Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: Time on the Ocean: A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town by Theo Dorgan

New Island, €15.99, Paperback

Published 05/02/2011 | 05:00

The appeal of the sea is as old as mankind. Our histories and our nations have been fashioned by those who crossed oceans in pursuit of their destiny.

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During long sea crossings ships become miniature societies, with all the strains and conflicts that that suggests. You may go to sea to escape the world, but inevitably you bring the world along with you.

Poet and sailor Theo Dorgan recounted a voyage from Antigua to Kinsale undertaken in 2001 in Sailing For Home, his first account of such a passage.

Dorgan, at the time a relative newcomer to sailing, recounted the minutia of his first long sea journey with literary insight. For Dorgan the vast ocean had become "a place I can call, in absolute simplicity, home."

Time on the Ocean is an inspired description of how Dorgan, in 2006, flew to southern Chile and joined the crew of Pelagic Australis, a 70-foot single mast yacht, for the voyage to Cape Town. Dorgan's great-grandmother died in childbirth off Cape Horn and was buried at sea there, so the adventure held a special significance for him.

Sailing more than 4,000 miles on a 70-foot boat with 10 strangers involves immense social difficulties. Dorgan, along with other members of the crew, paid for this trip as a sail-training exercise, and so the relationship of these paying crew with the sometimes short-fused skipper was fraught as a floating keg of nitro-glycerine. Dorgan doesn't take too well to being given orders, he tells us, but in this case he buttoned his lip.

The crossing was made in May when the ocean of the Southern Hemisphere is bitterly cold, treacherous and demanding. "I don't know how I'll stand up to really bad weather . . . I worry about letting people down . . ." Dorgan confides to his journal. Still, he conveys with poetic simplicity his joy of facing this emptiest of oceans, a delight that makes the problems of on-board politics seem trivial.

There is a brief stop-off in the Falklands, which are windswept and without appeal, before facing into the long grind, often only using the motor, to Tristan Da Cunha.

A lot goes on during such a sea voyage, but much of it is repetitive and, as every sailor knows, there are long periods of lying on your bunk, thinking of home. Dorgan's quality as a writer makes the most simple tasks shine and the reader is readily drawn into the lyrical lulls between the huge storms that were encountered.

Time on the Ocean is a brave and wonderful account of one man's voyage. Every sailor will want to read this book, for he or she will find the familiar in a new and vital way. Those readers who haven't yet discovered the power of the ocean will surely be a step nearer to doing so having read Theo Dorgan's illuminating account.

Paddy O'Brien is a travel writer and keen sailor

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