Alone on the high seas — two books on the allure of solitary sailing

Why go? What is it that drives people to sail in small boats across the oceans and what happens to them when they succeed — or when they fail?

Richard King, an American maritime historian, tries to answer these questions in Sailing Alone, his account of single-handed sailors through the ages, after his own solo crossing of the Atlantic in 2007 in a 28-foot boat. It was a five-week ordeal that left him “physically exhausted, emotionally spent” and so rattled by the fear of the wind’s noise howling through his rigging that he sold the boat and has not sailed alone since. Without a pet on board, he befriended a gooseneck barnacle he found below the transom and called it Charles, after Darwin.

In Wavewalker, the storm-filled story of her decade-long childhood 50,000 nautical mile sailing odyssey with her parents from Plymouth in England to the south Pacific, Suzanne Heywood asks not only why they went but also why did they take me with them and make it so difficult for me to find the education and school friends I craved? She was seven years old when they started and 17 when, against all the odds, she secured a university place to study zoology by writing hopefully from a hut in New Zealand to “Oxford University, Oxford, England”.

Both authors evoke the elation, weariness, frustration and occasional terror that punctuate life on a sailing boat crossing an ocean. Heywood and her family narrowly escape death when their 70ft wooden schooner is crushed by a massive wave in the southern Indian Ocean. King wakes up from a nap towards the end of his journey near the Portuguese coast to see the towering hull of a huge container ship that has narrowly missed him — an experience more common than non-sailors might think.

Woman and child prepare hot drinks in yacht galley while man sits at table
Suzanne Heywood’s life onboard during her decade-long sailing odyssey with her parents

It takes a certain type to do this. And King assembles a truly eccentric, even flamboyant cast of solo sailors, from Joshua Slocum, the experienced mariner who became the first solo circumnavigator in his boat Spray in 1898, through to Bernard Moitessier, who could have won the first single-handed race around the world 70 years later but was enjoying himself so much that he went halfway around again. As King notes, “a solo voyage across an ocean alone for anyone has a significant, even primary aspect of social and artistic performance”.

Book cover of ‘Wavewalker: Breaking Free’ by Suzanne Heywood

Robert Manry, a newspaper copy-editor from Ohio who sailed the Atlantic in a tiny 13½ft boat in 1965, spelt this out when he said he wanted to craft his voyage “into something nearer to a work of art than my life on land had been”. King concludes: “This is perhaps why the single-handed voyage story is so compelling to so many of us — in its madness, pluck, pride, and in its ‘do not go gentle’ journey of solitude before existential unknowns.”

King reminds us of the unrecorded navigational and long-distance sailing feats of the Pacific islanders who settled New Zealand, Hawaii and Madagascar centuries ago. He also takes pains to recall that single-handed sailing has not been the preserve of white, western men such as Francis Chichester and Robin Knox-Johnston, even if their exploits tend to be better remembered by, well, white, western men.

His subjects also include Ann Davison, the first woman to sail across the Atlantic single-handed, the Filipino Florentino Das, Japan’s Kenichi Horie and black Americans Bill Pinkney and Teddy Seymour, who stressed the need for preparation ahead of a voyage and vigilance about the risks. “If you want guarantees,” Seymour wrote, “buy a toaster.”

Man sitting at stern of yacht in the middle of the ocean
Robert Knox-Johnston steering his yacht during the round-the-world race © Alamy

It is rare these days to find a sailor who is not also an environmentalist after their experiences at sea, and even the matter-of-fact Seymour delights in the dolphins that adopt his boat Love Song as a playmate and spend hours by day and night “darting, leaping, squealing” around him purely for the fun of it. Heywood, too, became a zoologist on the strength of her understanding of the natural world at sea.

Book cover of ‘Sailing Alone: A History’ by Richard J King

King, however, says sailors have in fact come late to the ecological party. It is only in recent years that most of them have stopped chucking all their rubbish, including plastic, over the side. The British single-handed racer Ellen MacArthur and France’s Isabelle Autissier are rare examples of those who have gone on to build careers on land in environmental activism.

Moitessier, who campaigned obsessively in later life for the planting of fruit trees, was the one who perhaps best embodied and expressed the connections between sailors, their boats and the oceans. After rounding Cape Horn and abandoning the round-the-world race eventually won by Knox-Johnston, he wrote: “I am continuing nonstop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

Or as King concludes in Sailing Alone: “No one on the planet is more often reminded of one’s meaninglessness in time than the solo sailor in a little boat bobbing about on the eternal indifferent deep.”

Sailing Alone: A History by Richard J King Particular Books, £25, 512 pages

Wavewalker: Breaking Free by Suzanne Heywood William Collins, £20, 416 pages

Victor Mallet is an FT journalist based in Paris

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