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Book Review: Near Death On The High Seas – True Stories Of Disaster And Survival Edited by Cecil Kuhne

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“…that sense of the full awfulness of the sea,” a line taken from Melville’s Moby Dick, is on full display in this anthology from Vintage Books. Contained within is a group of excerpts from sailing-disaster stories throughout the years, presenting a greatest hits collection of dangerous ocean tales complied by Cecil Kuhne, former whitewater rafting guide and author of nine books.

Near Death on the High Seas opens with Steven Callahan’s Adrift, a record of his being lost at sea for 76 days. It boggles the mind of a landlubber like myself on how to handle an ordeal like that. I can’t even fathom going to sleep alone on a boat as it continues sailing let alone waking up as Callahan did to “a deafening explosion” that leads to his being “thrown into the path of a rampaging river.”

Not that having someone by your side is a guarantee of safety. In Gordon Chaplin’s Dark Wind he and his girlfriend Susan sailed to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Their journey was romantic in the beginning as they found paradise together. Unfortunately, they decided to stay in their boat rather than go ashore as a typhoon hit. They both ended up floating in the ocean, holding onto each other as large waves crashed down on them. One minute they seemed fine. Then, they were underwater and Susan drifted away into the darkness. Chaplin describes his helplessness to do anything about it: “…the next wave curled around me, wrapped me up, and did what they wanted with me.” It’s not clear what happened and likely he wasn’t fully aware himself even though his survivor’s guilt caused him to replay the events repeatedly.

The most famous sailing story in the collection is Kon-Tiki. Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl who, along with a small crew, attempted to take a raft from South America to Polynesia in an effort to explain archaeological evidence that linked the two locations. A documentary of their trip won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1951.

Some sailors created their own adventures like Sir Francis Chichester who in 1966 at the age of 65 tried to be the first man to circumnavigate the globe west to east in Gipsy Moth Circles The World. Others took part in organized races, like Pete Goss who in 1996 was competing in a nonstop, single-handed round the world race when he risked his life and headed into a hurricane to rescue fellow competitor Raphael Dinelli, which he details in Close to the Wind.

Most of the excerpts read more like newspaper accounts as the writing is very matter of fact and economical. That’s not to say the stories aren’t compelling because they are, but there’s almost no insight into these men’s minds for those of us who don’t understand what drives them. For non-nautical types the boating jargon might be a little tough to understand but it gives an authenticity to the writers’ voices.  A glossary would have been ideal, but they are easy to look up. While not as many, there are women who participate in sailing; however, none are heard from in this book for some reason.

The most amazing part of the book is that none of the writers exhibit bitterness towards God or fate or nature at what has befallen. They readily accept the circumstances as par for the course. Steven Callahan might best explain their logical acceptance in his perfect description of the ocean: “…she is merely there, immense, powerful, and indifferent.”

…High Seas offers a great series of adventures for readers who sail and those who sit in the comfort of their armchair.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • This article has been selected for syndication to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Dan Miller

    If you want to read some really good sea stories, try Tristan Jones, a self educated single-handed cruiser who spent most of his life on small boats and wrote many books — each one more sophisticated than the one before it. Or Ernest Gann, who wrote from his personal experience on both flying (Fate is the Hunter) and sailing (Song of the Sirens). Fate is the Hunter was made into an atrocious motion picture of the same name but with little if any other resemblance to the book. Song of the Sirens was, I hope, spared that horrid fate.

    Having spent seven years cruising the Caribbean with my wife on our small boat, and having had only a very few dicey moments, I enjoy to a rather limited extent reading about the scary times had by others; the various sailing magazines are full of that sort of stuff. For the most part, if you use common sense and don’t do stupid things, it’s all quite wonderful and enjoyable. The sense of independence is truly difficult if not impossible to find in any other context.


  • Sailing

    I’m a small boat voyager myself, I’ve nearly lost my life at sea twice and yet I keep going back. I loved reading the stories in this book as for me they all have the same thing in common and it’s mentioned at the end of this review. It’s “that none of the writers exhibit bitterness towards God or fate or nature at what has befallen. They readily accept the circumstances as par for the course”. I feel exactly the same way, for what is the point of feeling otherwise. For most of the people in these stories going to sea was voluntary and acceptance of the risks obligatory. If one spends long enough at sea then bad experiences will be inevitable. I’ve always believed that those that voyage the oceans must be prepared to face hell to experience heaven. With God’s grace you get to share the experience with others. The people featured in this book have achieved that.

  • thanks for commenting, Sailing