Sunday 25 February 2018

One woman's voyage of true self-discovery

Casting Off Emma Bamford Bloomsbury; tpbk, €11.99, 352 pages

Emma Bamford
Emma Bamford

Alexandra Heminsley

Casting Off begins with a conundrum now so familiar in publishing that it could almost be its own genre: a woman finds herself in her mid-thirties with plenty of dreams left unlived but a social circle full of friends settling down with husbands and babies. How does living the dream seem so easy for others, yet so elusive to our protagonist? Action must be taken, be it yoga, running, or in this case sailing (the subtitle of the book is How a City Girl Found Happiness on the High Seas).

Eat Pray Love set the standard high for these female voyages of self-discovery, despite Elizabeth Gilbert beginning the story married (albeit miserably). Bamford takes up the baton with this engaging tale of life as a single girl on the high seas.

Formerly a Fleet Street newsroom journalist, she tired of the specific type of adrenaline a fast-breaking news story can create, resigning to chase the buzz only life away from a desk can make. She joins a stranger on his yacht, sailing to Borneo.

An experienced sailor prior to departure, she soon realises that in the long-term, the greatest dangers at sea aren't always pirates, but can in fact be creepy, controlling middle-aged men who become resentful, angry and mercenary if you don't fall in love with them.

This first third of Bamford's memoir is almost unreadable, so excruciating is her first skipper. Making unprompted passes at her from the moment she's on board, telling her she simply needs "more time" to fall in love with him and ultimately admitting that – just like the bad dates she ran away from in Clapham – he spends half the night online looking for a girlfriend up to his exacting standards – he is a nightmare.

It is to her credit that she is as kind about him as she is, and that she got off his boat as fast as she did.

The rest of the memoir picks up significantly after this move, with her joining the relaxed, respectful crew of a catamaran for months of sailing to Thailand, India and beyond. She goes on to crew for superyacht owners.

She has a terrifying near-miss with pirates. She fends off romantic propositions from a Moldovan pig farmer and a Sri Lankan village chief. But she does find happiness in the most unlikely places, learning to let go and just leave things to chance.

The confidence she gains seems to set her up for infinite adventures, and an altogether more enticing romantic set-up.

It is curious how her tone is so rarely introspective, given the hours she was clearly left alone with her thoughts. I was left filled with questions, from how much she missed her rarely mentioned family to how conversation with so few people feels after life in a busy newspaper office.

This breezy tone, which mercifully doesn't lapse into hippyish insight, does seem the result of a journalist's refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Where there is much fun to be had is in her detail on life at sea. There's a keen sense of the natural beauty she has managed to see, as well as a nerdishly thorough run-through of the practicalities of sailing.

While her prose is not especially adventurous – there's barely a sunset mentioned, let alone dwelled on – it is undeniable that Bamford has become the explorer she dreamed of being.

Especially as the ending suggests she has yet to commit to a return home.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

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