Below the Cape of Good Hope and south of Australia lie the feared latitudes of the "Roaring Forties," where non-stop westerly gales push huge seas, unimpeded, around and around the bottom of the world. It was into this watery hell that, in 1942, Vito Dumas set sail in a 31-foot ketch, outfitted with makeshift gear and provisions and a stoic indifference to the privations he would endure. His 20,000-mile voyage through the vast Southern Ocean set many records, including first solo sailor to round Cape Horn and first to sail around the world with only three landfalls.
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What Are “The Sailor’s Classics?” No one meets the ocean on quite such intimate terms as the sailor in a small boat. No one experiences a solitude more absolute than that encountered by long-distance single-handed sailors like Joshua Slocum or Bernard Moitessier. Since the early nineteenth century, when Byron and Shelley put to sea in their own boats in order to set themselves adrift in nature at its most turbulent and unruly, writing and sailing have gone hand in hand.
There have been writers who sailed—Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hilaire Belloc, Jack London, E.B. White, William Golding, John Barth, Thomas McGuane, Geoffrey Wolff—along with a multitude of sailors who wrote, from Slocum and John Voss to Tristan Jones and the father-son team of Daniel and David Hays. After nearly two hundred years, the literature of small-boat voyaging under sail is enormous, and every publishing season sees more additions to the list.
It is the function of The Sailor’s Classics to recognize and celebrate the relatively small number of truly important books in this library. Some have been chosen because the voyages they describe are themselves of unignorable merit; some because the sheer brilliance of their writing demands their inclusion. Most combine in equal parts serious nautical interest with literary excellence.
As general editor of the series, I am always trying to keep in mind the bookshelves on my own 35-foot ketch. A proper ship’s library isn’t restricted to books with boats in them, of course; I wouldn’t happily set sail for more than a day or two without novels by Dickens, Trollope, Evelyn Waugh, and Saul Bellow, and poetry by Pope, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Robert Lowell. The big question is which small-boat voyages can stand up in such exalted literary company? Not very many is the honest answer, and half the function of an editor is to know what he must reject. The books that won’t figure in the series are as important as those that will.
We won’t be publishing quaint curiosities. Period charm does not make a classic, and though I have a soft spot for, say, Nathaniel Bishop’s Four Months in a Sneak Box (1879), and an even softer one for Maurice Griffiths’ The Magic of the Swatchways (1932), they won’t be found in The Sailor’s Classics. Nor will the many salty “yarns” full of the faded yo-ho-ho of generations past. Whimsical accounts of family vacations afloat (the obligatory adventure with the dog and the dinghy...) will be left to gather dust in peace. So will all those melancholy solo voyages in which the writers go to sea in order to discover themselves.
There remain the books whose vigor has not dimmed with the passage of time, whose voice is as alive and meaningful now as it was on their first publication—the books that should be essential reading for every literate sailor. No. 2 in the series is Richard Maury’s The Saga of Cimba, first published in 1939; No. 4 is The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, first published in 1971. They are perfect examples of what I mean: one a loving close-up portrait of the sea in all its moods, written by a master mariner with an astonishing literary gift; the other a study, by two journalists, of a man who lost touch with reality during the course of the first singlehanded round-the-world yacht race. Each—in its very different way—is an indispensable book. Each contributes an important thread to the larger pattern in the carpet, which is the great, various, and intricate design of the literature of small-boat sailing.
The Sailor’s Classics will surprise our readers with its richness and complexity. Since Homer’s Odyssey, the voyage has supplied one of the classic forms in literature—both as a grand metaphor for life itself in the long passage from birth to death, and as a sequence of tests and adventures. Equally, the boat (and especially the small boat) has long stood as a symbol of selfhood—a fragile ark bearing the journeying soul to its destination. Hilaire Belloc put the matter beautifully in The Cruise of the Nona:
"The cruising of a boat here and there is very much what happens to the soul of a man in a larger way... We are granted great visions, we suffer intolerable tediums, we come to no end of the business, we are lonely out of sight of England, we make astonishing landfalls—and the whole rigmarole leads us along no whither, and yet is alive with discovery, emotion, adventure, peril and repose." Those five nouns should be emblazoned above The Sailor’s Classics: it is from the interweaving of discovery, emotion, adventure, peril, and repose that the pattern of sailing literature is made, and we shall do our best to honor each and every one in our selection of the best books ever written about life aboard small boats at sea. Jonathan Raban
"One of the classic small-boat voyages of all time."--Jonathan Raban
In June 1942, Vito Dumas set off from Buenos Aires for a trip around the world unlike any previous circumnavigation--eastward over the "impossible route," the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean: south of the Cape of Good Hope, south of Australia, and south of Cape Horn. His craft, the Lehg II, a 31-foot ketch named for his mistress, carried only the most makeshift gear and provisions; he refused to carry a sea anchor, a bilge pump, or more than one screwdriver, and he had so few clothes that he had to stuff them with newspaper to keep warm. He also sailed without a radio, as carrying one during wartime would have labeled him a spy.
He was the first to complete the 20,000-mile voyage single-handed, the first solo sailor to round Cape Horn and survive, and the first to sail around the world with only three landfalls (in South Africa, New Zealand, and Chile). But what sets this story apart is Dumas's powerful prose, relating elation and depression, hardship and relaxation, and, above all, his unrelenting determination in the face of adversity. The terror of sailing through massive storms without respite from the helm alternates with periods of relative calm when he reflects on the peaceful, enchanting nature of the sea. His trio of landfalls--sojourns he called "calm waters where my spirit could rest"--add yet another dimension to this beautiful tale. Alone through the Roaring Forties is also a tribute to Lehg II, Dumas's beloved boat. He calls her his "shipmate," and "faithful companion," "an ideal floating house of extraordinary strength and endurance," and had complete faith in her abilities and performance.
First published in 1960, Alone through the Roaring Forties is a classic tale of skilled navigation, seamanship, and great adventure, but it also demonstrates, as Dumas intended, the possibilities of global peace and friendship in a world at war. As Jonathan Raban writes in his introduction, "Dumas chose to see his circumnavigation as a test of his ordinary humanity. There are hurricane-force winds here, and hazardous waves, but . . . it is his reverence for the small things that gives Alone through the Roaring Forties its distinction as a classic."
"Other solo circumnavigators have made the world seem dauntingly larger by their harrowing exploits; Dumas makes it seem smaller. He rides lightly over the vicissitudes of his voyage, perhaps because his mission was to connect up the world at a time when it was tragically divided."--from the introduction by Jonathan Raban
The Sailor's Classics recognizes and celebrates the best books ever written about life aboard small boats at sea: 40,000 Miles in a Canoe, John C. Voss Gipsy Moth Circles the World, Francis Chichester The Saga of Cimba, Richard Maury The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall
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