When I was 14 years old, my family sold everything and the four of us (Mom, Dad and my sister Jennifer) moved aboard a 35 foot sailboat. We left Nova Scotia in November 1986 and the impending winter weather chased us down the east coast of the United States. We spent six months cruising the outer island of the Bahamas – the travel brochures don’t lie, it really is that beautiful – before wintering in Florida and then returning to Canada.
That was a basic account of our journey, but of course the trip was so much more. I left as a child and returned as a young adult. Through challenges and hardships, I gained strength and independence that has served me throughout my life. But the trip, was also very hard on my family and the fractures that formed during that time have yet to fully heal.
As I was trying to figure out how to tell my story, I sought out memoirs about sailing trips to see how other authors handled their stories. The best stories convey the personal voyage and the actually sailing trip is the itinerary. Here are five of my favourite sailing memoirs.
Sailing Alone Around the World – Joshua Slocum
In April 1985, Joshua Slocum set sail in a small wooden sloop named Spray and, over the course of three years, sailed alone around the world, becoming the first man to succeed at this feat. It is especially remarkable, as there was no Panama Canal, and Slocum avoided the Suez Canal, making a voyage around the world longer than it is today. Slocum was able to visit islands and areas that had never seen foreigners before and in our super-connected world, this makes me feel rather nostalgic. At the same time, there is an aspect of the timelessness about Slocum’s story. Despite GPS and other technologies, sailing the world’s oceans is just as dangerous and challenging as it has always been.
In the mid-90s, Ann and her husband Steve rented out their house in Toronto, moved aboard their 42-foot sailboat and spent two years sailing throughout the Caribbean. Ann is passionate about food, so their voyage was as much discovering new tastes and dishes, as it was about exploring the islands. Each chapter ends with a selection of recipes featuring Caribbean ingredients, including fish, coconut and nutmeg. This made me feel a little wistful, as my sailing adventure wasn’t so culinary. While we did enjoy fresh lobster, grouper, pineapple and mangoes, my mother hates to cook and didn’t enjoy the challenge of trying to prepare a meal on the two burner stove in our galley. My father also preferred meat and potatoes, so there’s that.
At the opening of this memoir, Torre DeRoche is an Australian woman living in San Francisco when she falls in love with a man who just happens to have a small sailboat and a dream of going sailing. Rather than lose the love of her life, she goes with him on a voyage through the south Pacific. She is not a natural sailor and spends most of their open ocean sailing severally seasick. Sailing for weeks at a time across the open ocean is hard and Torre doesn’t sugarcoat the strain this puts on the boat and her relationship with her boyfriend. Fortunately, their love stays afloat and the voyage comes to a happy ending.
In the early 80s, this father and son team built a small wooden sailboat and sailed around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America). Along the way they stopped in the Galapagos and the Falkland Islands, but their story is more about resilience and strength of this father-son relationship. The book is out of print, but it is very well written, so it is worth looking for it at the library or searching out a used copy.
I must confess I have just starting reading this book, but the writing is exceptional, so I had to include it in this list. The author sails the challenging waters of the Inside Passage from Puget Sound, Washington to Juneau, Alaska. He set out to decode the many riddles and meanings of the sea; but the sea has other ideas and Raban finds himself in more ominously personal waters.
“I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats like a trustful beetle on the surface tension.” Jonathan Raban
Have you read any sailing-related travel memoirs? If, so I’d love to hear your recommendations. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
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