“All my troubles were now astern; summer was ahead; all the world was again before me.” So it went for the great Joshua Slocum, rounding Cape Horn at the close of the 19th century on his wooden sloop, the Spray. If you sail, you know how this feels. Your heart is full of sunlight, and life is trimmed to its essentials: water plus wind plus boat. I guess it’s a cliché to open with Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” (National Geographic Society, 2004). But it’s still the best sailing book ever, with tides of imitators since it first came out in 1900.
The story begins with this expert seaman in a Fairhaven boatyard fixing up the Spray. What a mess: As the locals joke, it must have “been built in the year 1.” Later, he launches in Boston Harbor — a “thrilling pulse beat high in me” — and over the next few years and 46,000 miles, Slocum navigates by dead reckoning, taking noon-sun sights for latitude. And he lashes the helm so it can self-steer (and he can sleep and lounge).
There are multiple gales and some big equipment failures, like a faulty sheet rope made of sisal, “a treacherous fiber which has caused a deal of strong language among sailors.” Going ashore on the Keeling Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean (“paradise on this earth”), he is greeted as the white reincarnation of a native lost to the depths. Off the Azores, he falls into a delirious fever, believing he sees the pilot (black beard, red cap) from Columbus’s Pinta, who chats cheerfully to him and steers the Spray to safety.
Slocum isn’t exactly introspective: We don’t know why he made the trip. But most sailing literature, as I learned, begins as an exit strategy. In another classic, the author contracts measles, causing a loss of vision and inspiring him to drop out of harvard to seek a cure. So it went for Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast” (Solis, 2014), first published in 1840. I read a bit of it in high school, and it felt pretty dry. Perhaps because there are few teenage-pleasing heroics.
As an adult, though, I came to admire Dana’s reportage — and humility. To change his luck, Dana hires on to a brig and quickly realizes there “is not so hopeless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.” He finds the shouted orders “unintelligible” and makes “wild vomits into the black night.”
Aboard the Pilgrim, Dana travels from Boston to Cape Horn, to the Aleutians and California, and spends his days “tarring, greasing, oiling, varnishing, painting, scraping, and scrubbing . . . in addition to watching at night, steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction.”
No pleasure cruise, this: Indeed, he wrote his book to expose the poor conditions of the average sailor (the lower ranks shared cramped quarters toward the bow of the ship, or “before the mast”). The Pilgrim had a cargo of 40,000 cowhides.
The Brendan is actually made of ox hides, stitched over ribs of oak and ash, and slathered with wool grease “that looked and smelled abominable,” writes Tim Severin, the explorer-writer who has recreated the voyages of, among others, Sindbad, and Jason and the Argonauts. Such a delight, then, is his “The Brendan Voyage: A Leather Boat Tracks the Discovery of America by the Irish Sailor Saints” (McGraw-Hill, 1978). Around 800 AD, St. Brendan claimed to have reached the new world in a leather boat, keel-less, so it would have skidded “across the water like a tea tray,” writes Severin.
Scholars long thought Brendan’s “Navigatio” was more a fanciful parable than the record of an actual trip. But Severin’s wife, a medievalist, is struck by the “remarkable amount of practical detail” in the text. And so Severin and his crew follow St. Brendan’s boat-building instructions and take his “Stepping Stone Route” up to the Faroes to Iceland to Greenland, waiting, like the saint, for east-to-west winds to spirit them across the pond (the Atlantic’s winds prevail west to east). They are stove by ice, barely skirt the rocks off the Faroes, and are often surrounded by a hundred-plus pilot whales with “boot-shiny” backs — who may be lured by the animal smell of the boat itself. Happy spoiler: The Brendan makes it to the new world, proving Brendan could’ve too.
In our modern world of fiberglass and Loran and GPS, it can be hard to snap a sailing story into drama — thus the alternative of reprising long-ago voyages. Severin follows Thor Heyerdahl’s wake here, with Tony Horwitz at the end of the caravel. The author of “Confederates in the Attic” gives us “Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before” (Henry Holt, 2002). Captain Kirk had the Enterprise, Captain Cook the Endeavour, and Horwitz gamely sails on a replica of the ship to create a rich, funny, poignant book. A quotable, hard-drinking Aussie friend of his adds grit and color.
When Cook set out in 1768, some third of the world map was labeled nondum cognita, not known. Sailing over 200,000 miles, the math-gifted captain made so many detailed charts, some were still used in the 1990s. Aboard the new Endeavor, Horwitz sleeps in his allotted 14-inch-wide hammock and fearfully climbs a 100-foot mast, making various stops in the Pacific, like Alaska, Tahiti, and the Great Barrier Reef — where Cook’s boat was jigsawed by coral and nearly met its end.
Another funny writer, á la Bill Bryson, is Chris Stewart, whose resumé includes sheep farmer and original drummer for the rock band Genesis. He is a bumbling novice in “Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat” (Broadway, 2010) who is hired by a rich American to pilot her Cornish Crabber, with winsome red sails, in the Aegean.
Mishaps ensue (he sets the auxiliary engine on fire several times), but he’s hooked. He enrolls at the Isle of Wight Sailing School and then crews on a 100-year-old wooden boat tracing the North Atlantic route of Leif Eriksson. Stewart comes to love the ocean birds (“the flowers of the sea”) and notes how sailing has a way “of blunting the intellect a little and enhancing the feelings.” A sudden burst of sunlight on clouded waves can bring him to tears, the joyful kind.
Not so much joy, but plenty of drama, is found in Peter Nichols’s “A Voyage for Madmen” (HarperCollins, 2001). The tension, this time, comes from competition. As the cover trumpets: “Nine men set out to race each other around the world. Only one made it back.” The race is sponsored by The Sunday Times of London, in 1968, and the men embark with scant modern technology, navigating by sextant. Yes, Slocum made it around the globe — one racer christened his boat Joshua — but Slocum stopped on land. These guys don’t. The winner returns to England after 313 days. Some others succumb to “ignominy, sublimity, and madness.” It’s a taut read: Think “Into Thin Air,” with waves.
Brian Fagan (“Elixir”) beautifully returns to sailing’s beginnings in “Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans” (Bloomsbury, 2012). He describes boats trussed with coconut-husk fiber or whale baleen, and trips made by “cabotage,” as sailors hopped along coastlines, decoding the ocean through “long experience and no illusions.” Fagan lucidly covers everything from the supernatural (the Mayans called the ocean “the Fiery Pool,” which turned red, at sunrise and sunset, from the blood of warring gods and sea monsters) to the anthropological (younger brothers were more apt to go to sea, since older ones inherited land). My favorite word in the book is “aefintyr,” Norse for taking to the ocean from a profound restless curiosity. Thereby finding danger, yes, but also deepest peace.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore