CLOSE TO THE WIND
By Pete Goss
Carroll & Graf. 273 pp. $25
THE GODFORSAKEN SEA
Racing the World's
Most Dangerous Waters
By Derek Lundy
Algonquin. 272 pp. $22.95
THREE MILES DOWN
A Hunt for Sunken Treasure
By James Hamilton-Paterson
Lyons. 298 pp. $22.95
Reviewed by Ken Ringle
One could argue that the world's deepest and most enduring tales have been sea stories (Jason's? Odysseus's? Noah's?), and thankfully no season passes without another fleet of authors ready to help us weigh anchor once again. Rarely are they as charming as Joshua Slocum, whose classic Sailing Alone Around the World has hardly been out of print since it was first published in 1900 and has just appeared in the Penguin Classics. But something about the humbling and meditative nature of a sailing voyage tends to coax provocative prose from most, if not all, who venture forth in the wind's way.
Space-age electronics and plastic hulls haven't yet sapped all the poetry from the mythic voyage. Those who fear such a loss can do no better than consult the works of Charles Tyng and Pete Goss, who sailed nearly a century before and after Slocum, respectively. They remind us that the basic lure of nautical narratives is ultimately heroic. To survive at sea in a small vessel almost inevitably involves human triumph over natural challenges inconceivable to the landbound. Whiners need not apply.
Tyng's Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain 1808-1833, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in last week's Book World, is the engaging, recently discovered memoir of a Boston youth who sailed to China as a 13-year-old in the early 1800s and worked his way to captaincy through mutinies, pirate chases, shipwrecks and other hazards of the sea. Tyng describes the birth and glory years of the American maritime trade -- he was a contemporary of Richard Henry Dana of Two Years Before the Mast -- and his description of life in other ports of the globe is as fascinating as his portrait of life on a tall ship.
Where, we might wonder, would we today find a young man like Tyng, capable of hanging by one hand from a footrope aloft, sewing his own clothes from canvas, weathering Cape Horn storms and, in addition, selling $20 worth of Brazilian parrots in Italy for $200 and investing the profits in a cargo of Leghorn hats?
Well, possibly in Pete Goss, an irrepressible former Royal Marine whose nautical adventures in Close to the Wind would seem as far from Tyng's as his book title implies. Close to the Wind is the irresistible story of Goss's battle to compete in perhaps the ultimate challenge for any modern sailor: the 1996 Vendee Globe nonstop around-the-world yacht race for solo sailors.
There are plenty of people -- and this reviewer is one of them -- for whom the high-tech, megabuck world of big-time sailboat racing long ago strayed far off course, lured from its guiding stars of seamanship, self-reliance and accountability by the sirens of lightweight plastics and speed at any cost. However many hazards stalked the nautical world of Tyng and Slocum, their vessels' keels didn't fall off, which happens with criminal frequency in ocean racing these days.
But unlike many irresponsible, wallet-waving competitors who count on the world's coast guards to save them from their folly, Goss bets on determination, persistence and his own cheerful resourcefulness. He emerges from his tale as an impressive template of the post-Imperial British mariner -- an irreverent, can-do type for whom no sacrifice is too great in pursuit of his dream. He makes his 10-year-battle for money and equipment as intriguing as his voyage.
Sailors in the Vendee Globe leave Les Sables d'Olonne on the French coast in early November, sweep southeast close to the Brazilian coast before turning west to round the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn and then returning. Most of the three-and-a-half- to four-and-a-half-month race takes place in the fearsome Southern Ocean, where near-hurricane gales and 60-foot seas are a daily fact of life and icebergs a constant menace. Goss takes us aboard with him:
"The energy of the storm was incredible. . . . The hull hummed and shook as we surfed off down a wave at 27 knots. I braced myself for the impact at the bottom and we dropped for what seemed an eternity before the crash came. . . . I clambered back on deck and marvelled at the conditions as we flew along under the storm jib alone. The sail was little more than the size of a tablecloth and yet the sheet was tight and as unyielding as a steel rod. . . . There was a roar as a big sea broke behind us. . . . This was fantastic. I grabbed the camera and fired off a few shots for the kids."
