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Casting Off by Emma Bamford, book review: In pursuit of a dream life at sea

 

Casting off begins with a conundrum now so familiar in publishing that it could almost be its own genre: a woman finds herself in her mid-thirties with plenty of dreams left unlived but a social circle full of friends settling down with husbands and babies.

How does living the Peter Jones dream seem so easy for others, yet so elusive to our protagonist? Action must be taken, be it yoga, running, or in this case sailing. Eat Pray Love set the standard high for these female voyages of self-discovery, despite Elizabeth Gilbert beginning the story married (albeit miserably), and Bamford takes up the baton with this engaging tale of life as a single girl on the high seas.

Formally a newsroom journalist, she tired of the specific type of adrenaline a fast-breaking news story can create, resigning to chase the buzz only life away from a desk can create. She joins a stranger on his yacht, sailing to Borneo. An experienced sailor prior to departure, she soon realises that in the long term, the greatest dangers at sea aren't always pirates or snakes, but can in fact be creepy middle-aged men who become resentful if you don't fall in love with them.

This first third of Bamford's memoir is almost unreadable, so excruciating is her first skipper. Making unprompted passes at her from the moment she's on board, telling her she simply needs "more time" to fall in love with him and ultimately admitting that he spends half the night online looking for a girlfriend up to his exacting standards, he is a nightmare. It is to her credit that she is as kind about him as she is, and that she got off his boat as fast as she did.

The rest of the memoir picks up significantly after this move, with her joining the relaxed, respectful crew of a catamaran for months of sailing up to Thailand, India and beyond. The confidence gained here seems to set her up for infinite adventures, and an altogether more enticing romantic set-up.

It is curious how her tone is so rarely introspective, given the hours she was clearly left alone with her own thoughts. I was left filled with questions from how much she missed her rarely mentioned family to how conversation with so few people feels after life in a busy office. This breezy tone does seem the result of a news journalist's refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Where there is a much fun to be had is in her detail on life at sea. There's a keen sense of the natural beauty she has managed to see, as well as a nerdishly thorough run through of practicalities of sailing, whether in a crew of two or as part of the team staffing an Italian super yacht. While her prose is not especially adventurous, it is undeniable that Bamford herself has become the explorer she dreamt of being. Especially as the ending suggests she has yet to commit to a return home.

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