25 January 2005

4. Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas

A fast little book (just under 200 pages) about an Argentinian cattle farmer who goes around the world in a 31' sailboat.

Vito Dumas was a farmer, rancher, and landsman who had a passion for long distance solo sailing. He decided to go around the world, around the 40th parallel, nicknamed the Roaring Forties because of the ferocious winds that come from the South Pole. He sets off during the middle/end of WW2, supplied by the goodness of his fellow townsmen. He was not very well prepared, at one point stuffing his sealskin coat with old newspapers to stay warm.

The writing is a little redundant, day after day of pounding waves and strong wind. In the hands of a better writer I would say he was doing it on purpose, trying to get the reader to see the repetitive nature of being at sea.

That's not to say there aren't moments of inspired writing. He is introspective and does go to sea for the solitude and peace it brings, despite the dangerous weather.

" What set me off, to throw off all my normal life and tempt fate? Was it to show that I was not lost after all, that dreamers repelled by their inward vision still lived, that romance somehow managed to survive? The young need examples; maybe, without being too self-conscious, I could provide one. I was torn between two alternatives: to stay, to lunch at a given hour, to wait for someone, to receive guests, read newspapers, and tattle with friends outside working hours: the clock would go on telling the hours and I should be one of those creatures chained to the treadmill of today and tomorrow. Or else - more generous perhaps even more altruistic - to respond to that appeal which John Masefield expressed so well in 'Sea Fever.'"

Some of the gaps in the story are a little annoying. He complains about scuvry setting in when he is 65 days at sea, how his teeth are getting loose and his gums bleeding, but as his stretch at sea lasts another month, what happens to the scurvy? His arm gets infected and he considers amputation, but gives himself a few shots of antibiotic and takes to the rack. All better!?

He does accomplish conquering the Impossible Route, though, as he calls it. And he accomplishes a few firsts of recorded sailing. He is the first to sail nonstop 7400 miles from South Africa to New Zealand alone. He's also the first to sail around the dreaded and stormy Cape Horn alone and survive. (Slocum did it too, as did some dude named Al Hansen, but Slocum took an inside route that went through the Straits of Magellan. Hansen went outside the straits, but was killed just after rounding the Cape.)

Some of the situations and his reactions are comical. At one point one of the lines controlling the spinnaker snapped and he says, "the sheet parted so I decided to take down the sail."

The book does share some of the tone and theme of Thoreau's commentary in "Walden." Like Thoreau, he says that if you want to get somewhere it's best to go alone, that waiting for others means not going. Like Thoreau he writes about opening your eyes and trying to appreciate the nature that surrounds us. He also writes about how important work is for clearing the mind:

"It is said that solitude is best shared with another. These seas offer joys to anyone who is capable of loving and understanding nature. Are there not people who can spend hours watching the rain as it falls? I once read somewhere that three things could never be boring: passing clouds, dancing flames, and running water. They are not the only ones. I should add in the first place, work."

Overall I'm glad I read the book, it adds to the collected lore I have about circumnavigation and solo sailing.

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