If Goss sounds larger than life, a sort of upbeat Odysseus in Gore-Tex, his joy in his terrifying, wind-whipped world is contagious. He writes of his extraordinary deeds matter-of-factly and with humor, always reminding us that others enduring the same conditions are farther ahead in the race. When he turns into the storm in the Southern Ocean to rescue a capsized competitor close to death (for which he was awarded France's Legion of Honor for gallantry and named Yachtsman of the Year) he treats it as just another part of the mad adventure -- something any seaman would have done.
You can't help thinking that Tyng and Slocum would have loved Goss. His 50-foot boat may be composite plastic, with a keel he can trim like his sails, but he shows the same pluck and resourcefulness that led Slocum to navigate with a dimestore alarm clock and spread tacks on deck to discourage barefoot boarders. And if he spends much of his book shoestringing after corporate sponsorship, sleeping in train stations to save money, and cycling to meetings because he's sold his house and car to help finance his quest, he ultimately wins the hearts and contributions of his Cornwall neighbors, who virtually pass the hat to help him on his way. A local church even melts its organ pipes to provide lead for his keel.
In the end Goss makes it hard for us to complain about all the commercialism. Tyng, after all had his Leghorn hats, and even Slocum wasn't above salvaging a load of tallow in Patagonia and turning a profit on it later in his voyage. It's the adventure that Goss is really after, and he earns it.
Alas, we can't quite say the same for Derek Lundy, who not only remains on the sidelines but tends to write in The Godforsaken Sea like the lawyer he is. Lundy, for whom a single storm en route to the Caribbean was enough to scare him from his dream of crossing oceans, merely presses his nose to the window glass of great adventure. His book tells us about the race; Goss shows us. But Lundy's book is a wide-angled portrait of the other competitors as well, and, if less entertaining, is more informative and accessible for those readers who don't know a spinnaker from a running backstay. His detail work is commendable, if at times pedantic, and he provides a useful context of weather science, sailing routes and history.
If adventure under sail constitutes half of the mythic voyage, the other half is the quest for treasure. James Hamilton-Paterson takes us partway there in Three Miles Down: A Hunt for Sunken Treasure, and proves in the process that you don't have to find the gold to give the reader a good time.
The author joins an improbable British expedition aboard a Russian ship in search of German gold aboard a Japanese submarine sunk off Africa during World War II. The sub is the I-52, torpedoed by U.S. aircraft en route from Kobe, Japan, to German-occupied France in June 1944. She was a huge submarine freighter -- longer than a football field and with the astonishing range of 27,000 miles -- and was carrying a high-value cargo as part of a little-known inter-Axis trade that swapped raw materials from Asia for manufactured products of Western Europe. Aboard were 228 tons of tin, molybdenum and tungsten, 2.8 tons of raw opium, 3 tons of quinine and 54 tons of raw rubber. Plus two tons of gold from the Bank of Japan.
In quest of her in 1995 were a British salvage crew riding the chartered Russian research ship Akademik Keldysh, crewed by Russian oceanographers who would much rather have been peering at volcanic vents on the Atlantic ridge. The expedition never found the sub -- American Paul Tidwell of Centreville, Va., did a few months later -- but Hamilton-Paterson had the time of his life anyway. He bewitches us with history, mystery and science as the ship's Mir submersibles probe the ocean floor 1,200 meters deeper than the Titanic's grave.
Last year Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea was the treasure junkie's summer read. But Kinder lacks the subversive sense of humor that makes Hamilton-Paterson so much fun. Besides, he never told us the real horror of the mythic voyage: Breathe too much helium when you're three miles down and the gas seeps into your fillings; when you come up your teeth explode. Could Scylla and Charybdis be worse than that?
Ken Ringle, who writes for The Post's Style section, is master and commander of the schooner Whisper.