Alone Across the Atlantic
in a Wooden Boat
Sheridan House, $16.95, 238pp
Sea Change by Peter Nichols, was first published in 1997, the same year I began to review marine titles. I don't know how I missed it the first time around but I am very grateful that Sheridan House, (with a little prompting from the author) has had the good taste and foresight to publish a second edition this year. Quite simply, it is one of the best books of its genre that I have ever read.
The book opens on the eve of the author's singlehanded journey from Cornwall, England to Maine where "they're crazy about wooden boats" and he plans to sell the venerable wooden Toad in order to pay his ex-wife her half of their common property.
As the voyage proceeds, Nichols ruminates on earlier life experiences. He recalls a grade school teacher in England who instilled him with his love of ships. He recalls with both fondness and misgivings the time the couple spent living in the Caribbean, finding the boat and fixing her up. He discovers his ex-wife's diaries long stored in Toad and reads with a new perspective...hers...about their time together. He muses with unexpected incisiveness on the break-up of his own marriage and on his parents' lives and ultimate divorce. But, even when he's writing about long past events his prose conveys a sense of immediacy that totally engages the reader.
And then Toad starts to leak. At first it's a seep but the water level increases insidiously until he's pumping for his life.
What elevates this book above the many "self-examination/confessional while testing oneself against the elements" is the author's intelligence which has been richly informed by the breadth and depth of his reading. In almost every passage, whether it is introspective or action packed, Nichols calls up a reference and quotes extensively from the work of other worldly and thoughtful writers. "I look around at my books. Hundreds of them stuffed into the shelves above the saloon berths, over the chart table, in the back of the galley. Years of selecting and collecting. Mostly they are books about boats and the sea...I refer to them constantly, for reassurance more than anything, to know that this world I've read about and want to be a part of exists."
Sea Change may be the only memoir (that I've ever read) that includes a bibliography. Authors cited include T.S. Eliot, Eric C. Hiscock (nine titles), Robin Knox Johnston, John S. Letcher, Jr., Bernard Moitessier, William Albert Robinson, Miles Smeeton, H. W. Tilman, and Alan Watts, to name a few.
Nichols' story is distinguished by the clarity and depth of both his thoughts and feelings about the solo experience. "The greatest reward of sailing alone (that I have discovered so far) is that no one comes between you and the indescribably beautiful world around you. You experience it directly without the muddying filter of someone else's impression. At moments, standing on the deck looking at the lonely sea and the sky, you find yourself moved to a mix of joy and sadness that breaks your heart. But it's at just these moments that you also find yourself wanting to share it all with someone you love."
As the book ends, the reader practically has a hand on the pump and a paddle in the water he/she wants so badly for both Toad and Nichols to get to Maine so they both can be loved anew.