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Brief reviews - NonFiction & Adventure
by Kevin Okeeffe

In Godforsaken Sea (Knopf Canada, 315 pages, $33.95 cloth), Toronto author Derek Lundy treats us to a riveting account of the 1996-97 Vendée Globe round-the-world single-handed yacht race-a race that not only represents the pinnacle of long-distance sailing achievement, but stands as an indisputable testament to the perseverance of the human spirit, and the determination to prevail against seemingly impossible odds.

Less a race, more a soul-searching venture, the Vendée Globe ranks as an unrivalled, gruelling challenge of survival. This 12,000-mile odyssey begins and ends in Les Sables d'Olonne, Brittany on the western coast of France, and includes a circumnavigation of the South Pole. It pits sailors, not merely against one another, but against one of the remotest, most inhospitable regions of the earth: the Southern Ocean.

This immense intersection of the southerly extent of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans officially commences at forty degrees south latitude and boasts some of the most extreme weather to be found anywhere on the planet. Unimpeded by any natural land barriers, wind and sea sweep across this vast expanse, building to incredible proportions, with six-storey waves and winds that frequently exceed hurricane force. So far removed from land is any visitor to this region that not even long-range aircraft can successfully effect a rescue. As the author notes, "Only a few astronauts have ever been further from land than a person on a vessel at that position".

The participants (or "players", for the author lists them as Dramatis Personae in the book's frontispiece) in this penultimate elemental drama are brought to life by way of interviews done by the author prior and subsequent to the race, as well as by the inclusion of brief biographies that provide the reader with valuable insights into the personalities, their individual racing histories, and their motives for engaging in this spectacular quest. Worthy of note: of the sixteen contestants who set out from Les Sables d'Olonne, only six officially completed the journey; six others either withdrew or were disqualified for seeking assistance (race rules: no stops, no help); three were rescued from certain death; and one (Canadian Gerry Roufs) simply disappeared without a trace, off the coast of Antarctica.

Drawing generously on his own personal experience and his considerable skill as a writer, Lundy gives the reader a comprehensive catalogue of background information-from meteorological analysis to explication of the physics involved in the interplay between wind, sail, ship, and sea. Yet one never feels swamped: whether discussing ocean currents or ship design, Lundy manages to present details in a straightforward, concise fashion. While attending dutifully (like any good sailor) to the smaller facts, where Lundy really excels is in his erudite rendering of an historical context for this archetypal expedition to, quite literally, "the ends of the earth": the book is judiciously augmented by quotes and references to the Vendée's predecessors, mariners of antiquity and imagination-from Bligh to Moitessier, from Homer to Joyce.

While we follow with fascination the progress and difficulties encountered by the Vendée competitors in their myth-like pursuit of wind and waves, the author skillfully masters the ebb and flow of tension by way of subtle technical observations, meditative reflections, and historical references.

A factual narrative possessing the addictive seduction of a great mystery thriller, Godforsaken Sea is worthy of a place beside other classic tales of the sea, and proves a great read for well-seasoned mariners and landlubbers alike. 

Kevin O'Keeffe


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