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:

In the making of waves, first the air ‘deforms’ the water, which then begins to ‘perturb’ the flow of air across it; and it is out of this delicate intercourse between the elements that the wave is born. As the ripple turns into a wavelet, its slight convexity gives the wind something to shove against, and soon the wavelet develops a leeward face and a windward back, with a growing differential between the weak air pressure in front and the strong air pressure behind. The unstable air, given these sudden inequalities of pressure, helps the wave (as it now is) to climb: the water’s line of least resistance is to go upward as the energy in the wind is transferred to the sea ... Seen from the cliffs, the sea might have looked as evenly arranged as the strings on a harp – the lines of white-caps running parallel at intervals of sixty feet or so. Seen from the wheel of a small boat, it presented quite a different aspect. Each wave in the train carried a multitude of smaller deformities – nascent waves bulging, heaping, trying to break as they rode the back of senior waves in the system. Many-angled, climbing every which way, they turned each square yard of water into an unruly brew of shifting planes and collapsing hillocks. Wherever the wind found an exposed surface, it raised tiny wrinkles of waves awaiting birth.

This is unaffected, accurate poetry. Sometimes the style is more conceited but still elegant: ‘The boat sauntered ... through ... a scene of spent turmoil, like the tumbled sheets of an empty bed, with an appropriately salty, post-coital smell of bladder-wrack drying on the rocks.’

There is a minimum of jargon. Raban rarely uses landlubber-baffling language, though some may find they have to guess or look up what is meant by ‘scandalising’ a sail, or by terms like ‘the cabin sole’ and ‘advection’. Such is the language of sailors, even sailors with other cultural attainments firmly associated with dry land, like a love for Mozart as played by Gervase de Peyer, a taste for painting and for wine, an ability to do the Times crossword in 30 minutes. An unusually large library accompanies him to sea. Being in no particular hurry to commit himself to the deep, he leads the reader seawards with talk of tackle and the chat of Seattle fishermen lounging at noon. Then he writes about his books. All in good time he ventures onto the ‘magnificently eventful’ sea.

This is a long book, in some respects rather superbly self-indulgent. It has a curious structure: Raban’s voyage has a sort of ghostly double, the voyage of Discovery, commanded by Captain Vancouver, which sailed from Falmouth in April 1791. Discovery proceeded via Cape Town, Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii, to the north-west coast of America, where Vancouver was to chart the coast and the Inside Passage, for the most part unnecessarily, for the job had in large part already been done, though Vancouver did have the pleasant job of assigning good British Imperial names to the geographical features. In due course he was to achieve that nominal immortality himself, and his lieutenant is remembered in Puget Sound. Raban has researched this expedition and counterpoints it with his own. The result is a vivid imagining of life in a man-of-war at the period: always uncomfortable and nearly always boring, with tension constantly increasing between the rather low-bred, ugly, choleric captain and his patrician midshipmen, for whom the cruise seems to have been a sort of substitute for the old Grand Tour.

Vancouver, lacking aristocratic ease and natural authority, felt obliged to assert himself in other ways, as he did when, disastrously, he had one of his midshipmen, a cheeky young nobleman, flogged. He was to suffer for this mistake much later. His was an unhappy ship, made so by personal incompatibilities compounded by cultural differences. The young men, influenced by Burke’s fashionable treatise on the Sublime, were in search of rugged scenery and ‘delightful horror’: Vancouver was interested in filling his pockets (not unusual in the Navy of the time and indeed later) and, more virtuously, in the search for the secret of longitude.

He favoured the method of lunar distance, and since it involved difficult observations and complicated mathematics this discipline was not to the taste of his young officers. The method will be familiar, at least in principle, to readers of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, in which John Harrison the clockmaker is the hero of the urgent but endlessly protracted quest for a method of accurately determining longitude (essential to expanding maritime power). Sobel casts the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, firm believer in the lunar method, as Harrison’s rather treacherous opponent. Vancouver, however, was on Maskelyne’s side, and so, on the whole, is Raban, who doesn’t think much of Harrison’s chronometers; apparently they worked for only a few weeks before getting out of sync with Greenwich. None of this now matters; chronometers and sextants are no longer really necessary, and even Raban’s little boat carries an electronic device, the Global Positioning System, that instantly gives mariners their position within yards, anywhere on the earth’s surface.

