In May 1901, just three years after Joshua Slocum's legendary solo voyage around the world, another professional seaman idled by the passing of the Age of Sail set off on an extraordinary ocean journey. Captain said good-bye to his wife and children and put to sea from Victoria, British Columbia, with one other man in a converted Native American war canoe. Voss's objective was to circle the world in a boat smaller than Slocum's Spray, and his canoe, which he named Tilikum, certainly qualified. Although 38 feet long, it was a mere 5-1/2 feet wide and drew just 24 inches fully loaded. When he first saw the canoe, he said, "It struck me at once that if we could make our proposed voyage we would not alone make a world's record for the smallest vessel but also the only canoe that had ever circumnavigated the globe." To prepare the dugout red-cedar canoe for an ocean voyage, Voss had built up the sides seven inches, decked it over, and added a tiny 5-by 8-foot cabin, a cockpit for steering, a small keel, and three small masts carrying four sails. He and his crew, a man named Luxton, left Victoria carrying 100 gallons of fresh water, three months' provisions, firearms, and navigation instruments. Tilikum arrived in England on September 2, 1904 after a voyage of 40,000 miles. Luxton abandoned the cruise in Fiji, and his replacement crew disappeared overboard at sea while standing night watch. But Voss carried on, acquiring a profound respect for the seakeeping qualities of his cockleshell craft. Voss related this voyage in his book The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, first published in Yokohama in 1913. "The Venturesome Voyages" also included an earlier, inconsequential voyage from Vancouver to Cocos Island, off Panama, to scarch for buried treasure, and a later truncated but epic voyage from Japan in the tiny 19-foot yawl Sea Queen, during which Voss and his crew survived a typhoon at sea. Together, "40,000 Miles in a Canoe" and "Sea Queen" established Voss as one of the great small boat voyagers of all time, ranking with Joshua Slocum. Sailing author Weston Martyr wrote that "for myself I can only say that I have found every word of Voss's concerning ships and the sea to be pure gold. To this teaching I know I owe, at any rate, my life." For The Sailor's Classics, we will collect Voss's two great stories, leaving out "Seven Million Pounds Sterling." As with all our Sailor's Classics, the book will be introduced with a 2,500-word Jonathan Raban essay to put Voss's voyaging and writing in the context of classic stories of the sea as viewed from the decks of small sailboats.
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What Are “The Sailor’s Classics?”
No one meets the ocean on quite such intimate terms as the sailor in a small boat. No one experiences a solitude more absolute than that encountered by long-distance single-handed sailors like Joshua Slocum or Bernard Moitessier. Since the early nineteenth century, when Byron and Shelley put to sea in their own boats in order to set themselves adrift in nature at its most turbulent and unruly, writing and sailing have gone hand in hand.
There have been writers who sailed—Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hilaire Belloc, Jack London, E.B. White, William Golding, John Barth, Thomas McGuane, Geoffrey Wolff—along with a multitude of sailors who wrote, from Slocum and John Voss to Tristan Jones and the father-son team of Daniel and David Hays. After nearly two hundred years, the literature of small-boat voyaging under sail is enormous, and every publishing season sees more additions to the list.
It is the function of The Sailor’s Classics to recognize and celebrate the relatively small number of truly important books in this library. Some have been chosen because the voyages they describe are themselves of unignorable merit; some because the sheer brilliance of their writing demands their inclusion. Most combine in equal parts serious nautical interest with literary excellence.
As general editor of the series, I am always trying to keep in mind the bookshelves on my own 35-foot ketch. A proper ship’s library isn’t restricted to books with boats in them, of course; I wouldn’t happily set sail for more than a day or two without novels by Dickens, Trollope, Evelyn Waugh, and Saul Bellow, and poetry by Pope, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Robert Lowell. The big question is which small-boat voyages can stand up in such exalted literary company? Not very many is the honest answer, and half the function of an editor is to know what he must reject. The books that won’t figure in the series are as important as those that will.
We won’t be publishing quaint curiosities. Period charm does not make a classic, and though I have a soft spot for, say, Nathaniel Bishop’s Four Months in a Sneak Box (1879), and an even softer one for Maurice Griffiths’ The Magic of the Swatchways (1932), they won’t be found in The Sailor’s Classics. Nor will the many salty “yarns” full of the faded yo-ho-ho of generations past. Whimsical accounts of family vacations afloat (the obligatory adventure with the dog and the dinghy...) will be left to gather dust in peace. So will all those melancholy solo voyages in which the writers go to sea in order to discover themselves.
There remain the books whose vigor has not dimmed with the passage of time, whose voice is as alive and meaningful now as it was on their first publication—the books that should be essential reading for every literate sailor. No. 2 in the series is Richard Maury’s The Saga of Cimba, first published in 1939; No. 4 is The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, first published in 1971. They are perfect examples of what I mean: one a loving close-up portrait of the sea in all its moods, written by a master mariner with an astonishing literary gift; the other a study, by two journalists, of a man who lost touch with reality during the course of the first singlehanded round-the-world yacht race. Each—in its very different way—is an indispensable book. Each contributes an important thread to the larger pattern in the carpet, which is the great, various, and intricate design of the literature of small-boat sailing.
The Sailor’s Classics will surprise our readers with its richness and complexity. Since Homer’s Odyssey, the voyage has supplied one of the classic forms in literature—both as a grand metaphor for life itself in the long passage from birth to death, and as a sequence of tests and adventures. Equally, the boat (and especially the small boat) has long stood as a symbol of selfhood—a fragile ark bearing the journeying soul to its destination. Hilaire Belloc put the matter beautifully in The Cruise of the Nona:
The cruising of a boat here and there is very much what happens to the soul of a man in a larger way... We are granted great visions, we suffer intolerable tediums, we come to no end of the business, we are lonely out of sight of England, we make astonishing landfalls—and the whole rigmarole leads us along no whither, and yet is alive with discovery, emotion, adventure, peril and repose. Those five nouns should be emblazoned above The Sailor’s Classics: it is from the interweaving of discovery, emotion, adventure, peril, and repose that the pattern of sailing literature is made, and we shall do our best to honor each and every one in our selection of the best books ever written about life aboard small boats at sea. Jonathan Raban Series Editor March 2001From the Back Cover:
"It is the voice of Captain Voss that stops you in your tracks, like Coleridge's wedding guest detained by the Ancient Mariner; a gruff, bewhiskered, seadog's voice, rich in experience and personaltiy. There's liquor on his breath, and a singular glitter in his eye."--from the introduction by Jonathan Raban
Captain John C. Voss is, without a doubt, one of the most colorful and controversial figures in 20th-century nautical history. During his lifetime, and for many years thereafter, he was labeled an adventurer, thief, saint, charlatan, even murderer. But one thing that Voss's friends and detractors alike agreed upon without reservation was his genius for practical seamanship.
This volume in The Sailor's Classics presents two epic, salt-encrusted sea tales from Voss's 1913 book, The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss. "40,000 Miles in a Canoe" is the unforgettable account of his three-year voyage across three oceans in a Native American dugout canoe modified for sail. In "Sea Queen," Voss and his crew survive a monstrous typhoon in a tiny 19-foot yawl. This book is not just great storytelling, it is also the classic primer on small-boat seamanship.
The Sailor's Classics presents the best writing about the sea as observed from the perspective of a small boat under sail. The stories range from pensive cruises in sheltered waters to tales of endurance and high adventure.
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