Alone across the Atlantic
in a wooden boat
As with "A Voyage for Madmen", Sea Change is a book superficially of the sea, but with a deeper story. Sea Change simultaneously describes the voyage of the 27 foot sailing yacht Toad, built in 1939 as something of a weekend cruiser, from England to America, and the "voyage" of Nichols' marriage, and the role that Toad played in these seven years.
As we open the first page of the book, we meet Nichols shortly after the break-up of his marriage, aboard Toad, waiting for the weather to commence his journey to America in the hope of finding better luck in selling Toad, the only large possession the Nichols' shared. The langorous fretfulness of these last days ashore comes through the writing clearly: eager to be off, yet also not wanting to leave friends and the past behind. While waiting for a break in the weather, we are given a brief history of the marriage, and the nomadic boat-occupying existence which characterised it. Within two days and eighteen pages however, we are off, from Falmouth to Fayal in the Azores.
In this first passage, Nichols brings across the boredom and routine of singlehanding in fair weather. Once clear of land we are treated to a knowledgeable, if brief discussion of COLREGS rule 5 ("...every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout..." and it's application to singlehanded yachtsmen. Surrounding this are notes on navigation, a theme of interest which seems to run through both of the Peter Nichols novels I have read.
It is on crossing the continental shelf that the pace and direction of the novel really take off. At this point Nichols discovers the diaries of his wife, 'J.'. The work colleague who lent me this book sparked an interesting debate as to whether this was a literary device to introduce a "flashback" style without excessive literary inertia and the suggestion holds some water. Whether it is or not, it is a pleasingly unobtrusive way of revisiting the past, without breaking the rhythm of Toad's "present day" voyage.
Anecdotes such as avoiding corrupt customs officials in the Mediterranean and discussions such as that on the rights and wrongs of safety harnesses all pull together to bring Nichols into Horta. In typical Nichols fashion as we approach Horta we are treated to a general history and overview which narrows down to Nichols' experience of this land, both with J. and now. This seems to have been a happy time, with friends around them, and even though the present day Nichols complains of an intense loneliness which he had not felt in the open ocean, Fayal does not seem to treat him badly, even furnishing him with a piece of scrimshaw (whale tooth) engraved with the image of the Toad. As the chapter closes, we see Nichols invite three acquaintances to his boat, and all four climb into his dinghy which promptly sinks. Nichols writes: "I think it's time to head for Maine."
Once out of port the nature of the book changes. What had been a cruisy, reminiscent writing, takes on a new urgency as water is discovered leaking in at the bow. The cause, traced to a delaminating hull covering induced by failing glue unable to cope with the constant flexing of a traditional carvel planked hull, is a healthy reminder that glass and goop are not the miracle materials we are sometimes tempted to think them. As Toad begins the inexorable process of foundering, Nichols matches the present to the past, and begins to describe the slow crumbling of his marriage, although the good times are not neglected.
During a period of light airs, Nichols' mood and attention drifts around and we are treated to reminiscences of early years in England - cockney dockers and a kindly, if eccentric, schoolmaster with an obsession with the working boats of the sea. The wind picks up and the leaks worsen, and we return to the subject of J.
It is not long from this point, via a few historic diversions, until Nichols is forced to abandon Toad with the few posessions he manages to transfer to an American container ship. There follows a sort of epilogue as the slick, modern ship closes with the coast and docks at a container port, it's crew air conditioned, and well fed, in contrast with Toad's primitive living conditions.
This is a hard book to bring across, it is a subtle and complex work, deeply moving and meaningful. It is not necesairily an easy book to read, but it does engage the reader well and provide enjoyment in equal measure to sorrow. The New York Times summed up the mood of the book well writing: "He never seeks your sympathy. He just breaks your heart". Quite.