Strongly as he approves of this instrument, there is more than a touch of primitivism in Raban’s attitude to other seafaring aids. He thinks the invention of the compass was a disaster, causing ‘a fundamental rift in the relationship between man and sea’. Since it came into use, perhaps a thousand years ago, it has become the main object of the steersman’s gaze, with the result that he no longer has to study the waves and feel the sea. And the ocean, once a place, with all sorts of things going on in it, is now reduced to a mere space. Since his job is merely to keep steady on a course, the helmsman can be replaced for long stretches by an autopilot, which may be why Raban had time to look so carefully at the waves.

The small ports at which he put in on his voyage are mostly sad dumps, or Raban makes them sound as if they are. The indigenous ‘Indians’ do interest him, not least because of their easy and intimate relationship, as it were pre-compass, with the sea. The canoe is not merely a means of transport but a dominant symbol, so that the tribe itself is mythologically thought of as a sort of canoe. Their sea-stories reflect their basic social rules, and their art, on which this book is always interesting, is canoe-based, too. But their lives have been damaged beyond repair by white intruders, to the degree that they have adopted soft white versions of their culture. According to Raban they were never soft primitivists, believing that in the past, before the whites arrived, they had lived in conditions of paradisial natural abundance: on the contrary, they have always treated nature as unremittingly hostile. Versions of the past that seem to suggest friendly intimacy with it are sentimental white inventions they have unfortunately taken over. Watching a ‘spirit dance’, Raban finds that the whole show is a mixture of ‘animist tribal custom, Shakerism and Pentecostalism, all refurbished for service in the late 20th century by white American anthros’. (He is sceptical about anthropologists.) The process of corruption is continued by the big cruise ships, and the swarms of gaping tourists, buying toy totem-poles in the sad ports. Meanwhile the loggers, apparendy uncontrolled by distant Ottawa, ravage the first-growth forests. There is a lot of disgust and contempt in this book.

As one might gather from these meditations on compasses and Indian culture, Raban’s book contains a great many digressions. The main structure, within the outer autobiographical frame, consists of the two parallel voyages, his and the Discovery’s, but there are many opportunities to talk about other matters, so we have leisurely passages on Burke, Wordsworth, Turner and Shelley, on a television painting programme, on the maze at Hampton Court. One excursus leads to another, as when the recovery of a drowned woman brings to mind another woman found drowned years ago in the Thames near Chiswick, and a speculation as to what Shelley’s body must have looked like when washed ashore at Viareggio.

Not least because of these often diverting digressions, the book, like the voyage it describes, is longer than it might have been. Raban the sailor is teased for taking so long to make his passage to Juneau. It is tempting but it would be unfair to redirect the criticism to Raban’s account of his trip. In fact the voyage was interrupted and delayed by non-nautical considerations; disturbances occurred in the life of the author. He had to return home; his father was dying, and he remained in England until the old man died. The funeral is described in detail. It is an occasion for an appropriate piece of writing, like everything else.

Whenever he could, Raban, on his boat or in port, tried to reach his adored small daughter by telephone. Occasionally he also spoke to his busy wife. As his journey ended she joined him in Juneau as planned, but told him she had discovered during his absence at sea that she wanted to leave him. By hindsight one sees that this catastrophe has, in a literary sense, been prepared for, and the terminal conversation is a convincing stretch of dialogue.

The sailor’s solo return trip from Juneau is disposed of in a page or two, and the last words, apt and literary as always, show the writer finding his shore legs but now facing ‘the rougher sea’. Even this allusion to Cowper’s ‘The Castaway’ is prepared for by an earlier digression about the poet and his poem, which is, of course, a great one, and appropriately both nautical and tragic. So the story of the sailor’s personal loss is finally wrapped round the story of his achievements as lone voyager, all the fine perceptions, the history, the learned digressions. The sailing stops, but not the writing, which goes on, skilful and resourceful as ever, to the end.