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Why I Wrote A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols

Posted on 6th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

The author of our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for July, A Voyage for Madmen, explores what drew him to write about the extraordinary figures who took part in the first Golden Globe race and the siren call that beckons us to take to sea.

In March 1972, I joined a friend - I’ll call him James - delivering a 40 ft sailboat from Swansea, Wales, to Gibraltar. I was barely out of school. My previous sailing experience had been limited to a small dinghy off a beach in Mallorca. However, James knew how to sail and navigate, he said, but he apparently didn’t know much about listening to the Shipping Forecast and finding a suitable weather window through which to sail out into the Atlantic from Wales in early spring.

I came down with something like what the Yachtsman’s Medical Companion, which we carried aboard, described as "the third and final stage of seasickness, preceding death." I don’t remember much, apart from the mountainous waves, and the collision with the Russian trawler and the masts breaking and falling to the deck, and being carried off the boat after we’d been towed into the Scilly Isles by the St Mary’s Lifeboat. And the pulsing mantra that I would never go aboard a sailboat again.

But I do remember waking up in the hospital the next morning and seeing through the windows - in that beautiful, clear sunny weather after a storm - the green fields descending to the Caribbean-looking white beach and blue sea. And at that moment, I began dimly to sense that on a sailboat you could slip though some membrane beyond the limit of ordinary travel into a world you could never know by any other means. It was not where you went, but the way you got there, profoundly unlike a brief hop on a passenger aircraft or ferry boat. Travel by small boat opened you up to another dimension of sensation, another way of seeing the world.

Another book we had aboard, which I read through in one long gulp before we sailed, was Robin Knox-Johnston’s A World of My Own. It described something I had been entirely unaware of: the round-the-world Golden Globe race of only three years before, written by the only contestant to have completed the race.

Despite that first unfortunate baptism at sea, something - that different view of the world you get from aboard a boat - took root in me. A few years later I was living and sailing - in the Caribbean, across the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean - full time aboard my own small wooden sailboat. And instead of watching telly for the next six years, I collected and read every book I could find about the sea and small boat sailing and adventuring. (The literature of the sea, I found, interested me as much as the sea itself.) I read Knox-Johnston’s book again, many times, and the books produced by or about the other Golden Globe racers - one of whom went mad and jumped overboard, another committed suicide when he returned to shore, a third never turned left after rounding Cape Horn but continued sailing on around the world, because he was happy at sea. Naturally, I soon wanted to sail alone around the world nonstop myself. I read and reread those books and imagined that voyage so vividly that I knew I had to do it one day. 

I did cross the Atlantic a few times, once alone, and I had the distinct experience of having my boat sink beneath me, losing it at sea, but I still haven’t sailed around the world. Life, family, a child, and work, have got in the way, as they  do for all but obsessive round-the-world sailors, who let nothing stop them - that’s part of what you need not just to win but to take part in such a race.

Eventually, however, I managed to do what I think is the next best thing. In 1999-2001, I wrote a book about the Golden Globe race. It took me approximately as long as it took Robin Knox-Johnston to prepare his boat and make the voyage. I read again every book about the race. I spent weeks inside the British Library newspaper archives in distant Colindale, North London (these 750 million pages of newspapers, periodicals, and microfilm, spanning more than three centuries, are now housed even farther away, in West Yorkshire), absorbing the recent history of 1968-9. In my imagination, I sailed every mile around the world, aboard each boat with each racer, and writing the book, A Voyage for Madmen, only deepened my obsession about this unique endeavor.

Sailing alone around the world nonstop for the first time could only be done once, of course. But the dream of such a voyage still abides in sailors everywhere. It has a core human shape to it. It’s the logical inevitability of the first tentative passage made by a human floating across a lagoon on a log: in the end, without stopping, a voyager might float so far that he, or she, could arrive back at the starting place, there being no farther Earthbound voyage. It’s a feat without any larger purpose than its own end, but, like a trip to the Moon, it’s a voyage that provides a benchmark of the farthest reach of human endeavor.

A number of sailors, men and women, have now circumnavigated alone and nonstop. And now, this July, 2018, fifty years after the start of the 1968 Golden Globe race, eighteen sailors, all obsessed with the original race, have set out to circumnavigate the world again, in small sailboats whose design and equipment are limited by the rules of this second Golden Globe Race, which intends to replicate the conditions of the first.

It’s the grandest adventure. And if you can’t do it yourself, you can read all about it.

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