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The Spirit of Sailing

How to Sail a Boat by Matt Vance (Awa Press, $26)
Reviewed by Bill Nelson

G13Sailcoveriii_Mar6 The latest in Awa Press’ “Ginger How-to Series”, How to Sail a Boat is a memoirish journey through the culture and sub-cultures of sailing: everything from what it feels like to race down stormy ocean swells to the delight of a sedate afternoon jaunt with friends.

There is nothing how-to about this book, however, and you won’t find knot-tying guides nor diagrams of little triangular boats going in all directions. This is a why-we-do-it book or a stir-your-adventurous-spirit book.

As a lapsed sailor, I probably fall into one of Vance’s lesser categories of sailor who talk more than they do, or leaf dreamily through boats-for-sale sections. I won’t apologise for that except to say, after reading How to Sail I suddenly feel the urge to get myself a racing dinghy again or get on to that childhood dream of cruising across the Pacific. A dream I thought I had left behind with childhood.

Vance achieves this by appealing to the romantic spirit of sailing. In the opening chapter he describes the terrifying yet liberating sight of land slipping below the horizon for the first time, and I want to feel that too. In the essay on solo ocean sailors, I am drawn to the stories of those who decide they don’t like people anymore and go completely off the grid and, by comparison, those who can’t handle the seclusion and literally lose their minds to the ocean.

Some of the chapters are fascinating, evocative and full of action, like those on racing, storms and things lost overboard then miraculously recovered. Other sections on the hardy characters behind the helm – mystic sea-gazers and wise old salts – start to drift into archetype a little too much for my liking and my attention drifted as a result.

Overall, How to Sail a Boat is a refreshingly evocative break from those usually overly technical tomes on sailing. There’s no dry instruction here, just an obsessive reverence for the boats, the sea and the stoic sailors that dwell there. This book makes a fine addition to Awa’s already impressive series.