19 July 2017

Twentieth century sailing books

As a complete, and welcome contrast to the contemporary sailing books I've been reading, I found that Kobo e-books have some classics lurking in their 'store'.  There was a time when I owned both of Edward Allcard's books - more than once - but they have been left behind on various boats, I hope still loved and cherished.

However, I found Single-handed Passage was on offer and immediately bought it.  What a joy to read after my recent books.  Here is a man who is perfectly content to be sailing at 3 knots on his 34 foot yawl; he contemplates and 80-day passage with equanimity; he takes his mainsail down or heaves to at night so that he can sleep in peace; after two days of calm, culminating in a magnificent sunset, he writes "It was a fitting end to a delightful interlude."  What a sense of peace emanates from these few words.

Edward Allcard is at sea just because he wants to be.  He is not trying to prove anything or to compete with anyone - even himself.  He just wishes to take his ship from England to New York by 'the Southern Route'.  He looks at a couple of atlases, maybe a routing chart or two and sets off.  He has no schedule, no-one he has arranged to meet, no flights to catch, no job or business to 'get back to'. Occasionally he can pick up the BBC on his little portable radio and listens, bemusedly to dance music, with pleasure to the female announcer's voice.  He reads books, he contemplates the ocean; in calms he lies on the side deck and gazes into the incredible blue depths below him.  He takes plunge baths off the bowsprit and watches with resignation as the gooseneck barnacles grow.  He is a happy man with a deep understanding of why he is out on the ocean.

As I said, I have read his books before, but I don't recall reading this one with so much pleasure.  Maybe it's the contrast with my recent reads, maybe it's the contrast with the madness of today's world.  Whatever, it makes me want to go and do likewise.

I wouldn't want to be sailing his heavy gaffer; I would hate to be without a self-steering gear, where he seemed quite content to spend 12 hours at the helm; I don't want to cope with cotton sails and manila ropes, but maybe I, too, have lost much in my demand for easier sailing.  (And that's before we even talk about junk rig, although Mr Allcard does say he hated going on the foredeck.)  I suppose we all choose our level of challenge, but I think it's attitude that I'm talking about.  The attitude that accepts complete solitude; no communications and no sense of "I must go faster".  I think he and I are in harmony here.

There is no publishers name in this book (apart from W W Norton on the title page), so I can only conclude that this is a Kobo initiative.  If so, I hope they do more.

Kobo also have Ralph Stock's The Cruise of the Dreamship. It's very cheap, so may just be an e-book facsimile and a bit rough around the edges, but it is one of the most wonderful sailing books every written.


Two things I meant to mention.  The first was simply amplifying what I was saying earlier about Mr Allcard's wonderfully low expectations: he was very happy with a week's run of 522 miles, in fact so much so that he took Sunday off, something that he'd been intending to do at the outset, but because he had left late in the season, had felt the need to press on.  So hard was he pressing on that he was quite content with a run of 472 miles the following week.  472 miles!  Less than 3 knots!  Quelle horreur!  It just shows what an amazing difference self-steering gears have made to passage-making - and expectations.  The vast majority of boats crossing oceans these days, would have been motoring every time the speed dropped below 4 knots, let alone 3.

The other thing is much, much sadder.  Earlier in the book he passes a brown bottle bobbing along.  Not only does he comment on it (not something one would be likely to log these days) and speculate on whence it came, but he remarks on how few foreign objects he sees at sea.  And this from a low and often slow boat.  Later, as he admires his surroundings, he writes: "It was pleasant to think that all the beuaty of the sea had been unspoiled by the scar of civilization, and that I was lucky enough to enjoy exactly the same sights as" Columbus.  Not these days, alas.  Especially in calm conditions, you can't look over the side without seeing something plastic floating in the water.  You don't even come across those beautiful glass floats any more.

But I am one of the lucky ones: the first time I crossed an ocean was in 1975 and there was very little sign of plastic about then. While my memory lasts, I can enjoy that recollection.