Funny Water

Frank Kermode

  • Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 435 pp, £16.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 330 34628 8

Jonathan Raban is afraid of the sea, saying it is not his element, which is probably why he spends so much time on it. He does not claim to be a world-class sailor, though he is obviously a competent one. One good reason for sailing is that, being a writer, he likes to write about having sailed. Sailing is guaranteed to provide alarms and achievements for his pen to celebrate.

In this book he regretfully parts from his wife and daughter in Seattle, makes his solitary way up the Inner Passage to Juneau in Alaska. The Inner Sea is ‘an extraordinarily complicated sea route ... In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long’, sometimes as narrow as a modest river, sometimes open ocean. Bits of it sound like hell for a small craft; Raban both fears and relishes ‘the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell ... the rip, the eddy, the race’. Controlled insecurity provides the thrill: ‘The three-step waltzing motion of the boat, the throbbing strings-and-percussion sound of wind and water on the move, came back to me as an old, deep pleasure. But a pleasure tinged, as always, with an edge of incipient panic.’

One of Raban’s epigraphs comes from Conrad’s The Shadow Line: ‘ “That’s a funny piece of water,” said Captain Hamilton.’ He has many other matters to occupy him, sailing a 37-foot boat alone, but he still has an eye for a funny piece of water. Speaking as one who has occasionally seen some funny water, I can say that I have rarely if ever seen its funniness so accurately described as it is here – not by Conrad, not by anybody in Raban’s own Oxford Book of the Sea. For spectacular accounts of extreme conditions (such that Raban’s boat could not possibly have survived to let him tell the tale) I might choose Richard Hughes on hurricanes, but for all less overwhelming though still astonishing manifestations of troubled water Raban must surely be the man.

Auden wrote about ‘the pluck and knock of the tide’, which is a good but tersely elementary way of talking about water in action. Raban, voyaging on this strange sea, encounters, on the one hand, ocean conditions, the vast Pacific swell underlying whatever may be the disturbances brought by local weather or current, and on the other, the extreme turbulence of water in narrow gorges, of deadly whirlpools in straits. There are huge submerged logs that would tear the boat asunder, and whales suddenly surfacing, with shock waves that could nonchalantly capsize a craft like Raban’s, far frailer than the Pequod. This water, beautiful and full of menace, is here rendered in exact prose.

To show that the writer knows more about these matters than ignorant observation of surfaces could supply, one might consider this elegant disquisition on waves:

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