The essential nature of sailing stories tend toward adventure rather than intellectual matters. That’s not to say they aren’t interesting or worth reading, but aside from the complicated jargon, one might not think a guide to set you on your way would be useful. Enter Jonathan Raban, an insightful Seattle-based writer and sailor.
In 2001, International Marine publishers had the wisdom to hire Mr. Raban to write introductions to at least six classic sailing books in The Sailor’s Classics series, ranging from 40,000 miles in a Canoe to Gipsy Moth Circles the World. But to call his writing a mere introduction belittles the craftsmanship shown as he weaves literary review, history and seamanship into each piece of writing. Raban is no talking head, but an older sibling you look up to; one who helps you find the most fascinating, subtle, and unexpected moments in a book.
For example, in the introduction to the tale of Miles and Beryl Smeeton’s disastrous trip through the Southern Ocean, Once is Enough, Raban points out domestic matters aboard their ship. You might expect an introduction to cover the history of the boat’s route or dimensions, but when he describes, “the splendor of bacon-and-egg breakfasts, the helmsman’s rendition of the theme song from Carmen Jones, the disposal of cat litter,” and most charmingly to me, “Beryl’s ‘slightly musty’ smell as she awakens to receive a New Year’s kiss,” I feel as though I’m transported into the cabin. By calling out such sensory details, Raban makes me look forward to what I will find in the book and sets the scene so well, that I’m ready to soak in the characters and scene instead of figuring out where I am when I start turning the first pages.
Although Raban does reveal a lot about the plot in his introductions, he never stoops to printing “spoiler alert” in all caps. He doesn’t have to. When discussing Vito Dumas’ Alone Through the Roaring Forties, you don’t begrudge that Raban tells you that storms and drama are equally balanced with more common scenes such as the protagonist, “making fresh underwear out of a sack lined with newspaper, or communing with a fly,” because there’s a reason. He’s setting you up to understand the characters. In this case Raban wants you to see Dumas as an, “Everyman on a modest sea pilgrimage.” While the introduction states Dumas was far from your average Joe, you still get a keen sense of how Dumas wanted to be portray himself and the context in which he did so.
Raban writes in the introduction to Dumas’ story, “books often mirror what is best and most generous in the character of their writers.” If what Raban has written in these six introductions, holds true, sailing with him would be a thoughtful and interesting experience indeed.