A Voyage for Madmen -Peter Nichols, book review

voyage

I was at junior school when this competition was raced, the name Robin Knox Johnson has endured ever since. At the time, it was marketed as one of the last tests of human endurance, a billing was heightened by the space race, and the imminence of man landing on the moon. New frontiers were opening up. This is the story of nine men who took up the challenge to become the first men to circumnavigate the globe, single handed, without stopping or outside assistance.

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The victorious “Suhaili” in full sail

It is a story of stoicism, bravery, foolishness, vanity , incompetence and skulduggery. A story of mountainous seas, self doubt and determination, of flimsy boats and mighty oceans. All the ingredients of a great story. Yet although the narrative is Homerian in content, author Peter Nichols’ prose is not.

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The victorious Robin Knox Johnson

Nichols is an experienced seaman. Too often it feels as though we are poring through a ships lo when we should be feeling the salty spray on our faces, and the wind clawing at our frail human frames. He tells the story of each of the nine contestants, but with varying degrees of conviction. There are no first person interviews, just stories and supposition gathered together from contemporaneous accounts.

crowhurst and boat

The Tragic Donald Crowhurst and boat

The book draws to a close with Knox Johnson’s victory and Crowhurst’s apparent suicide. Both feel unsatisfactory. There is an old sales adage “ Don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle” and his accounts of both have the texture of a factual news report, not the breathless account of an eye witness. The most compelling story, that of Bernard Moitessier, who instead of claiming first prize, kept on sailing is frustratingly sketched. It is the ultimate vindication of the saying that it is better to travel than to arrive.

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Bernard Moitessier – the man who kept sailing

For anyone wanting to appraise themselves of the Golden Globe race, its protagonists and events, this book does the job well. Anyone who wants the spirit of the race, and why the men did it, will be disappointed.

Bernard Moitessier sailing his ketch rigged yacht 'Joshua'

“Joshua” Moitessier’s boat.

However the tale does bear telling. An era before satellite phones, GPS, ship mounted radar and reliable weather forecasts. When boats could be out of contact for months – but remerge from the vast oceans intact. When men were tested to their limits, and sometimes found wanting.

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