From the Books: SEAMANSHIP, by Adam Nicolson

Subtitled A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles, Adam Nicolson’s book Seamanship relates the story of how Nicolson, in a moment that might be consdiered a mid-life crisis, decided to acquire a yacht and sail from Cornwall to the west coast of Ireland, then back to Scotland and through the Hebrides and ultimately to the Faeroes. The yacht is acquired, a skipper (named George) is hired, and off they go.

It is, as you might expect, a voyage fraught with difficulties. Nicolson’s status as a novice sailor is exposed almost immediately as he struggles with seasickness before they’re barely out of port, and more struggles come along the way, such as a disastrous attempt by Nicolson to take their inflatable raft and go ashore at one point. Along the way the personal relationship between Nicolson and George suffers, with the two men unable to bridge the gap between novice sailor on a trip that’s basically a whim and the experience seaman who is grappling with the awkwardness of being both Captain and employee to the same man.

Along the way they make many stops at the stunning locations along those particular seacoasts (the book could really have used a photo section), and Nicolson’s descriptive passages are all evocative and well-written. They meet people along the way–a French sailor here, a cloister of excommunicate monks there–but the encounters are over almost too quickly, and the book always seems to be skirting around the level of depth and thoughtfulness that I found myself expecting. I really kind of expected more from this book, which manages to fall on the wrong side of the oft-cited rule of showpeople everywhere: “Always leave ’em wanting more.” If you do that, sometimes it really is the case that you didn’t give ’em enough.

But like I said, there are a lot of really fine passages in Nicolson’s book, most of which come as he grapples with the enormity and the indifferent nature of the sea itself. This passage comes from when he has managed to capsize their raft and is struggling just to get back to the surface:

Down deeper this time into the roll of the surf, suddenly alarmed at the idea of the dinghy itself, its protruding outboard, coming slamming on to my head as I was down there, and the feeling of enclosure, of wanting to shout, but the water of course clogging me into silence, a wet muddled claustrophobia like the worst of a bad dream, a fear like a nightsheet twisted around your head, into your mouth and nostrils and neck, a gag on your life, a garrotting by water.

This was the idea of the sea in its killing horror, the death element, the antithesis of life. This moment, seen face to face, was the reason that people have always, from the very beginning, loathed the sea. The Odyssey, which is not only the first but the greatest sea poem ever written, as old as the tumuli in which chieftains lie buried on the hills of southern England, and old then the great hillforts that straddle the skyline beside them, is suffused not with love of the sea but fear of it. Odysseus–the first great middle-aged hero in literature; his poem the story of the Middle-aged Man and the Sea–longs to go home, to the sweetness of land and the stillness of a house. But the loathing of Poseidon, the sea god, encloses him in one near fatal sea-trap after another. That is one of the Odyssey‘s central meanings: the sea itself is the element of death.

A few pages later:

The condition of the sea is murderous. Homer calls it “wine-dark” not because that is its color, even in the Aegean, but because that is its nature. It is thick with the intoxication of darkness. It is loved, sentimentally, by the ignorant and by romantics because death is the moment for which Romanticism longs, and because, as Homer knew, as my own panicked crisis now told me, no moment is more vivid than one embraced by death.

That is why death as sea is such a casual affair. Death has no need to approach. It doesn’t need to gird itself up here. It doesn’t come rolling like a swell, proceeding grandly towards you with its bosom before it and its intentions clear. Death is already there, a few feet away, resting beneath the table, its head on its paws and a smile in its eyes, happy to accept the scraps that fall.

Perhaps it’s a spoiler to note that nobody actually dies at sea in Seamanship, but Nicolson seems to feel death’s nearness at each point anyway. That’s probably wise. The sea can, after all, take us and never give a single tiny hint as to where we’ve gone.


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