Rereading Noel Mostert’s book Supership

Published on Aug 19, 2022 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: Montreal

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Noel Mostert Noel Mostert

In 1974 as a very junior reporter at The Montreal Star, some senior reporters alerted me to a two-part major piece of reporting by Noel Mostert in the New Yorker magazine. The article was about oil supertankers, the skill required to navigate and operate them and their widespread pollution of the sea.

At the time, veteran reporter for The Montreal Star, Dusty Vineberg told me that in the 1950s Noel Mostert had been a reporter for the newspaper. His close friend and supporter, she remained in touch with him until his death over a year ago in Tangier, Morocco.

Eager to read more, I bought his book, Supership, which chronicled in great detail his experience in 1973 aboard an oil supertanker called Ardshiel. I never forgot the masterful piece of writing and reporting in that book.

Because of the rising interest in the toxic dangers of oceanic oil spills such as the one off the Newfoundland coast in February, I have been rereading Supership. Written more the decade before the Exxon Valdez catastrophic oil spill off the Alaska coast, Mostert was ahead of his time in alerting the world to the dangers to the sea environment of oil spills.

In Supership, Mostert starts with the unloading of oil in France and then recounts how the oil tanker made its perilous way from Bordeaux around the Cape of Good Hope to Mina al Almadi in the Persian Culf. He describes in a gripping novelistic way the unfolding at sea of life on the ship and the actual voyage. But he also includes in meticulous detail historic information about world-wide ocean oil spills.

Supership, I discovered, was unanimously chosen to receive the Pullitzer Prize for non-fiction. Unfortunately, it was disqualified on grounds of Mostert’s Canadian citizenship.

Born in South Africa in 1929, Noel Mostert, began his writing career as shipping correspondent for the Cape Times in Cape Town South Africa. In 1947 he came to Canada, becoming parliamentary correspondent for the United Press in Ottawa, and then foreign correspondent and columnist for the Montreal Star. Later he went to live in Tangier.

In 1992 he wrote Frontiers - The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. In 1993 the book was on the short list for the Governor-General's Literary award and in 2001 the Guardian newspaper wrote that it was first among the top ten books about South Africa.

In 2008 he published The Line Upon a Wind - An Intimate History of the Last and Greatest War Fought at Sea Under Sail: 1793—1815. It is the story of Britain's death-struggle with Revolutionary France, wherein Napoleon is checkmated by Nelson's brilliant naval exploits.

Later, he began working on a novel set during the time of the Spanish Civil War. In an email correspondence with him, I read the beginnings of what looked like a fascinating story. But he was suffering from cancer and could not finish it. In Tangier, during his illness, Noel Mostert was cared for by Hamza Boujerrar, who knew Mostert all his life and looked upon him as a second father.