I guess most of us secretly wish we weren't who we are for at least part of each day. Naomi James, the author of "Alone Around the World," is someone who doesn't simply dream about it. Refusing to notice the limits perceived by most of us, she just goes ahead.
With a minimum of boating experience and training James set out to be the first woman to sail alone around the world. She took on the awesome, self-imposed task in a very matter-of-fact way. And that is exactly how she describes it, making the book a very straightforward description of those 272 days spent in solitude (except for the kitten which drowned the 51st day out) on a 53 foot boat bouncing about some of the wildest seas of the world.
This straightforward approach is both the book's strength and its weakness: It makes it stronger because it demystifies the process -- there are no great discussions of multi-hulls versus mono hulls for ocean sailing.
Indeed, there is remarkably little sailor talk (though there is a good glossary of nautical terms if you are confused). But it is the book's weakness because it makes it all seem so simple and I don't believe it was. Because the language is simple, the words don't conjure any real vision of the size of the seas in a storm in the southern ocean; one doesn't travel with her with the immediacy one might wish.
In one way James' voyage is different from most similar epics -- a way that should earn applause. The whole escapade was remarkably free of the usual media ballyhoo. It's true that the boat's name had been "Spirit of Cutty Sark" but was changed to "Express Crusader" to match the masthead figure of the London Daily Express to whom James occasionally managed to send dispatches. And it's true that there is the usual list of thank yous to suppliers of equipment -- but there are only nine names on the list. This wasn't a media junket, inevitably expected of expeditions going anywhere beyond the last stop on the subway. Would our memory of Scott of the Antarctic be the same if he'd been sponsored by NBC? I think not.
And has such sponsorship distorted the direction of exploration? I think perhaps it has. For example, mountaineers, the land-based equivalent of ocean voyagers, now favor smaller parties -- yet the film that may be a crucial part of the expedition-funding means the addition of at least three extra people, plus the porters for their equipment and food. So the natural direction mountaineers seem to wish to take is away from the big international assault and towards the small self-supporting raid -- but the forces of funding are pushing them back. Where the answer lies we cannot tell -- no doubt in some kind of reasoned compromise -- but I admire Naomi James for entirely avoiding the problem.
I read this book in those very days that brought the news of the mayhem and death caused by the storm that scythed through the ocean races of Britain's Fastnet contest. Such a comparison again brings out the potential for distorting the natural direction of a physical pursuit. In the Fastnet, seaworthiness and the skills that go with it presumably had been traded for speed. In mountaineering, mobility and the pressures of small-group climbing have been traded for the intrusive needs -- and rewards -- of the media, but in "Crusader's" case nothing was traded. Naomi James, having discovered the joys of deepwater sailing with her new husband, set out to achieve what was to her a perfectly simple ambition. And I enormously enjoyed sailing my armchair around the world with her.