A roustabout once explained to me why he was forever heading off on some unfathomable new quest to tax the body, mind and spirit.
Unlike him, he said, people who seek the safe way of urban routines spend far too much of their lives looking over their shoulders, worrying about what they’ve done, what is already past. When they’re not looking back, he continued, they’re worrying about what awaits them tonight, tomorrow or next week.
Too bad, he said. These people hardly have time for the present.
By contrast, my adventurer friend dedicated himself to that other existence, hanging his weather-beaten hide out there on the edge, where there is no distraction from the past or the future, where life at the moment upwells with urgency for no other reason than that it is placed intentionally at risk.
This passion to live in the present seems to me superior to the old wheeze “Because it’s there” as an answer to the question “Why climb mountains?” Or, for today’s purposes, to the question, “Why get in a small boat and set sail across the ocean?”
Capt. Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail around the world alone. Not only was he a seafarer and a hero to seafarers for his deeds, he was a pretty good storyteller, too. It is a legacy for which we of less adventuresome disposition have been thankful for almost 100 years.
His book, “Sailing Alone Around the World,” published first in magazine installments at the turn of the century and still in print today, is the classic of a long-lasting genre of small-boat sailing adventures--books that whether written of Slocum’s voyage in 1895-98 or a trip that ended a week ago Tuesday are filled with the same thing: the vital, throbbing single-mindedness of the present.
Slocum was a clipper-ship captain rendered obsolete by the arrival of the steamship--"cast up from the ocean,” he wrote, and plopped just like that onto the hard, frozen ground of Boston.
He was not a fretter, though, and when someone offered him a rotting 37-foot sloop, he did the natural thing: He fixed it up and went sailing.
My deadpan is intentional. That is how Slocum regarded adventure--he just did it.
Working with hand tools, he rebuilt the boat, Spray, from scratch. He provisioned it and set sail, at age 51, without engine, without radio, without weather forecasts, without a Panama Canal, without a whimper of doubt, and completely by himself. Forty-six thousand miles later, he had outrun pirates, survived storms, outwitted wild Indians, taken measure of the great beauty of the planet and returned home. And rarely does he raise his writer’s voice, never growing breathless or smearing the pages with flamboyant adjectives.
He reminds us of the resourcefulness that people can find in themselves when backed alone against the wall in an inescapable moment that is the present.
Impoverished natives of Tierra del Fuego stalked Slocum relentlessly across the straits of South America. He responded with carpet tacks he kept aboard. After anchoring, he spread tacks across his deck and went below to sleep.
“Now, it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it,” he writes. “A pretty good Christian will whistle when he steps on the ‘commercial end’ of a carpet tack; a savage will howl and claw the air, and that was just what happened that night about twelve o’clock, while I was asleep in the cabin, where the savages thought they had me, sloop and all, but changed their minds when they stepped on deck, for then they thought that I or somebody else had them.”
Another lasting but wholly different sailing yarn was spun nearly three generations later by renegade Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden in his autobiography “Wanderer.” On the wharfs and marina docks across America, sailors today treasure their copies of this elegant, enlightening and richly spellbinding 1963 book that was re-issued in 1977.
Hayden lived from 1916 to 1986, but greater than the span of years was the cultural gulf that his life bridged. As a strapping and hungry young hand, he worked the fishing schooners off the banks of New England through gale-tossed winters; as a celebrity, he harvested the success and torment of a Los Angeles he found befouled by smog and lawyers and venal ambition.
Buffeted by the extravagant extremes of his life, Hayden sought peace intermittently at sea. He may be remembered chiefly for his character roles in movies like “Dr. Strangelove,” but Hayden considered himself a fraud behind the camera. He was in his heart a sailor, and, as it turned out, a writer, too.
“Wanderer” begins with the 1959 event that titillated Hollywood--a leap for freedom so brassy as to be incomprehensible. Who would give up rich film offers to trundle his children off to Tahiti in a leaky old schooner named Wanderer crewed by people picked from a newspaper want ad? Who indeed, asked a Los Angeles judge, in issuing an injunction against taking the children on any such voyage. The judge acted in response to a petition by Hayden’s ex-wife.
