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Old 08-21-2000
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
The Water In Between

 
 
A friend who is out cruising reports that the talk around the anchorages is all about the complicated equipment systems that are proliferating even in small boats. That’s a new trend. Until recently, he says, “much of the talk among cruisers was about where they had been, whom they met, and where they were going.  Now it seems so different.  Talk is about systems — e-mail, watermakers, gensets, air conditioning, and on and on.” He adds an opinion: “Not necessarily great developments.”  

No doubt the new technology is a fine thing (my friend sent the report by e-mail from the eastern Pacific).  The question is whether there’s room for sustained, serious reflection on the human issues. Anybody who wants reminding that there’s more to cruising than gensets and watermakers will want to take a look at The Water In Between: A Journey at Sea, a story of a cruise that has already found some success among a general readership.

A Canadian doctor who describes himself starting out as a creature of “resentful misanthropy,” Kevin Patterson impulsively purchases a cruising ketch, then goes about finding someone to teach him how to sail and accompany him on a cruise from British Columbia to Tahiti. He is lucky in both acquisitions. The shipmate, Don, is a gem, and while the boat is a slow, rusty, ferro-cement bucket, she’s simple and strong enough. Patterson quickly finds that setting out across an ocean solves no problems and, in fact, creates several more. He mishandles some gear that breaks — but that’s the least of his concerns as he reflects on what he is doing out there.

I suppose that there are at least three reasons for setting out on long trips. One is to search for adventure. Another is to engage in what Patterson calls an “escapist idyll” and discover a pure world away from civilization and human society. The third (which is Patterson’s) is an effort by desperate people to escape unhappiness. “I did this in an effort to distract myself,” he admits on page one. He naÔvely fantasizes about the simple joys of a shorthanded voyage on which, he thinks, he will enjoy “absolute and daily control over destination and pace.” That’s not necessarily a viable option in the trade winds, and the boat stumbles onto the wrong side of the Pacific High and spends weeks beating to windward.  Patterson uses the time well to attempt to reflect on the decisions that have carried him so far, and to test his situation against those of other thoughtful travelers, including Joshua Slocum and three influential recent writers of strikingly different temperaments, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, and Paul Theroux.  

In Hawaii he is captured by every cruiser’s worst enemy — shoreside lethargy — and meets the usual variety of cruising people, winners and losers alike (there’s a  man known as “that poor guy with the wooden boat” who “had an air of ongoing calamity about him”).  Eventually Patterson stumbles upon another island that is far more a paradise than either Hawaii or Tahiti, but, apparently deciding that this escapist idyll is not for him, he rejects its lures and begins his return to the challenging world he left behind. In time, after a brutal 31-day single-handed passage back home, Patterson admits that life’s value lies not with the lonely journey through the water in between ports. Rather, it lies in connection with people. He says about riding out a North Pacific gale, “This time alone on a little boat at sea in the middle of a wild storm and longing for company is like nothing else in my experience.”

While this is a book about people, human need, and changing ideals, most of it does take place in a sailboat commanded by a novice who scrambles terminology and makes lubberly mistakes. But the purists who might be infuriated by Patterson’s confusion of a close reach with a broad reach in Chapter six may well be among the readers who will gain the most from The Water In Between. Through his own indirect and sometimes agonizing experience and reflections, Kevin Patterson learns and tells about one human being, and one human being is a far more intricate and fascinating thing than a mere satellite communications system or a watermaker.

The Water In Between: A Journey at Sea (New York: Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 2000) 294 pages, no illustrations.

 

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