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The Sailor's Classics library introduces a new generation of readers to the best books ever written about small boats under sail
In the autumn of 1968, Donald Crowhurst set sail from England to participate in the first single-handed nonstop around-the-world sailboat race. Eight months later, his boat was found in the mid-Atlantic, intact but with no one on board. In this gripping reconstruction, journalists Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall tell the story of Crowhurst's ill-fated voyage.
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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
"A masterpiece."--The New Yorker
In the autumn of 1968, Donald Crowhurst set out from England in an improbable-looking plywood trimaran to compete in the first singlehanded nonstop round-the-world sailboat race. Although his previous sailing experience was limited, his boat unready, and the electronic gadgetry of his own design unfinished and untested, Crowhurst had managed to persuade first an affluent backer, then the contest judges, and, finally, England's media to regard him as a serious contender. Sailing south through the Atlantic, he radioed reports of record-breaking sailing performances. In the South Atlantic he announced that low battery power would require him to maintain radio silence through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Eleven weeks later he broke his silence to tell the world he had rounded Cape Horn and was sailing north for England, the elapsed-time leader of the race. Then tragedy struck. Eight months after his departure, Crowhurst's Teignmouth Electron was discovered adrift in an eerie mid-Atlantic calm, intact but without her skipper.
In this tour de force of investigative journalism, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall tell the story of Donald Crowhurst's ill-fated voyage. Working from Crowhurst's recovered logs and diaries, the authors reconstruct the events leading up to his disappearance: his first few weeks at sea and his growing distrust of his boat; his attempts to come to grips with imminent failure; his decision to hide out midocean in the South Atlantic, away from the shipping lanes, faking a round-the-world journey; and his final, desperate escape from discovery as the would-be perpetrator of one of the biggest hoaxes in sailing history.
From in-depth interviews with Crowhurst's family and friends and telling excerpts from his logbooks, Tomalin and Hall develop a tale of tragic self-delusion and public deception, a haunting portrait of a complex, deeply troubled man and his journey into the heart of darkness.
With its first publication in 1970, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst became an instant classic. Sir Francis Chichester, whose record-setting 1967 circumnavigation inspired the 1968 - 69 round-the-world race, called it "the sea drama of the century." Robin Knox-Johnston, the winner of the race, has called it "one of the great classic sea stories." You won't be able to put it down, and you won't be able to forget it.
A Daring Hoax and the Man It Destroyed
July 1969. After a voyage of 240 days, Donald Crowhurst was less than two weeks from a triumphant return to England, the apparent victor in the first nonstop singlehanded around-the-world sailboat race. All England was preparing for his arrival. But then he disappeared. His boat was found, sailing sedately, undisturbed--but he was not on it. From the logbooks he left behind, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall reconstructed this extraordinary, deeply unsettling tale. . . .
"A virtuoso demonstration of the soul's anatomy."--New York Times Book Review
"One of the most moving and disturbing books I have ever read. I don't think I shall ever forget it."--Washington Post
"An analysis of a true anti-hero and a record of human aspiration and human failing rare in the annals of maritime lore."--San Francisco Chronicle
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