Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: Sailing Close to the Wind

No, this isn't the Ben Ainslie autobio or Pete Goss's recount of his Vendee Globe, alas, both of which are called Close to the Wind. Actually in this book they didn't even go that close to the wind, they couldn't, not when sailing a replica of an ancient Phoenician vessel.

Sailing Close to the Wind is the story of the creation and voyage of the Phoencia, built in Syria in 2008 before the civil war started, which headed down the Red Sea, south around Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic and the long treck north to the straits of Gibraltar before finally returning to the start in 2010.

It should have been gripping, as I like both history and sailing, and have always been a bit intrigued by what little I know of the Phoenicians.

But this book didn't have a spark. There was too much we did this, then that, until something happened, but it wasn't that bad, so we kept going in long, long paragraphs.

There was potential there, for at the start they had all sort of difficulties sprouting from bad planning and skipper inexperience. They set off without having had a sea trial to build experience in the boat and how to sail it, which led to almost inevitable problems, including faulty design in the steering oar and the omission of an engine. The latter problem meant they had to install (and soon afterwards repair) a second or third hand engine picked up at Port Sudan at vast expense.

The skipper Philip Beale (and co-author with Sarah Taylor) was actually rather sick, with an infected gall bladder, and that could have one of the contributions to a number of communication problems.

My biggest issue with this voyage (or "epic voyage" to quote the book's blurb) was that it didn't repeat what the Phoenicians would actually have done, which is sail close to shore most of the time. Yes they could navigate by the stars offshore but this was unknown waters and you can only head deep into the Indian Ocean to make landfall in Mozambique if you know its there.

The Phoenica skipped Africa's Atlantic Coast entirely, with no landfall between Cape Town and Gibraltar.

I imagine the Phoenicians taking a series of shorter hops, similar in distance to  passages in the Mediterranean between (say) Italy and Greece, much time spent getting to know the locals, their language and trading, while waiting for a good wind. There would, unlike for the Phoenica, have had no marinas to moor up against, and so a real re-enactment would have relied upon beaching the craft or getting to shore in smaller craft.

However the Phoenicians almost certainly did do the voyage around 600 BC as reported by Herodotus, and the boat was probably similar, based upon a wreck discovered on the sea bed off Marseilles.

In the book A Viking Voyage (blogged yesterday) part of the fun was the graphic and open description of life on-board, the tensions and the frank acceptance of his own failings by the author and expedition leader. There was little of that here.

Take an incident in Cape Town when some of the Muslim crew objected because "there were two couples on-board and some bunk sharing had started to creep in".

Whoa - back up a bit: what was that? But the incident is skimmed over and indeed too often the crew's characters were not fleshed out and left unsatisfactorily vague.

There is also not enough history and instead references to known frauds, such as a stone inscription said to show the Phoenicians went to Brazil, which has been widely debunked.

Their next plan is to sail the Phoenicia across the Atlantic to show the Phoenicians could have discovered America before Columbus, the Vikings etc etc etc which sounds like something with more of an eye on US infotainment channels and gullible funders than sound historical research.

All in all a bit disappointing given how interesting the subject potentially is.

We can but imagine what the experience would have been like, to sail away from the known, one of the other cities of classical history like Tyre, on a boat made from Aleppo pine, Mediterranean pine, oak and walnut, towards the lands over the horizon populated with gods and monsters.

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