Nicholas Monsarrat, author of the celebrated "The Cruel Sea," has created in Matthew Lawe, the master mariner, a representative sailor and linking device for seven separate tales which illustrate Britain's sea heritage.

A callow youth of 22 during Sir Francis Drake's 1588 encounter with the Spanish Armada, Lawe botches his duty as pilot of a fireship by setting her ablaze too soon and jumping overboard. Captured by the crew of a Spanish galleon, he must serve as interpreter for a Scottish witch. She hurla twin curses -- eternal wandering for Lawe and the demise of the Spanish ship.

Lawe, always looking only 22, thus proceeds from misfortune to misfortune, his punishment for cowardice moderated by the opportunity to serve near Britain's great men of the sea. It takes some 200 years to advance from being Drake's boat coxswain to Lord Horatio Nelson's lieutenant -- surely the slowest promotion record in Royal Navy annals. And little wonder, for Lawe's record, as conjured up by the engaging Monsarrat, is far from unblemished.

Lawe is essentially a good man and skilled sailor, but he is occasionally weak of character. He acquiesces and sails away with mutineers when Henry Hudson is cast adrift during exploration of North America in 1611. Lawe helps torture hapless victims while a pirate in the Caribbean because that is the only means of avoiding being punished himself. He does good work as a clerk for Samuel Pepys, First Secretary of the Admiralty, but then Pepys loses his job when William of Orange becomes king in 1688.

Thrown into debtors' prison after borrowing to invest in fraudulent stock, Lawe escapes ohly by agreeing to virtual imprisonment in a North Atlantic fishing vessel. While wintering in Newfoundland, his best friend is tortured and killed by Indians. Serving with Captain James Cook, Lawe assists the invasion of Quebec in 1759, then is on hand when the famous sureyor is murdered by Hawaiian natives in 1779.

As Nelson's lieutenant, Lawe is a silent observer of his captain's dalliance with Lady Emma Hamilton, one of several obliging women in the book. He then accompanies him on a string of victories, culminating in the glory of Trafalgar, the 1805 battle in which Nelson was killed.

Monsarrat is an acknowledged master of his craft, so it is little wonder that this series of tales is so entertaining, even though the reading becomes most gruesome in places. Moreover, the stories convey much factual information about Britain's seafaring giants, bespeaking a great deal of research on the author's part. Beyond that, one learns what it was like to be a sailor during two centuries. The sea itself was demanding, and those who sailed also had to contend with harsh punishment debilitating diseases such as scurvy, and poor food and pay.

Monsarrat is equally adept at the clever or evocative phrase. In one passage, he provides the book's subtitle when he tells of Nelson on board his ship, "his feet braced against the gentle roll which was the Agamemnon's eternal dance when running proud before the wind." A group of ships which carried the leonine banners of British maritime supremacy is referred to as "this huge display of sea lions." Lawe's breeches are at one point as "baggy as a pair of udders before the evening's milking." Of a fishing vessel he writes, "If the schooner Consuela was not the dirtiest ship afloat, she had small chance of meeting her equal within five years of a roving search."

The words are at times archaic, because Monsarrat frequently employs the idiom of the era he is portraying. One expects that the language will be more modern in stories to come -- and Monsarrat has promised a sequel in two years. With Lawe's luck, he should make captain just about the time the Titanic or Lusitania is ready to sail.