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The Circumnavigators

Don Holm
Prentice-Hall, NY 1974

It's so easy to slip into a routine, to get used to spending a few days at the marina, enjoying the company, the cookouts, the relaxing hours in the hammock, the rum. Maybe an afternoon day sail, gentle breeze, blue skies and white clouds.

But if you think back, is that the image that got you involved in sailing at the start? For most of us, no. For most of us, it was a book - read long ago, forgotten, and then dredged up from the subconscious sometime in midlife - a book about sailing around the world. It could have been Slocum, or Long or O'Brien, one of those early circumnavigators who seemed to be able to surmount any obstacle. And at that point you thought, "well, maybe I will never do that, but I could still have a boat and do some sailing down on the coast - who knows, maybe get to the islands some day." Then in the first years of enthusiasm, you learned to sail, you took the first steps into the unknown, anchored out in some undeveloped backwater, set off across the sound and lost sight of land altogether. For a while, the horizons were endless.

But now, back at the marina, it's all fading away. It's almost like some kind of narcoleptic disease.

I have the cure - a book.

Don Holm was Commodore of the Joshua Slocum Society International. This put him in a position to know many of the great long-distance sailors personally, and that combined with his academic background allowed him to write an exceptional survey of the written record of circumnavigation. He starts off with Joshua Slocum, who was fortunate to have a talented and sympathetic editor at his Boston publisher, who polished up his prose and helped him to write a book that became an instant best-seller and continues to occupy the first spot in any sailor's library. This book has probably sent more young men to sea than any other. As Arthur Ransome said, "Boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once." I'll say no more, since, if you are reading this essay, you already know.

Next up are Luxton and Voss, out of Victoria, B.C. on the bizarre three-masted canoe Tilikum. This nautical freak with its squabbling crew managed to cross the Pacific, though Luxton jumped ship in Suva. Voss continued on, picking up crew in Australia, and eventually reaching England. Many years later the boat was shipped back to the Maritime Museum in Victoria, B.C. where she remains to this day. Holm considers Voss's book, "The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss," to be "The most controversial, misquoted, misread, and misunderstood book on small-craft voyaging ever published, it is also one of the most literate and fascinating." For a long time it was also close to unobtainable, but fortunately there is a relatively new paperback edition available, as well as a digital one.

In subsequent chapters Holm recounts the voyages of all the famous circumnavigators - Harry Pidgeon on Islander, Conor O'Brien on Saiorse, William Robinson on Svaap, the Smeetons on their junk-rigged Tzu Hang - as well as some of the more obscure ones - the Speejacks with her crew of eleven men and one woman, Bill and Phyllis Crowe on a succession of boats, Gerry Trobridge on White Seal. All told, Holm recounts the journeys of a good 50 circumnavigators. Afterward, he devotes a chapter to the perfect sea-boat. Kaufmann's Hurricane was built in the depths of the depression in a south Alabama yard at the cost of $2,000; Chay Blythe's corporate-sponsored British Steel cost 100,000 hard 1960s vintage dollars. Both made successful circumnavigations. Two French circumnavigators built their boats out of scrounged goods under the noses of the Nazi occupiers during World War II. Holm notes that "In most cases, the owner took what he could get, or the most he could afford, and went on from there. This usually resulted in at best a compromise, and at worst a suicidal impulse."

Holm's academic background serves to good stead, as each chapter is copiously footnoted. Following the references opens up a whole world of nautical reading.

The Circumnavigators is available on the web at www.stexboat.com. The site does not appear to be maintained, and some of the links are broken, but still, most of the chapters are intact. The opportunity to read the book online still exists, but - for how long? Long out of print, used copies of the book can be found at the usual outlets at reasonable prices. But do get a copy of this book, by hook or crook, and it will make you remember why you bought the boat in the first place.

Now get out and sail.