Seamanship, by Adam Nicolson

In search of truth in the wind and surf
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You can't tell a book by its cover. The plump but pretty double-ender carving into the wind on the front of Adam Nicolson's "story of the SEA a MAN and a SHIP" makes it look as if we're in for a old-fashioned cruising yarn of blue-water sailing, high endeavours and a lone hero pitted against the elements. Nicolson's enchanting Sea Room, the story of how he came to love the tiny islands off North Harris he inherited from his father, has prepared us for just such an individualist odyssey.

You can't tell a book by its cover. The plump but pretty double-ender carving into the wind on the front of Adam Nicolson's "story of the SEA a MAN and a SHIP" makes it look as if we're in for a old-fashioned cruising yarn of blue-water sailing, high endeavours and a lone hero pitted against the elements. Nicolson's enchanting Sea Room, the story of how he came to love the tiny islands off North Harris he inherited from his father, has prepared us for just such an individualist odyssey.

But Nicolson knows next to nothing about sailing when he falls in love with the idea of buying a boat and sailing from Falmouth to the Faroes. However, he knows a man who does - and plans to take him with him. George Fairhurst is the man who does, and he emerges as the real hero of the book. It is he who steers the Auk westwards into gales while Nicolson lies below comatose with seasickness. It is he who holds the ship steady while Nicolson and two friends spend 10 hours exploring a crag off the coast of Kerry. It is he who sails the Auk into pounding surf to save Nicolson from drowning after his inflatable has overturned.

And, unsurprisingly, it is he who ultimately gets pissed off. "You take life's pleasures as if they were designed to please you," he finally says to Nicolson. "The risk was always with me. You never shared it... I have never not shared it before."

Much is explained when Nicolson reveals that a TV crew was shadowing them for a series. They need him to land "dramatically" in the surf. And they need Fairhurst to sail an exhausting and dangerous route against wind and tide to reach the Faroes.

The weakness of the book is that the demands of the crew's schedule deprive the voyage of its authenticity. Its strength is its truthfulness. Voyages always make themselves in the end, and this was no exception. Nicolson is honest about shortcomings, thinks hard about what went wrong. And the book is a delight to read, written with panache and elegance, larded with a rich mix of sensitive description, phrases from Auden's sea poems, legends of Celtic hermits and original similes.

On reflection, I can't help thinking that Fairhurst was as irresponsible as Nicolson - more so, because he knew what he was doing. Why attempt to sail down channel in February with a tyro sailor in a Force 9 south-westerly in a newly-acquired ship which urgently needs her rig balancing and a new suit of sails? Why set off for Ireland when the weather forecast is so bad even the fishermen are not going out? "Seamanship is about taking and carrying risk," he says at the end. But seamanship is as much about avoiding risk as coping with it.

The reviewer's life of Sir Thomas Malory will appear next year

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