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Passage to Juneau:
Sailing to Byzantium

by Charlie Onion

Passage to Juneau:
A Sea and Its Meanings

Jonathan Raban
435 pp.
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Jonathan Raban isn't your typical "spit and polish" boat owner, as he readily confesses in his new book about sailing through Alaska's Inside Passage. His boat--"a smart cruising ketch" build in Sweden in 1972--is covered in black dust, ropes lie uncoiled on the foredeck, and the cabin is "cluttered with books and pictures, box files, two manual typewriters, furry animals (my daughter's contribution), wine, photographic stuff, curling manuscripts, dead ballpoint pens, and all the rest of the impedimenta of a singularly untidy writer's life." In his six years of ownership, he proudly writes, he has turned the boat into "a comfortably down-at-heel floating cottage."

"Cottage" is the operative word here because for Raban, his boat is something of a quiet, restful retreat, a soothing respite in the aquatic countryside. Like any city-dwelling writer with the good fortune to have a place in the country, Raban readily trades land for sea when he's faced with a difficult writing task or "when my Furies dogged me to distraction." His boat, he writes, offers him "the equilibrium that I was prone to lose on the unstable land." Awash at home, at home on the sea, it would seem.

And what might look like chaos to a disdainful spit-and-polish boat owner actually reveals a writer's hidden sense of order, if one simply approaches it as if it were a floating library. Raban keeps

the art books at the front of the forecabin ("the driest place to store $75 and $125 books"); accounts of 18th century white explorers as well as anthropological studies are stored in the boat's saloon; and Raban has converted the aft cabin ("a useful wedge of space behind the cockpit and the engine") into a travel section.

Landlocked writers, plagued by the daily world's perpetual white noise of getting and spending, will inevitably envy Raban's comfy, floating cottage. But Raban is quick to point out the sea's dangers, particularly the thousand-mile stretch of water that runs from Puget Sound to the Alaskan Panhandle.


Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,500 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn't meant to travel at sixteen knots; it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.


A few passages like that and you'll find your wanderlust distinctly dampened, eh?

Raban readily admits that he is afraid of the sea himself.


Rationalism deserts me at sea. I've seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I'm not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I'm at sea.


So why, for God's sake, would he leave his wife and four-year-old daughter behind to sail a body of water that had already killed seventy people in six years? Not to fish, of course, though the Inside Passage is a busy commercial fishing route. Not merely to test his mettle either, as if the outing were merely an Iron John of the Sea bestseller in the making. White-knuckled aquatic adventures aren't exactly Raban's cup of tea, though he does have his fair share on the journey.

Instead, his motivation to light out for the watery territories is infinitely more complicated:


I hoped to lay some ghosts to rest and come to terms, somehow, with the peculiar attraction that draws people to put themselves afloat on the deep, dark, indifferent, cold, and frightening sea. "Meditation and water are wedded for ever," wrote Melville. So, for the term of a fishing season, I meant to meditate on the sea, at sea.


As such, Raban's book is a stunningly entertaining hybrid, part travel account and part deconstruction of the sea's varied meanings, as its subtitle suggests (you can't say the guy didn't warn you). Each seafarer, Raban discovers, is so dramatically varied in his take on the sea that we should really say that they are each of them traveling on their own private ocean. For Captain George Vancouver, the short, middle-class despot who sailed with an unhappy crew through the Passage in 1792 and named everything he could see after English noblemen, the land along the Passage was remarkably similar to England's orderly countryside. Captain Van's teenaged patrician officers, on the other hand, believed they were sailing through stellar examples of Edmund Burke's wild, dangerous Sublime (which was then becoming a popular idea among youthful Romantics).

And, in one of his most powerful insights, Raban suggests that the Pacific Northwest Indians actually saw a sea that was diametrically opposed the European's. For the Indian, the sea provided them with a neighborhood, around which they "loitered, scuffed their heels, and traded small talk." The mountains, on the hand, which the Europeans found so comforting, represented for the Indians


the formless and primordial flux, "that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse," as W.H. Auden wrote of the ocean. They were utterly inhospitable to mankind. The terrible thunder-eagle, chaos incarnate, had his eyrie there. The mountain peaks, in all their meaningless variety, were unnamable. But the Tlingits had a thousand names for the sea.


For his part, Raban spends his time worrying about the chaos that lies under the boat, for obvious practical reasons. As he sails quietly out of Seattle's Ship Canal and into deeper waters, he studies the wealthy suburban neighborhoods built right to the water's edge:


These impeccable lives were being conducted right on the lip of the abyss. Past the lawn-statue of Cupid there yawned a world of frigid darkness, inhabited by slimy creatures with tentacles and fleshy suckers, of the kind that surface in exceptionally bad dreams. Did people know? Or was this a secret that realtors assiduously kept from their clients, like news of a projected neighborhood methadone clinic?


