The Godforsaken Sea, by Derek Lundy

godforsaken 2The Godforsaken Sea should have been a great read. Unfortunately, due to a number of problems that I am about to lay out, it is relegated to the lesser ‘good reads’ pile. The book tells the true story of the 1996-1997 Vendée Globe, a round-the-world race for single-handed, elite sailors. The rules of the race are simple: only one sailor per boat and no outside help or stops, for any reason. If you pull into port, you are disqualified. There are other rules pertaining to safety on board the boat, but I won’t go into those here. Up until the 1996 Vendée Globe, the record for completing this race was 109 days. It is gruelling physically and emotionally and extremely technically difficult. The most challenging part of the race is when the boats hit the Southern Ocean, to circumnavigate Antarctica. This, we are told, is the most remote place on Earth and if your boat capsizes here (a distinct possibility), your chances of rescue are slim. In this particular Vendée Globe, 3 boats capsize, which is the reason for the book at all. In case you are keen to read it, I won’t say anything further, but suffice it to say, the chapters detailing these events are gripping.

As you might imagine, having read this review thusfar, I was quite excited to read this book. I love adventure stories because as a self-professed chicken, I like to imagine what it would be like to experience such extreme activities, like climbing Everest or sailing the Southern Ocean, without having to risk my life. There are three main reasons that The Godforsaken Sea failed to live up to my expectations of being a heart-pounding read.

1. Language. Lundy either assumes his readers are avid sailors or that we’ll have the ambition to read up on sailboat design to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. I fit into neither category. I have been on a sailboat exactly once, and it never left the dock; and when I’m reading a book about sailing, I expect that a minimum of explanation of uncommon terminology will be provided to minimize frustration. Instead, Lundy casually drops terms like ‘halyard’, ‘warps’, ‘broaching’, ‘ketch’, and ‘ballast bulb’. Even terms like ‘keel’, ‘jib’, and ‘mast’, while vaguely familiar, had me feeling idiotic. I simply could not conjure up an image of these sailboats because of the technical language used. This all could have been avoided by one simple addition: a diagram of a sailboat with the appropriate parts labeled. While he was at it, Lundy could have sketched out what the living quarters are like for these sailors. Some description is given in the book, but an illustration would have gone miles to improve my understanding.

2. Lack of maps. As he assumes that his readers will know what a ‘halyard’ is, I suppose it is not surprising that he also assumes that we all know where Cape Horn and the Bay of Biscay are, what the Horse Latitudes are, and where the doldrums occur (he graciously provides a description of what a doldrum actually is). There is a pitiful map on the opening page, which shows the outline of the continents and the race route. Nothing much else is labeled and certainly not the things I’ve listed above, despite their critical importance to the story. Also irritating: on the map the little boat illustration is bigger than both New Zealand’s islands combined. Because of this, the reader has no sense of just how big the Southern Ocean actually is.

3. Narrative. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the best stories are told from start to finish. For some inexplicable reason, Lundy chooses to begin the book with what should have been the climax: the capsizes. Yes, before we have any clue about what the Vendée Globe is and who these people are sailing in it, we are launched right into the morass of these sailors’ struggles to survive. After this chapter, the book proceeds in a more chronologic fashion, but when I got to the point of the capsizes in the narrative, I had to then go and re-read the first chapter because I had forgotten most of the details by that point. Another related complaint is that Lundy has difficulty introducing each of the sailors in an interesting and memorable way. I think a more skilled writer would have been able to help the reader connect the sailor to his/her boat right from the beginning. I found myself forgetting who was piloting which boat and which country they were from. A lot of this confusion could have been alleviated by providing a detailed list at the start – Lundy does provide a list of the participating sailors and the name of his/her boat, but no other details. Why not add a simple line about each person’s experience, past races, etc.?

At this point I should note that The Godforsaken Sea was a huge bestseller when it first came out, so perhaps I’m on my own here in my frustration. And I will say that despite my issues, I feel much more knowledgeable about the world of sailing after having read it. So I hesitantly recommend the book, with the suggestion that you head on over to Wikipedia and read the entry on sailboats and familiarize yourself with a world map before commencing it.

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