Books: Furious fifties and screaming sixties

Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World's Most Dangerous Waters by Derek Lundy Yellow Jersey Press pounds 15

John Tague
Saturday 01 May 1999 23:02 BST

If, like me, your experience of sailing is restricted to a cursory reading of Moby Dick and the occasional ferry trip across the English Channel, then the world of the oceans and those who brave them is no doubt remote. Derek Lundy's Godforsaken Sea will change all that. An account of the single handed round-the-world yacht race, the Vendee Globe, of 1996, this is a book which vividly transcends its immediate brief as a narrative of the race and those who sailed it, and presents a gripping and poetic evocation of the terrible and seductive power of the sea.

The Vendee Globe is the world's most arduous single handed sailing race. Held every four years, its rules are beautiful in their simplicity and severity. Unlike the Around Alone race (formerly the BOC challenge) which is separated into four legs and allows for boats to make three scheduled stops and any unscheduled emergency breaks, the Vendee Globe competitors must sail non-stop and unassisted. Calling into port for any reason brings instant disqualification. If the stamina this requires from its sailors weren't enough, the route of the Vendee Globe is also the most punishing. Starting and finishing in the port of Les Sables-d'Olonne on the western French coast, south of Nantes, competitors must navigate the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, at the extreme south western tip of Australia, and Cape Horn. This means the sailors spend much of their time in the deadly and treacherous seas of the Southern Ocean, the extreme southern portion of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic. An old sailors' saying - "below 40 degrees south there is no law/below 50 degrees south there is no God" - gives some idea of the awe and dread these waters have inspired. These latitudes, known as the roaring forties, the furious fifties and the screaming sixties, are subject to incessant and ferocious storms, waves which tower to the size of a six storey building, and the ever-present danger of icebergs. All this on seas that are as far away from land as it's possible to get (1,660 miles at its furthest) which ensures that should any sailor get into difficulties, rescue is almost impossible.

As you can imagine, the physical, mental and emotional resources the competitors require to survive some 120 days at sea, usually under the most extreme conditions, are considerable. Lundy is eloquent in recreating the idiosyncratic world of the single handed sailor, where sleep has to be taken in 30- to 60-minute bursts, food has to be prepared while trying to keep your boat upright in a storm, and bowel movements become an art in themselves.

Lundy is a Canadian who originally trained as a lawyer before giving up the lucrative dullness of the profession for his love of sailing. He brings all his experience and deep understanding of the ocean to bear in this account of the Vendee Globe, which was dramatic even by its own exacting standards. This was the race in which the British competitor Tony Bullimore, after being capsized in the Southern Ocean, spent four days trapped in his wrecked cabin, half-submerged in the freezing water unaware if anyone knew what had happened to him, let alone if he would be rescued. It was also the race in which Peter Goss, the other British participant, won himself the Legion d'honneur after turning into the teeth of a Force 11 gale to rescue the Frenchman Raphael Dinelli whose boat, overwhelmed by the storm, had capsized and sunk.

Like a skilled novelist, Lundy brings such thrilling episodes alive with his unerring eye for telling detail and a deft touch at pacing. And if Godforsaken Sea were just a first-rate piece of narrative journalism, it would be a fine book in itself. But it is far more than that. Lundy, as well as having a gift for journalism, is deeply read in his subject, and his book is as much a navigation through the literature of the sea as an account of a yacht race. To read it is to immerse oneself in the poetry of Melville and Conrad, and the less celebrated writings of the likes of Joshua Slocum, who completed the world's first solo circumnavigation in 1898, and the famous French solo sailor, Bernard Moitessier. So convincingly does Lundy render the dangers and hardships of life on a boat that he may not inspire you to want to take to the seas, but he certainly inspired me to visit the library armed with a reading list of the books he quotes.

Ultimately Godforsaken Sea goes a long way to answering that most perplexing question: why do otherwise sane and sensible people brave the unforgiving extremity of the waves? Since Homer, the capricious gods of the sea and the storms have both fascinated and frightened mankind. Lundy has triumphed in making the siren-call of the oceans intelligible to those, like me, who are resoundingly deaf to its attractions. It is a fine read, and one I can't recommend highly enough.

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