Soon thereafter, bound for the South Pacific with children and crew--the judge be damned--Hayden ordered this devilish entry into Wanderer’s log: “Your honor, sir, the proposed ocean voyage is no longer enjoined--for the record that is.”
Hayden covers a rich inventory of other ocean passages on romantic old schooners, a scattering of Hollywood “moments,” his oddball childhood and his days as a World War II OSS gun-runner. But more than a entertainment bio, “Wanderer,” at its root, like Hayden himself, is a call to arms for adventure.
He mocks the men who say, “I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas but I can’t afford it.”
“What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of ‘security.’ And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine--and before we know it our lives are gone.”
This compulsion to live for the moment underlies most good true-life sailing yarns. And nowhere is the drive stronger and purer than in Bernard Moitessier’s solo account of his participation in the first around-the-world, nonstop, single-handed sailboat race.
His book is “The Long Way,” first published in 1973 and now available from Grafton Books’ The Mariner’s Library, 1988.
Frenchman Moitessier, a few pals and some acquaintances found themselves in the late 1960s similarly intrigued with the idea of sailing their boats alone around the world without stopping, from Europe down past the capes of Africa, New Zealand and South America. The Sunday Times of London heard of the talk and announced a race with a 5,000 prize.
Few sailors can resist a race. In the summer of 1968, the handful of competitors left, each carrying more than a year’s worth of supplies, Moitessier aboard the 40-foot ketch Joshua.
Moitessier is a lyrical, inward-looking writer as eccentrically passionate about the mystic sea as Edward Abbey was about the Southwestern desert.
Readers have reported feeling slightly loopy at the end of Moitessier’s account of months on end, utterly alone at the far reaches of the sea.
“I am neither happy nor sad, neither really tense nor really relaxed,” he wrote of his approach to the Horn. “Perhaps that is the way it is when a man gazes at the stars, asking himself questions he is not mature enough to answer. So one day he is happy, the next a bit sad without knowing why. It is a little like the horizon: For all your distinctly seeing sky and sea come together on the same line, for all your constantly making for it, the horizon stays at the same distance, right at hand and out of reach.”
What occurs next separates Moitessier from other adventurers, and establishes him as a cult hero.
After rounding the Horn and heading home on the final leg of the “race,” Moitessier struggles with himself, sanity, society’s values. And he alters course. Forget the race. Onward around the world still more, past Africa a second time, through the Indian Ocean and back to the Pacific again. Onward to Tahiti--one-and-a-half times around the world, alone and without stopping.
After such books and such adventurers, how much, really, is there left to say of this business of man-against-the-sea?
How about a troubled 1980s teen-age girl against the sea? How about this girl, a Manhattan bicycle messenger who hangs out aimlessly with the urban flotsam of the East Village, coaxed by her anguished father into an adventure that will risk her life to save it?
Tania Aebi sets out in 1985 in Varuna, a tiny 26-foot sloop, never having sailed alone before, having slept through her navigation class, knowing little of mechanics or blue-water weather. Not out of sight of New York, she screams on her VHF radio, “Daddy! Daddy!” as the engine quits. She doesn’t know how to anchor properly. Her boat leaks badly.
“Sometimes you only learn things in this world the hard way,” her father warned her.
She leaves New York a girl and returns more than two years later, the first American woman to circumnavigate the globe alone. Her romantic adventure is told, with the help of magazine journalist Bernadette Brennan, straightforwardly and with broad appeal in “Maiden Voyage,” published this August by Simon & Schuster.
It is a story of little-girl tears, such as when her ocean-going companion Dinghy-the-cat falls ill and dies. Of huge displays of courage--her lone weapon for protection is a false beard to wear as a disguise. It is a story of fresh eyes on faraway places. And a story of discovery as Tania finds those two priceless treasures, love and self-confidence.
Approaching New York on her return in a November gale of 1987, she reflects: “I remember back to the days before leaving New York, when I worried if I would ever adapt to a life at sea on my own. Having done it, I realized now how much more is possible. But I could never have known had I not tried.”