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
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?)
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,
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.