- by Carol Standish
British author and long distance kayaker, William H. Longyard has collected almost 100 tales of derring-do in small boats for his latest title, A Speck on the Sea (International Marine/McGraw Hill, 375pp, $13.95). His definition of “small” is under 20’ and his time line begins 63 AD when dark-skinned non-Europeans (possibly Inuits in umiaks) were reported by Pliny the Elder to have landed in Germany. The book ends with the 2002 voyage of Spanish Count, Alvaro de Marichalar from Rome to Miami on a nine-foot Bombadier Sea-Doo.
A cross between a casual reference work and a compendium of off-beat adventure mini-tales. (An individual account rarely exceeds three pages.) In an introduction, Longyard lays out his list of possible motivations for undertaking long, arduous and often life-threatening waterborne journeys in miniscule boats—from the most obvious: survival, curiosity and fame to increasingly complex and internal reasons like competition (breaking records), testing technical innovations, testing oneself and searching for personal fulfillment. But counter to this initial discussion, the book is organized chronologically, roughly by decade, in 13 chapters which may not be the most exciting organizational principal for such a subject.
In my humble opinion in the motivational achievement category, the survival stories are best. Who can beat Shackleton for sheer endurance, agony and courage? And then there’s Bligh’s remarkable navigational feat and William Okeley’s escape from an Algerian prison to Majorca in a rowboat in the 1640s. On the other hand, once you’re out there in (or on) something less than 20’ you’ve created your own survival story.
After the catch-all chapter covering pre-history to the sixteenth century, the adventurers, largely American and European with an occasional Asian, Australia or Central American popping up here and there, follow their dreams (or obsessions) in a variety of implausible craft. There are rowers, kayakers, sailors—in ever smaller boats. A 1998 attempt for the small boat Atlantic crossing record—a high tech pod 3’ 11” was aborted when the craft was entangled in steel fishing nets.
Epic distances have been covered from circumnavigations to the traversing of most of the major rivers of the world—some of them in combination, like Canadian Don Starkell and sons’ canoe voyage from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Belem, Brazil—a mere 12,000 miles. The first woman to cross the Atlantic alone on a small boat was French veterinarian, Raphaela le Gouvello in 1977. She did it on a sailboard!
For shear wackiness, Australian mining engineer Ben Carlin’s round the world grind in Half-Safe, a U. S. Army GP-A (amphibious jeep or “seep”) in the 1950s take the prize. He actually crossed oceans in the thing and continents were a snap. In the same decade there were several Atlantic crossings in inflatable life rafts—some with and some without provisions which tested various human nutrition theories of the day. A German made the crossing in a dugout canoe made from a single mahogany log.
In the 1960s, Japanese photographer crossed the Pacific in a 16 ½’ sail boat in 101 days with his stalwart crew, a hamster. In 1988 Frenchman, Remy Bricka walked across the Atlantic in specially made 13’ canoe like “water shoes.” Later he attempted the Pacific. And let’s not forget the swimmers. I suppose the human body could be called a “water craft” but wouldn’t the length the chase boat figure in?
Because of the subject matter—extraordinary feats of fearlessness and foolishness—the book is far from dull but it’s chronological organization fights excitement. Short vignette follows vignette with a sameness of rhythm and commentary that eventually the edges of the stories begins to dull. For that reason I would not recommend reading the book cover to cover but sporadically dipping in here and there—as a great bedtime or bathroom reader.
Furthermore, although photos or drawings accompany most episodes they are skimpy and maps, which would have graphically dramatized the efforts, especially the long journeys, were conspicuously absent. For a reader with a tenuous grasp of world geography, some of the greatest accomplishments would be incomprehensible.
However, Speck on the Sea does provide a great introduction to extraordinary sea-going human exploits. The text is accompanied by voluminous bibliographical notes and is well indexed so you can hunt down more details and often first-hand accounts of these brave and crazy adventurers as your curiosity dictates.