Godforsaken Sea - By Derek Lundy, 267 pages, $13.00, Anchor Books, New York
One of the truly frustrating things about many books on sailing and racing in the Southern Ocean is that they’re written by the sailors themselves. And while these same sailors may be positively brilliant at surviving the nastiest seas in the world, most of them ain’t Hemingway (Skip Novak being one of the outstanding exceptions to the rule). Derek Lundy’s book is a gem, because it bridges these two worlds more lyrically and with more depth than any other book on extreme sailing I have ever read. It was published in Canada in hardcover in 1999, and this paperback version came out in the U.S. last year - perfectly sized for any sailor’s bookshelf.
In his exploration of the lethal and incredible 1996–1997 Vendee Globe, a non-stop, single-handed, around-the-world sailboat race, Lundy blends his innate abilities as an interviewer and reporter with some lovely and perceptive writing to get the reader deeply into the minds, motivations, fears and joys of the 16 men and women who set out from Les Sables-d’Olonne to dare the sea. Of those 16, one vanished from the face of the earth without a sound or trace, four lost their boats and three very nearly lost their lives. Even by the standards of these races - which are inherently extreme - the 1996–97 Vendee was brutal, shocking, tragic and full of heroism.
Lundy, a lawyer and writer, is also a sailor, and he opens his book describing a trip from Charleston, S.C., to the Virgin Islands he and his wife took in their 31-foot sailboat, when he scared himself silly and realized that his dream of someday circumnavigating the globe alone would always be just that - a dream. But he remained entranced with the idea and fascinated by the people who do it. He followed the Vendee on the internet and then met and interviewed the racers, their families, the race organizers and others involved in the sport. Most of the book is narrative, though Lundy shows up in first-person now and then when he’s interviewing someone. What I liked most about the book, aside from its obvious intelligence and fine writing, was his follow-through with the sailors. He clearly spent a lot of time with them when the race was over, and he’s a careful listener who passes along what he hears to the readers without intruding. He also describes this very niche, on-the-edge way of seafaring to the uninitiated without losing the interest of his sailing audience.
Throughout, Lundy draws on a variety of literary and historical sources - among them legendary single-hander Bernard Moitessier, pilot and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery, even Joseph Conrad and James Joyce - as he weaves the stories of the racers, the impenetrable oceans and profound emotions they faced into a book I could not put down.