attackers fled when he blew the campfire into flames.

The end of the river (film)

The end of the river (film)

Holdridge wrote about that expedition in several books, including the novel, The End of the River, about a South American Indian boy who leaves the jungle for the city where he is accused of murder. That novel was the basis for a film produced by Powell & Pressburger (1947), which was made in Brazil.

He also wrote technical articles, such as “Exploration between the Rio Branco and the Serra Parima” for Geographical Review (1933). He writes there:

The section of northern Brazil enclosed by the Negro, Branco, and Uraricoera rivers and the Serra Parima has long been indicated on maps of Brazil as terra incognita and it was in the hope of finding there aboriginal cultures unchanged by contact with white men that the writer’s expedition was undertaken. During the seven months from May to November, 1932, explorations were conducted on three of the five large tributaries of the Amazon system that have their sources in the Serra Parima–the Catrimany, Demini, and Aracat.

Throughout the several journeys low mountains at strategic points were ascended and bearings taken from them on near–by and distant peaks and sketches made. The resulting network of bearings constitutes a rough triangulation of the whole region and with the photographs and sketches has made possible the construction of a map giving an approximate representation of the topography. A part of the Brazil-Venezuela boundary, following the crest of the Serra Parima, lies within this area, and as a consequence its delineation will be quite different from any shown heretofore.

Holdridge lived for the adventure and writing about it. Speaking of a Labrador storm, he says:

that storm was another symbol, a symbol for the absolute of insensate fury… And here, I think, is the reason for much seafaring, especially for the kind that is conducted in small boats. From the experience of such dreadful chaos there is a catharsis obtainable from no possible work of art…

in the flying Dolphin, her very presence on the surface not predictable even for seconds into the future…

the coexistence of abysmal terror and god-like elation is responsible for much seafaring, especially the small-boat kind… the survivor feels that, if he can design and build the perfect vessel, there will be no terror and only that tremendous thrill. Hence the buckets of drawing ink and the miles of timber that go every year into the building of small seagoing yachts, accompanied always by more money than their owners can afford, and it must make an economic determinist feel like a fool. –Desmond Holdridge, Northern lights: A voyage into danger, 1939


One thought on “Desmond X. Holdridge

  1. Maybe he should have stayed with crashing small boats and avoided the perils of getting into a car and navigating American highways. Very interesting mini-bio. Never heard of him before.

    Hey, I read a couple of days ago that Labrador-Newfoundland abolished student loans! Maybe the US should find out how they’re doing it. See what you can learn out there on the barrens.


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