Unanticipated Borders (Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban)

Readers don’t have to be sailors to enjoy this travelogue through the Inside Passage where we sail and cross unanticipated borders. For those “reading as writers” I make two suggestions: First, consider how Raban weaves two distinctly different themes in one story; second: those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

Ostensibly, Passage to Juneau is a sailing memoir that Jonathan Raban makes from Seattle, through Canadian waters, to Juneau Alaska. Readers are taken along on a journey that follows the route of George Vancouver who captained the surveying expedition of 1791-95 for Britain and for whom Vancouver Island and the city on the mainland are named. The Passage challenges. Raban notes that “The Inside Passage to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea-route, in more ways than one.” It’s a passage he makes alone, leaving his wife and young daughter alone in Seattle. For company, he fills bookshelves on his 35-foot sailboat with history, lore and myth written by anthropologists and sailor-writers. As he prepares to leave land, he candidly writes:

I am afraid of the sea.…I’m not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and the boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

He sets off, hugging the coast.

This is my second Jonathan Raban travel story. A few years ago I read Arabia Through the Looking Glass and looked forward to Passage to Juneau, anticipating more of the same. Rabin takes a novelists’ approach, creating skilfully drawn characters and keen insight into people and places. He merges historical interpretations and impressions with his own insights and style, but here he’s a little more acerbic than curmudgeon.

Opening this book, I expected a sailing story, and sailing is the focus of the first half of the story, but with “The Rite of Passage” chapter, the story shifts. The mood swings to a far more personal and emotionally intense one, no longer an intellectual or an observer stance. It’s true, we set out with a plan and life intervenes. The story began as one thing and ended as another. It’s also true that in the first chapter, Raban provides a hint about the change to come:

 I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul. Other people’s reflections, as I thought then. I wasn’t prepared for the catch I eventually made.

Despite this, I wasn’t prepared for what are essentially two distinct stories.

Jonathan Raban’s travel writing is insightful and his use of language a pleasure to read earning him many plaudits. But in someone with lesser skills, I doubt the starkness of the contrast between the themes would have worked.

For those who are “reading as writers,” Raban’s story provides a cautionary tale. Although both halves are memoir, and the story begins and ends with sailing, the two themes differ in mood, tone, and focus. The sailing memoir loses coherence; the meaning Rabin finds does not derive from the sea as suggested in the memoir’s subtitle. At times, I felt as if Raban had a contract to write about following Vancouver’s log through the Inside Passage, but then life intervened and gave him passion as opposed to an intellectual pursuit to focus upon.

There is also a lesson from what Raban does very well. Those who are writing historical stories can learn much by noting how Raban draws upon others’ experiences and interpretations and how he weaves these with his own to create a nuanced narrative.

42 Passage to Juneau

Available through your local bookstore or online: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings

Up…up…and away (a weekend for the birds)

Water fowl – Canada Geese, Great Blue Heron, an immature Little Blue Heron, and Mute Swans – all put on spectacular shows for me over a couple of afternoons and two misty mornings last weekend.

We left the marina aboard Magic Badger (a 38-foot sailing sloop) on Friday morning and took our time (about five lazy hours) to travel across the Bay of Quinte down through Long Reach and across the northern end of Adolphus Reach to Picton Harbour where we arranged a mooring near the harbour’s entrance. It was a weekend of reading and photography – two of my passions – and the water fowl put on quite a show.

 

Cormorants-swans detail BoQ LR
Cormorants rest near the shore as Magic Badger takes the bend into Long Reach. (Notice the three Mute Swans looking on.)

Cormorants are my least favourite water fowl. They tend to flock to a single area and their guano kills the trees in which they perch. Seldom do you see one or two; they are very social. They’re easily recognized flying low over the water across distances with black, rough feathers and yellow-orange bill; quite big with up to a 33-inch wing span. Swimming they lift their beak in the air looking very snobbish. They rest atop rocks, holding their wings out to dry like Anhinga. This photo was taken near a tree the cormorants are defoliating. The reeds in the background provide protection from predators for the swans, and I managed to capture three of them along with the cormorants.

 

Cormorants-swans BoQ LR-1
View of Prince Edward County over starboard across from the village of Deseronto.

Saturday morning I woke early and crawled out of my sleeping bag and the forward cabin. Quickly I put espresso on to brew and climbed above into a spectacular morning. On Sunday I set the alarm and rose at 6:30, climbed above to enter what felt like a cloud. I could barely see anything. With coffee brewing I took a seat at Magic Badger’s stern, camera in hand. (She’s a 38-foot, 2-cabin and 2-head Beneteau sailing sloop with a fully-equipped galley and large salon; her cockpit is canvas enclosed and I think she’s beautiful. The camera is a Nikon Coolpix P610 that works very well when the situation doesn’t lend itself to a tripod and various lenses).

 

Geese chorus line in mist PEHarbour LR
Like a discombobulated chorus line, Canada Geese lift from Picton Harbour.

 

Watching the Canada Geese in early mornings made me laugh aloud. They swam across the channel from a place hidden behind a point of land over to a weedy shore across the way. I had a good view from Magic Badger’s stern. They honk and honk and honk, calling to each other until finally the last one must say okay in honk language because they all begin flapping and lifting up from the water like a chorus line that can’t get it together.

 

Geese misty morning rising PEHarbour LR
Canada geese lift off the harbour on a misty morning that held dawn’s rosy glow.

Once in the air, Canada geese are graceful as they push the air with their huge 45-inch wing span. I snapped photo after photo as they emerged from early-morning mist.

Geese take-off in mist PEHarbour-detail LR
As the mist dissipated I was able to capture a clearer image of a goose lifting off the water.

