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.
Of course, there was that great burst of nautical novels that includes C. F. Forester, “Moby Dick”, Joseph Conrad’s numerous tour de force, and the library of great stories by Patrick O’Brien. But all these are about sailing in the Great Age of Sail; or in the case of Conrad, in the twilight years.
Where, I’ve been wondering, are the novels of today about contemporary sailors or life aboard or passages in small boats to fantasy islands? I often think of the sailing world as a microcosm of the larger society. Without doubt, many sailors are great characters and the whole business of getting from A to B by the power of the wind, or the iron sail, is full of drama, uncertainty and conflict. And after contemplating the universe on the middle watch it’s not hard to see sailing as a metaphor for life. How we sail is how we live. So how come bookshops have so few novels involving boats. (And if I’m wrong about this, and I just haven’t dug deep enough, please enlighten me.)
There is “The Riddle of the Sands”, Erskine Wilder’s great novel in which two men on a small boat discover German preparations for the invasion of England. But that was written nearly 100 years ago.
So, it was a joy recently to come across “The Voyage” by Robert MacNeil, originally published in 1995 by Doubleday. Yes, that’s the Robert MacNeil of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report/Hour wellknown to PBS watchers in North America and perhaps online.
“The Voyage” is not a tale of derring-do, nor of great storms, survival at sea, murder or being run down by a container ship. But the sections of the story which take place aboard Sea Girl are integral to the story as a whole and thoroughly convincing. Without the sleek sloop there would be no novel.
Years after the end of her affair with a Canadian diplomat, Francesca D’Aniella charters a sailboat in Finland and sails to the Aaland Islands. She is determined to command her lover’s attention once again and her plan is both unusual and ruthless. But life, like sailing, never quite goes according to our best intuitions.
When David Lyon, Canada’s Consul General in New York, hears of Francesca’s disappearance, he is forced to relive his memories of the intimate, yet uncertain romance that almost wrecked his marriage to a woman he loves deeply. If news of his involvement with the missing yachtswoman becomes public, he will be completely ruined.
It’s an intriguing tale that is deeply satisfying. MacNeil’s story-telling has an even touch that is neither so ephemeral that one doesn’t feel the loves that bind and complicate the lives of the characters, nor heavily-handedly sentimental and cliche. If I didn’t know that “The Voyage” was fiction, I’d have guessed the author had lived through much of what he writes about. But then, that is the skill of a first-rate novelist.
“Now the boat was heeling gently on a quarter reach. Panting from the exertion of hoisting the tall sail, she stopped the engine and gloried in the sweet silence, the soft hiss and switch of the sea under the bow, the whole boat feeling alive and airborne.
“With a shock she recognized that she was happy. Humming with new confidence, she loosened the roller-furling line and let the huge genoa fill. Instantly the boat felt seized by powerful hands and thrust forward, while the hiss of the sea became a rush underfoot. The water was calm between the islands, with no waves to impede the smooth acceleration.”
Every time we go sailing we can have the privilege of learning something new about ourselves, our boat and the sea. And the same is true for the characters in this story. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens, except to say that however the conflict is resolved, it has the feel of a boat coming properly and safely into harbour after living through a great storm at sea.