From Land's End to Cape Clear, at the southwestern tip of Ireland, past Roaringwater Bay and Cod's Head, on past Inishvickillane and Inishtooskert, up through the Hebrides, to Orkney and on to the Faeroes, stretches the richest and wildest coastline in Europe, an Atlantic-battered world.
Wanting to experience the feeling that only the ocean can give you, of being "a single hair on the world's skin," Adam Nicolson set off to sail this coast in the Auk, a 42-foot wooden ketch, heading off on a 1,500-mile voyage through what he hoped would be a sequence of revelatory landscapes. He was not disappointed.
Seamanship is more than a travel journal. What Nicolson has written describes an inner journey as much as an outer one. He writes of his own yearning for wild and open spaces, but his year is strung between the competing claims of leaving and belonging, of thinking that no life could be more exhilarating than battling a big Atlantic gale and of the desire for harbor and home, for the comforts of stillness.
Disasters and revelations greet him at every turn; sacred landscapes and modern visionaries; encounters with the animals living on the wild edge of the Atlantic; a moment at which the prospect of death comes strolling on board the Auk and others in which the strains of this ocean-edge existence threaten his friendship with George Fairhurst, who was sailing with him. Above all, it is about the gaps that open up between those who go and those who stay at home.
Seamanship, in the end, is not about the sea; it's about being alive.
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Adam Nicols on is the author of Seamanship, God's Secretaries, and Seize the Fire. He has won both the Somerset Maugham and William Heinemann awards, and he lives with his family at Sissinghurst Castle in England.From Publishers Weekly:
There's much to like in the story of how Nicolson (God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible) finds a sailing partner and a suitable boat and takes to the seas surrounding Ireland and Scotland. And his descriptions of the remote communities he encounters on the voyage are often engaging. Yet Nicolson's narrative of this voyage—which was the basis for an eight-part National Geographic TV series—is saddled with an overabundance of superlatives: it's one thing for a near fatal accident to be caused by "the biggest wave I have ever seen," but Nicolson also encounters "the darkest night," "the loneliest and most entrancing place" and so on. One wishes at times that Nicolson would turn his focus further inward; although he hints at personal tensions between himself and his sailing partner, as well as the strain placed on his marriage by his wanderlust, his slim volume doesn't fully explore these conflicts, instead falling back on slightly more abstract reflections about humans' relationship to the sea. Nicolson's voluntary pilgrimage is a good story, made frustrating by falling just short of being a great story.
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