Review, July 1997

Water Worlds
By Miles Harvey
Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, by Peter Nichols (Viking, $24). When the American yachtsman Joshua Slocum wrote Sailing Alone Around the World — the first great chronicle of single-handed navigation, published in 1899 — he "endeavored to tell just the story of the adventure itself," leaving his personal life in port. Peter Nichols's new book suggests that solo sailing in the 1990s is not so much an occasion for physical endurance as it is a chance to take stock of one's spiritual condition — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when the tale is leavened with humor, keen observation, and old-fashioned sailing drama. Trying to come to terms with a ruined marriage, Nichols, a part-time screenwriter, resolves to sail from England to Maine on Toad, his 56-year-old wooden yacht. Somewhat optimistically, he sets out across the Atlantic without a life raft, an engine, or electronic navigation equipment. When he is not plumbing the depths of his failed relationship, a process aided by the discovery of his estranged wife's journals in a sailbag, this first-time single-hander devotes much of his time to mastering the art of celestial navigation. His narrative becomes considerably less introverted when his beloved Toad springs a leak and slowly begins to sink. "The leak and I are in a race to dry land," Nichols laments after pumping 75 gallons of water out of the boat in one five-minute stretch. In the end, he is rescued by a container ship off Bermuda, abandoning a foundering craft that "has turned into a colander." But before Toad slips under the waves, Sea Change succeeds in memorably evoking the means by which one can "slip through some membrane at the limit of ordinary travel into a world you could never know by any other means."

To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger, by Mark Jenkins (William Morrow, $25). "It's a wonder there is a human left alive on the continent of Africa," the author muses as he assembles his medical kit in preparation for the first-ever descent of the Niger River's unexplored headwaters.

Then again, adventure and danger are the reasons Jenkins and three friends, all approaching middle age, embark on their daunting journey by foot and kayak in the first place. "We wanted not to know what to expect," Jenkins writes of their expeditionary philosophy. Accompanied at the outset by a charismatic Guinean guide named Sori Keita, they trek through "one of the last obscure places" to the Niger's source at Tembakounda, a place where long-distance communication is done by drums and men have dozens of wives. Once on the river, the team enounters crocodiles, killer bees, and roiling, hippo-infested whitewater. But as the Niger widens and their frenetic pace slows, Jenkins and his best friend, Mike Moe, eventually tire of the journey. (Their teammates, John Haines and Rick Smith, go on to become the first Westerners to run the Niger from source to sea.) Moe returns to the States, and Jenkins, hell-bent on reaching the desert city of Timbuktu, swaps his kayak for an unreliable motorcycle and begins the dusty ride across the Sahara. His book — by turns funny, sentimental, and endearingly morose — is an immensely satisfying chronicle of latter-day African exploration.
The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea, by William J. Broad (Simon & Schuster, $30). "Nobody really knows anything about it," a marine biologist tells William J. Broad about the squid he has captured alive, via robot submersible, in the Pacific off Monterey, California. The same can be said about much of the watery deep, as this book makes vividly and comprehensively clear. "Human eyes have glimpsed perhaps one-millionth of this dark realm," asserts Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science writer, but the unknown is receding fast, thanks to a new generation of advanced marine-exploration vehicles. Shipbound with the likes of underwater researchers and Titanic fortune hunters, Broad encounters a wild array of previously undiscovered aquatic creatures — from a 130-foot-long, snakelike siphonophore to microbes that "break all the rules of life" by thriving in 500-degree volcanic vents. Still, even as these surreal species are forcing scientists to revise their assumptions about the origins of life, the survival of the deep-sea biome is increasingly jeopardized by commercial fishing and ocean-floor mining. The Universe Below asks provocative questions about environmental stewardship and the possible demise of a part of the world that we are just beginning to understand.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, by Sebastian Junger (W. W. Norton, $24). In October 1991, three powerful weather systems, including the remnants of Hurricane Grace, collided over the North Atlantic in a sudden, unforecasted "act of meteorological defiance." It was "a storm that could not possibly have been worse," a once-in-a-century tempest that sent 100-mile-per-hour winds and 100-foot waves, among the highest measured anywhere in the world. Junger, a journalist whose coverage of the disaster began with an article in this magazine ("The Storm," October 1994), has written something akin to a cinematic special-effects thriller about the horrific experiences of those who were caught in the gale, including the crew of a National Guard helicopter, one of whom drowned when the craft was ditched in the sea. The heart of Junger's book is his reconstruction of the final hours of the six men aboard the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot swordfish boat from Gloucester, Massachusetts, that was 500 miles from home when the storm hit. Weaving together interviews with friends and family of the doomed crew and meticulous nautical and medical research, Junger unfolds the dire events of the journey, right down to the moments when the men are "suspended, open-eyed and unconscious, in the flooded enclosures of the boat."

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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