The call of the great blue nothingness

Solo navigators have set out on the seas for centuries. Why do they do it? And what do they discover there?
September 6, 2023
Sailing Alone: A History
Richard J King (RRP: £25)
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Richard J King is a man with feats to his name. A professor of maritime history and literature, he’s also made some maritime history and literature of his own. In 2007, he pulled off a solo crossing of the Atlantic in a small fibreglass boat called Fox—and reckons with the experience, the “five weeks at sea by myself”, in this new book.

In a way, the book is as much a feat as the crossing. Less strenuous, you assume, and certainly less scarring for its author, but still something to be marvelled at. For King doesn’t just tell his own story, but also those of other oceanic soloists, and he mixes together history, science, nature and even culture in order to do so. Yet somehow it all coheres into a singular exploration of a single question: why?

There is no one answer. King’s cast of romantic characters includes Ann Davison, who set out in 1952 to become the first woman to solo-navigate the Atlantic, only a few years after her husband had drowned in the English Channel, and Bernard Moitessier, whose hippyish exterior shrouded an adamantine sense of purpose. There are some who venture out for scientific purposes. Others who, you feel, are lost and seek to find themselves amid the great blue nothingness.   

What they all seem to discover—to a greater or lesser extent—is fear. In its final paragraphs, Sailing Alone quotes Davison’s memoir to the effect that “Being at sea was a lonely, uncomfortable business and very frightening,” and you can see her point. There are stories here of great whites busting through hulls, of storms and hallucinations. King relates his own excruciating encounter with a “rumbling wall of red” that was a container ship in close proximity. 

But there is also peace; the peace of “only ocean and clouds and storm-petrels and stars”, which is enough for me. I’ve already started plotting my own ocean crossing—if Prospect will give me the time off.