My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Passage to Juneau, A Sea and Its Meaning by Jonathan Raban.
The Northwest Coast of North America – up through the island-strewn Inside Passage of British Columbia and north to Alaska – is one of the most fascinating sailing areas in the world. Thousands of people travel up there on enormous cruise ships every summer; so when I saw that Jonathan Raban has made the voyage in his own sailboat I was eager to settle into my berth, forget the world, and enjoy a fascinating yarn of the sea by one of best contemporary English writers.
The writing is wonderful. How pleasant it is to be in the company of someone who can use the English language so adeptly. What Raban writes feels like a conversation not a monologue because he seems to allow for the reader’s own thoughts about his observations and comments. Much of the book is superb story telling. We pay attention not to a tale of daring-do, of dangerous adventure but as a trusted passenger sitting with him on his ketch sailing north. We’re not crew because we’re not asked to do anything except sit in the cockpit or down below, relax and enjoy the scenery and people, with his expert comments on the history of the area and the way of life of the First Nations peoples on the along the coast more than 200 years ago. He provides real insights into their arts that I’ve never heard before. All this is superb.
I understand that part of going to sea is what we leave behind – in Raban’s case, his wife and daughter Julia. But the book ends with his wife arriving in Juneau to tell him she wants a divorce and Raban’s laconic observation, as he returns to his house in Seattle, “I climbed the last surburban quater-mile and faced the rougher sea”. Divorce is a ordeal in anyone’s life, but in terms of the storytelling of the book, his wife had hardly been mentioned before and his marriage even less. He mentions his relationship to his daughter often and this provides an endearing contrast to his sailing and his fascinating account of previous sailors and First Nations people that are the meat of the story. For me, the sudden arrival of the threat of divorce (by plane) breaks the story’s flow. The book’s subtitle, “A Sea and Its Meaning” suddenly seems to hang over the side like a forgotten fender. What does he mean? That life is as unpredictable as the sea. Or perhaps just as meaningless as the sea: for the sea just is.