Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

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.

* Sailing around Iceland – a tall tale of fact or fiction?

One of the added pleasures of reading this book by the sailor Tristan Jones is the challenge of deciding what is fact and what is fiction.

According to Mr. Jones, he sailed single-handed around Iceland in a reburbished lifeboat.

According to Jones’s biographer, Anthony Dalton, the story is almost entirely fiction.  According to Dalton, in his book “Wayward Sailor”, Tristan Jones gathered stories from other sailors in bars and sat down to wrote “Ice!”  It’s easy to understand why.  Jones came late to sailing, had no money, and if he was going to succeed as a sailing author needed to turn out a series of high adventure books; but he didn’t have the time to actually do the voyages.

For Tristan Jones, this was no problem. In all his books he was definitely a follower of the old journalist adage “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

This is not to say that Ice! is not a great read.  Like his other books, Jones is a wonderful storyteller.  He knows how to give a story momentum, he has a sharp eye for the telling details, and he never lets any of his stories become chronicles instead of stories.  None of his book – and especially Ice! – is a diary report of a voyage.  Rather, his stories are a comingling of what happened and what might have happened.

For example, every voyage to the Arctic has to have a polar bear. And not just a polar bear seen in the distance.  Tristan Jones makes his polar bear encounter up close and personal.  And totally believable – as fiction!

“By now the bear was hauling himself upright, with his great paws clawing at the guardrails. As his head, with its fierce fangs and glittering, menacing eyes, appeared over the gunwale, I jabbed at him with the harpoon from where I was standing in the companionway…The bear jerked his head and body back in surpise, his great massive claws tearing away the upper wire of the guardrail, bending the one-inch-thick galvanized iron stanchions as if they were putty. then I realized that this huge creature could, if he wished, literally tear the boat apart with his strength.”

Both Tristan and Nelson, his three-legged dog (but of course!), attack the polar bear on the tiny sailboat.

“For a second or two Nelson and I stood stockstill, petrified with shock and alarm. The bear crawled on all fours around the side of the boat, bumping the hull with his shoulder. Then I remembered the Very rocket gun.  This is a device, shaped like a pistol, with a barrel eight inches long and an inch and a half bore, into which flare rockets are loaded.”

Jones has already loaded the gun ready for just such an attack:

“Now I slithered below, fumbled at the fireworks box, and grabbed the pistol, my hands shaking badly…I climbed the ladder and turned to face the bear.  Holding the Very pistol in one frozen hand, I slammed down as hard as I could on the doghouse roof with the other, fish clenched. The bear turned his jaws towards me, showing his great fangs, his hungry, wicked eyes crackling with anger. I fired, sending the rocket straight into his throat, a great stream of red light particles. With a grunt, the bear threw himself backwards onto the ice floe, rolling in agony, for the phosphorus of the flare was burning fiercely in his gorge.”

It’s a great image and marvellous storytelling – but I doubt it ever happened.

The great danger of sailing among clumps of sea ice is that the boat or ship might be holed or crushed by it – think of Titanic or Shackleton’s ship Endurance in the Antarctic.  In Ice! Jones would have us believe he man-hauled his sailboat out of the water, up onto an ice floe.

“I hacked away with the ax and shifted tons of ice, solid hard ice, until after nine days’ steady labor, I had a “ramp” leading from just below water level, back through the ice floe at a steady incline of about 25 degrees, back almost to the other side of the ice-floe isthmus…On the ninth of September I unloaded all the stores, all the sails, all the tools off the boat.”

He then froze a hurricane anchor in a five-foot hole filled with water and used the boat’s winch, he says, to haul Cresswell out of the sea and up and onto the ice floe.  It makes a great tale but hard to believe.

Jones says his objective was to sail farther north than any other sailor before him, including Nansen’s latitude of 84 degrees north.  He says he did reach within 850 miles from the North Pole, but then the ice began to carry him south again.

Whether or not you believe one word of this book, it is a great read and should confirm Tristan Jones as a great nautical author – whether of fiction or non-fiction is for each reader to decide.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2011 by in Book Reviews, Sailing and tagged , , , , .
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