Ah, the Abyss....which brings up what is possibly the book's most powerful aspect: Passage to Juneau is at least partly a rather mournful self-examination--Raban, it would seem, is sailing among ghosts and feeling the weight of his own mortality. Of course, Captain Van is an ever-hovering ghost, and, in a telling parallel, Raban also meets his own father's ghost on the water, when he returns to the boat after a nine-week break to care for his dying father in England. In some strange way, Captain Van (a father to his unhappy, rebellious crew) is like Raban's own father--with one significant difference. Unlike Captain Van, Raban's father learned to adapt and change, shifting from staunch conservatism to the Labor Party in the 1960s, and thereby saving himself from the premature obsolescence into which youth perennially shoves the waning generation. (Captain Van, for his part, ended up largely forgotten and embittered in London.)

Raban's abiding concern, of course, is trying to gauge his own slide into obsolescence--and in a sly, cunning way, that yawning abyss under his feet is itself a projection of his innermost fears of his own dissolution into entropic emptiness. (So much for Sublime Beauty, eh?)


Through the course of the book, Raban's writing is, triumphantly, both profound and entertaining. These are two qualities to be rewarded when achieved singly; writers should be heaped with awards when they deliver them simultaneously. Partly, Raban's success lies in his descriptive skills, of course. He has a talent for conveying strange, distant, unseen but powerful images with what feels, at least, like easy mastery. Those of us who find the well-intended PBS footage of breaching whales somewhat less than earthshaking, for instance, should find Raban's description of a killer whale breaching seventy-five yards from his boat particularly fresh:


The sea was smooth as a pool of molasses. Twists of smoke rose from its surface in the chilly early-morning air. My propeller left a thick braid of wake that trailed from the stern for a quarter-mile, where it faded into mist. I had just put two eggs on to boil downstairs when the whale rocketed out of the water on the port beam--ten tons of patterned black and white, its dimpled skin like heavyweight PVC--and crashed back, raising a shock wave that rolled the boat half over.

The event had the sudden violence of a car bomb going off in a quiet city street. It changed the world. Within moments, there seemed to have been an abrupt ten-degree drop in temperature. The adrenaline of the explosion was fizzling in my nervous system; and when I tried to write, the ballpoint slewed out of control on the slick surface of the page. Minutes later, when the water had glazed over the turmoil, the ensuing calm was strangely calmer, the windless quiet more intense, the air charged and sulphurous with the memory of the whale's passage.

It's one thing to see an orca breach from a crowded, camera-ready excursion boat; quite another out of nowhere, when you're alone.


And when he describes the sighting of what he believes is another boat on rough waters, his rhythm mimics beautifully the waves rising and falling in a peek-a-boo game of shimmering, deadly illusion:


It greatly heartened me to see, about two miles ahead, a small open fishing boat with two men aboard. Mostly they were lost in the breakers, but every so often they were lifted above the level of the horizon. Their black silhouette, rising and falling, became my friend. We were in this together--and if they could take it aboard that walnut shell, then I, on a boat designed for open-ocean sailing, should be thoroughly enjoying myself. I aimed to pass them by close enough to wave. They couldn't know how glad I was to share the water with them, but I wanted to signal my gratitude to them for being there.

A mile on, I was in a hugely improved mood. The wind in the strays and shrouds had lost its power to hex. The boat was sluicing through the sea at seven knots under its meager triangle of sail. The sun, breaking through the clouds, shone through the wave-crests at my back, turning them a luminous Pernod-green in the second before their powdery explosion into white. With my safety-harness clipped tight to its U-bolt on the cockpit floor, legs braced, spinning the wheel to keep time with the waves, I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. I like it here.

Just as I lifted my hand to salute the fishermen, the sea raised them high into the sunlight on the gathering crest of a big wave. The boat was not a boat but the sawn-off bole of an enormous old-growth Douglas fir. Two man-sized amputated stumps projected from the trunk. Waterlogged, blackened, with a trailing skirt of roots, this serious hazard to navigation could have sunk a tugboat. As I veered away, I saw it go right underwater in a wave-trough and stay submerged for many seconds before it again broke the surface, like a turtle coming up for air.

You'd never know what hit you.

When I looked back, five minutes later, there were the fishermen, uncannily lifelike, one at each end of the boat, enjoying their morning at sea.


This is wonderful writing, indeed.

But it's Raban's special knack for finding associative links to draw together the seemingly disparate elements of his story that makes his book so strong. When he deals with Captain Van, he's often merely challenging; with his father's death, Raban's meditations become intense, electrically charged epiphanies that resonate brilliantly through the book's seemingly varied themes.

To praise Raban as one of the greatest living travel writers is to sell him short. He is, in fact, one of our great writers, no matter the genre. And Passage to Juneau is a worthy addition to his body of work.


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