 

On Saturday afternoon I dawdled away the hours keeping my eye on a small white heron (the guide says 27 inches) but I was some distance away stranded on the sailboat. It was feeding along the grassy shore and frequently hidden by a row of posts driven into the waters’ edge. Then one of the posts seemed to move ever so slightly; not a post at all but a Great Blue Heron (50 inches) in dark morph. It resumed a hunch stance with its head almost hidden. So it isn’t a great photo of the two, but the best I could do with the limitations of the camera I had aboard.

 

Heron - great blue and little blue PEHarbour

 

Later, at dusk, I managed to catch the Great Blue Heron flying low across to the east side of channel.

 

Great Blue Heron detail-LR

 

Heron - great blue -- in flight misty morning PEHarbour LR
In this shot, we can see the cliffs surrounding the harbour, which makes it safe in a storm.

 

But the crème de la crème is the Mute Swan…and I saw a few, more than ever before as Magic Badger has journeyed back and forth through the passages leading out to Lake Ontario. They surpass the Canada Geese by 10 inches and are far more graceful with their S-curved necks. The adults carry themselves with extreme dignity, hovering and turning quietly toward their young, constantly checking like protective parents.

As we made our way up Long Reach toward Deseronto and our home port at Crate Marine, Belleville, I looked up to see three swans flying. Fortunately I had the camera slung around my neck.

 

Swans over Long Reach YY1 LR-1
With a rush of wings, three swans fly over Long Reach.

 

In a short while – where Long Reach flows out of the bay – a large family swam across in front of us. They were moving toward to place where the first photo (with the cormorants) was taken.

 

Swans in a row BoQ LR

 

Two swans-BoQ

 

Days and nights off the dock and away from the marina are always treats, but this September weekend has outdone them all. It looks as if it will be the last time out this season before the boat goes up on the hard for the winter (like Scrooge, I echo “bah humbug”). But what memories captured in early morning mist and in the dusk of ever-earlier evenings.

 

Reference: Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region

 

 

 

Hot days + cool nights = misty mornings

13 - Sailboats into mist-PEHarbour
On our last morning before returning to Magic Badger‘s slip, sailboats passed through the channel into early morning mist.

I’m a sailor — how thrilling it is to claim the moniker. Twice recently the ship’s captain and I have been out on the water at anchorages and moorings.

I have a new blog (#41) with lots of photos (few words). Take a look and let me know what you think…please.

Just click on the link: Adventures Over Land and Sea

Review: Lost in the Southern Atlantic (Hippolyte’s Island by Barbara Hodgson)

…owners of small sailboats…advised him to think big and those with big boats…urged him to think small. They showed him where their hulls were rotting and where their masts had cracked. They talked of the endless work, the alarming drain of money and the worry of storms, vandalism, and amateurs. And they told him, as they looked away from the land and out to the water, that they loved their boats and wouldn’t dream of giving them up.

To suggest that Hippolyte Webb is an eccentric character would be an understatement. He chases a dream, which could prove to be folly. In preparation for his travels, he takes a sailing class and conducts (some) research before adventuring in search of islands (the Auroras in the South Atlantic) that were recorded during the early 19th century but have since fallen off maps.

Hippolyte possesses a falling-over-the-edge creativity, as he dreams, prepares, and eventually sails away from the Falklands to his mysterious destination. He’s wrangled a book deal, which motivates note-making, photographing (he runs out of film), and sketching. Oh, yes, and he keeps a rather unique sailor’s log. He also muses,

“It’s a strange sensation to be slicing through the water in the dark with no idea what’s ahead or what’s been left behind.”

This reminds me of my first overnight sail between the Dutch Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. Other passages remind me of sudden storms, the terrifying racket of sails, and the tossing of the boat, bow-to-stern, and port-to-starboard. At one point, Hippolyte notes,

“If I had known the things I know now about being at sea, I never would have done this. I take so much for granted on land; taking anything for granted at sea is certain doom.”

As you have likely guessed – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say – Hippolyte finds the Auroras and makes a few discoveries of his own before returning to the Falklands and on to New York for the editing of his book. This is when we meet his editor Marie, who is not impressed with Hippolyte’s manuscript. She informs him:

“We simply need to address tense, grammar, pacing, chronology, style, and balance. It’s a normal part of the process….”

Editors and writers who have been through the process of a book’s manufacture will giggle and shudder at the machinations both Marie and Hippolyte must endure. Toward the end of the story (apropos to nothing really, but beautiful), when Marie is doing some extraordinary fact-checking, there is a passage that establishes time, place, and mood (maybe apropos to something). So, for the writers among readers:

“They headed off past the tree, which was heavy with already fermenting, wizened little apples and swarming with early wasps. The tops of long weeds brushed Marie’s hands, burrs attached themselves to her clothing, flies and wasps flew into her face. And it was hot. After fifteen minutes they arrived at the perimeter of a scraggly yard, fenced in with barbed wire.”

The islands metamorphose out of fog and invisibility. Marie metamorphoses too. Hippolyte remains quirky, enthusiastic, and full of surprises.

As you can tell, I sailed along with Hippolyte and relived some of my editing experiences. I enjoyed the book immensely, not least because of the illustrations – the sketches that appear amidst the type and the inserted pages from Hippolyte’s notes that include diagrams, maps, watercolours, sketches and photographs. Barbara Hodgson takes us on a magical journey in the discovery of the islands and Hippolyte’s writing of the tale.

 

Hippolyte’s Island won first prize for Prose Fiction, Alcuin Society Book Design Awards, and the Best Complete Book Design, Applied Arts Design and Advertising Annual.

Available from your local bookstore, or in paperback edition online: Hippolyte’s Island