Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

Book Review

A Voyage For Madmen
by Peter Nichols

On a still day, if one leans over the gunwale, one will see the world as a distorted image. This book is the story of how the sea distorts men's worlds.

A Voyage For Madmen covers the story of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe race in which nine men, inspired by Sir Francis Chichester's world circling endeavour in Gipsy Moth IV, raced each other to be the first and the fastest to circumnavigate the globe none-stop. It is a dark and gripping tale, and although entirely factual in content, reads with the fluid ease of the very highest quality of fiction writing. Indeed, the actions and behaviour of these men, and certainly some of the craft in which they attempted the circumnavigationm make one wish this were fiction.

click to enlargeThe first contact we have with the story is a list of characters giving the barest details on boats and men. This is immediately followed by a well-written introduction which sets the story in context both with the decade in which it took place, but also against the world in which we now live.

This past, the book opens studiously, briefly covering topics as diverse as psychology, geography, history and politics. This is not the wade it may sound, it discreetly provides the reader with all the background knowledge necessary to experience this book to it's fullest extent. From here, the book takes on the form that will persist to the end: within the book are ten stories - the story of each competitor, and the story of the competition itself (which attained it's own character and momentum as time progressed).

And what a study! The characters are drawn with delicate precision; almost within two paragraphs we feel we know these men, and we are riding piggy-back experiencing their successes and frustrations and learning about them as they learn about themselves. Nichols does not make the error of labouring any point, relying on the reader's intelligence to pick out the delicate shades of his narrative. We see the Gallic bullishness of Moitessiere, and the Anglian arrogance of Knox-Johnston, both men in love with the sea, contrasted effectively against the brutality of Blyth, or Tetley's quiet Navy efficiency, all delicately played out in captivating prose.

Having watched these men decide to enter the race and prepare their craft for the sea we enter, naturally, by far the most interesting passages of the book. For those who enjoy a Gipsy Moth Circles The World-esque nautical romp, there is certainly a great deal to take from this book, but the more interesting story lies in watching these men learn about themselves: Carozzo, the Italian entrant never leaves port; Moitessiere by contrast, never comes back, having found in the sea his desired element. Where Knox-Johnston aquires strength from his endeavour in his equally strong boat, we see Crowhurst in gradual decline.

The book builds in tempo as the racers drop out of the running one by one, until just four are left, and as the last of the racers clear Cape Horn the book, like a Cape Horn sea, delivers a number of hard shocks that are hard to recover from. I will not spoil the book for you by revealing these, but as with great fiction, the ending is not as one could possibly have imagined.

This is a dark and brooding book about the fallibility of humanity, it's frailty against the elements, and against itself. When I first opened the book I thought that the title was designed for headline grabbing, but as the author frequently asserts, normal people do not do this sort of thing, these truly were madmen! That Nichols has selected a story that is in itself difficult to put down is not to play down the mastery with which he manipulates and presents the story. On closing the cover on the final page, one knows that one has experienced a masterpiece of not only nautical literature. There is something here for anyone with an inquiring mind, if they have an interest in the sea or not.

A must-read, I cannot recommend it highly enough.