Books brought the seas to him

Anchors: The captain of The Pride of Baltimore II, who developed a taste for sailing from the tales he read as a child, never travels without a tome or two.

Reading Life

April 16, 2000|By Nancy Knisley | Nancy Knisley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Daniel Parrott, captain of The Pride of Baltimore II, says he lives a storybook life -- and as someone whose earliest adventures came by way of storybooks, he ought to know.

Just as his imagination was stirred by "Robinson Crusoe," "Treasure Island" and other books about the sea that he read as a boy, Parrott's work is the kind to inspire imagination. As captain of the 185-ton topsail schooner since June 1998, he has sailed the world's oceans as a goodwill ambassador for Maryland.

Sometimes he steps backs for a moment and asks himself, "Can you believe this?"

Throughout, he has retained his love of reading, and carries a sea bag full of books, taking the opportunity to read everything from nautical history to contemporary novels on those long, fair-weather stretches between ports.

"Reading, as opposed to other kinds of activities, sets the imagination free," says Parrott, 38. "It allows the imagination to take control of the story. It puts the reader in charge. No one can take that away from you -- it's yours forever."

A Connecticut native, Parrott grew up near the coast, although his was not a sailing family. Although he saw a lot of sailboats, his seafaring was limited to rides in skiffs and dinghies, and fishing from his father's little boat.

He credits an unrequited love for the sea, inspired by the books he read as a boy, with his decision to take off a semester from college to sail to the Caribbean as a cadet aboard a training ship.

"That was a powerful, unbelievable experience," he says. "Arriving at strange places, standing watch at night." Although he returned to college to earn a degree in English, after graduation he became a professional sailor.

Reading over a shoulder

He has always been an avid reader, he says. "My mom got me started. She would read to us religiously every night. I would read over her shoulder. After a while, I was reading along with her."

He remembers some of the picture books she read to him: "Make Way for Ducklings"; "Harold and the Purple Crayon"; "Where the Wild Things Are"; Beatrix Potter's "A Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit"; all the Dr. Seuss books; and "Curious George."

"I liked stories with characters of animals who could talk and act like human beings," he says. "That captured my imagination I liked stories in which I identified with the protagonist -- `Stuart Little,' `Winnie the Pooh.' "

Parrott also liked Nancy Eckholm Burkert's vivid illustrations in his boyhood copy of the Roald Dahl classic "James and the Giant Peach," which -- with other treasured childhood books -- sits in a crate in his Federal Hill home.

As Parrott grew older, he especially liked stories about adventure and the sea: "Treasure Island," "Kidnapped," "Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates," "Robinson Crusoe," and "The Story of Dr. Doolittle," which involves an ocean voyage.

One book that deeply affected him was George Selden's "Tucker's Countryside," a story set in Connecticut.

"The story has an environmental twist," he recalled. "Chester Cricket's field's being torn up. That was what was happening to my town at the time. Rural areas went to full-blown suburbs. Construction equipment was viewed as an evil thing" -- a message different from that in other books he liked, such as "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel" and "Katy and the Big Snow."

`Travel and adventure'

In addition to Selden's "A Cricket in Times Square," he fondly remembers "Millions of Cats," by Wanda Gag, which he recently reread at a friend's house; "The Phantom Tollbooth," by Norton Juster; "The Yearling," by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; the best-known stories of Hans Christian Andersen; and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.

When he was about 12, he read the Horatio Hornblower series, by C. S. Forester. "I had a real fondness [for] adventure stories," he recalled. "Early on, I developed a taste for travel and adventure and a life that embodied those things."

He has absorbed many of the classics of nautical literature, including "Moby Dick," "Two Years Before the Mast" and the stories of Joseph Conrad.

His current reading menu is varied. He reads a good deal of history, especially nautical history. He's currently reading Peter Padfield's "Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Minds."

Because he's of Irish descent, he also reads nonfiction about Ireland and novels dealing with Irish issues. He recently read "America B.C.," by Barry Fell, and just finished "Eureka Street," by Robert McLiam Wilson. He reports that his mother still gives him books as Christmas and birthday presents. Last year, she gave him "Angela's Ashes."

He tries to consume one or two classics a year. He read "Tom Jones" last summer, and he tries to read one of Shakespeare's plays every winter -- this year it was "Julius Caesar." Last year, "The Winter's Tale."

"Reading is a lifelong source of pleasure to fill in the gaps of time. I always have something to read," he says. "A person with a fondness for reading is never alone."

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