broadsideblog

Four terrific books about traveling by water

In beauty, behavior, culture, History, life, men, nature, travel on January 5, 2014 at 12:44 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Not sure what the appeal is — no TSA lines? — but I’m drawn to books about travel by water, slowly reading two and eager to read two new ones.

One is “Voyageur”, published in 2006 by British writer Robert Twigger; here’s a review of it from The Guardian.

It’s the unlikely story of his attempt — in the same sort of oversized canoe used by the voyageurs who ventured across Canada in the 18th century — to make a 1,000-mile journey across Canada with three companions. (One leaves after suffering a truly horrific injury en-route.)

Shooting_the_Rapids_1879

By canoe.

Look at a map of Canada — a fairly gigantic country (and my home and native land) — and you’ll see what an exciting insane idea it is. I love his low-key, “what the hell were we thinking?” tone. As someone who spent many summers canoeing across deep, dark northern Ontario lakes — portaging along muddy, twisting, narrow paths while savaged by mosquitoes, horseflies and black flies, it all rings true.

Twigger's route

Twigger’s route

I loved his line: “Because in the end it is the imagination and the will that carries you through; body and boat are only servants.”

Twigger, now living in Cairo, clearly has a thing for rivers – his latest book is a biography of the Nile.

Cover of "Desert Solitaire"

Cover of Desert Solitaire

I’m sloooooowly finishing, (so reluctant to have this lovely, passionate book end), “Desert Solitaire”, recommended to me by fellow blogger Michelle, who blogs at The Green Study, a classic from 1968 by Edward Abbey. In it, he journeys through the Grand Canyon, another part of the world I know a little, and deeply love.

From Wikipedia:

“the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see” (208).

He continues by saying that man is rightly obsessed with Mother Nature. It is where we came from, and something we still recognize as our starting point: “Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not-at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me” (6).

Finally, Abbey makes the statement that man needs nature to sustain humanity: “No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread” (211). Abbey explores our strong connection to nature in Desert Solitaire, and he urges everyone to take something from his story to try to make the connection for themselves. That is Abbey’s final goal.

Two new books — both by British writers as well — address travel by sea and I’m dying to read both of them. Rose George’s second book — best title ever! — is “Ninety Per Cent of Everything”, about the shipping industry. Like every good journalist, this young reporter made an ocean journey herself aboard an enormous cargo ship to see this wearying, dangerous world firsthand; here’s the Boston Globe review.

And this one, by Horatio Clare, about traveling the world by freighter — a trip my mother made years ago to cross the Atlantic to Morocco.

The Voyage Out

The Voyage Out (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other favorites of the genre include “Heart of Darkness”, by Joseph Conrad — “the horror, the horror!” — and “The Voyage Out” by Virginia Woolf, published in 1915 and which satirizes Edwardian society. (A useful companion to the new season of Downton Abbey?)

I do love classic sailor’s yarns, like Tania Aiebi’s crazy tale of circumnavigating the globe — alone — at 18, the first American woman to do so and then the youngest.

English: Lake freighter CSL Niagara on the St....

English: Lake freighter CSL Niagara on the St. Lawrence River near Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Islands. Schip op de Saint Lawrence, recht tegenover Alexandria Bay in de Thousand Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I also spent a fantastic and highly improbable few days, at the age of 12 or so, playing in the cargo holds of a freighter carrying rapeseed (now re-named, more appealingly, as canola), along the St. Lawrence River; my mother, who never had a dull beau, was dating the company’s owner and he took us aboard for a brief voyage.

Here’s a photo of a life-changing sea voyage — me, age five or so, coming back to Canada to live aboard the S.S. France after a few years living in London.

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Here’s a 26-minute promo film abut the ocean liner, for the deeply curious.

Have you got a favorite book — or film — about a watery voyage?

Have you taken a memorable one?

Tell us about it…

  1. I would add ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. It focuses on “liminal” people – those who neither belong on land or sea, rather somewhere in between.

  2. I’m surprised “Life of Pi” isn’t up there. I thought it’d be right up your alley.

  3. I absolutely love “Titanic,” but somehow I doubt that’s what you’re looking for. :)
    Seriously though, I’m fascinated by the whole incident. There are so many reasons why the crash shouldn’t have happened, the boat shouldn’t have sunk, yet it did anyway.

  4. I’m starting my canoe experience soon

  5. I love the Master and Commander of the Seven Seas.

  6. Fascinating choices – thanks for sharing!

  7. i love these suggestions, caitlin, and the picture is priceless. isn’t it interesting when we look back at old photos and think about what was happening at the time, good, bad, or somewhere in between?

  8. Thanks for the recommendations; I must look up Voyageurs as I’ve read a lot recently about northern Canada and theinfluence of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
    My favourite book ever is Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, an account of a voyage across the Pacific Ocean by raft by a group of Scandinavians shortly after WWII, and I’d recommend it to everyone. It’s like a ripping yarn, packed with adventure. My other recommendation would be The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby, where the author recounts his time as a teenager as part of the crew of one of the last working tall ships. Newby is an excellent writer, worth checking out if you haven’t read any of his work previously.

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