The Water in Between: A Journey at Sea by Kevin Patterson ~ 1999. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-31054-1. 289 pages.
My rating: 9.5/10
Breaking the too-long posting silence because this book was too good not to mention. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and its references to Chatwin and Theroux (that would be Bruce and Paul, respectively) have me mulling over just which boxes those authors’ works are tucked away in – I cleared a whole bank of bookshelves to facilitate repainting some time ago, and am starting to get jittery at my lack of easy access to a favourite segment of our personal non-fiction/travel library. (The bookshelves still need their paint, too. Maybe this will trigger a start to that project?)
It seemed at first like just another one of those “Hey, my life was so messed up that I decided to go off and so something completely out of character, and in the meantime I discovered the secret of the universe, and golly, it’s great I kept notes because here I am with this book deal…” things. But it turned quickly into something rather unexpected, a non-adventurous adventure story. And the Great Big Reason for Being – well, that didn’t materialize, though Patterson spent a lot of time (all those becalmed days in the Horse Latitudes) trying to wrap his head around his personal issues, with some success.
So – a young, complete non-sailor, ex-army doctor, desperately unlucky in love and feeling that life is flat, stale and unprofitable, buys a small sailboat on Vancouver Island and sets off across the Pacific heading for Tahiti, accompanied by an experienced sailor, another emotionally desolate man, whose marriage has recently imploded and whose personal life is understandably in tatters. The two of them have never met before, and an instant friendship does not spring to life, nor do they hate each other by the time they reach Hawaii. They just kind of rub along in a very Canadian way, being tactful and not over-sharing, but listening when the other guy has a moment of cathartic release, and (apparently) never, ever giving relationship advice.
Backtracking to the non-adventurous adventure story bit. What I liked – no – LOVED – about Patterson’s saga was that he refused to build up his adventures into anything out of the ordinary. Sure, for him, Manitoba boy, setting out in a sailboat on the ocean was legitimately a leap far beyond the comfort zone, and he talks about that. Quite a lot. But there is a continual pragmatic tone to Patterson’s navel gazing which keeps his musings from straying into that self-indulgent “aren’t-I-wonderful” mode that so very many of his autobiographical-adventure peers seem to default to.
And I learned a lot, completely effortlessly. About small boats, sailing, the Pacific Ocean and its natural and human history.
Kevin Patterson wasn’t afraid to document the squalor of his own life, and the rose-coloured glasses were seldom donned regarding other people’s, either, even those souls residing in the paradisiacal South Sea isles which he finally reached, albeit after a very slow journey.
From Christopher Buckley’s May 28, 2000 New York Times book review:
“In August of 1994, I bought a 20-year-old ferrocement ketch on the coast of British Columbia. I did this in an effort to distract myself – at the time I was so absorbed in self-pity that my eyes were crossed.” So begins this tale of sailing back and forth across the Pacific by Kevin Patterson, who at the age of 29 found himself loveless, directionless and as sour as Hamlet after three dreary years as a Canadian Army doctor posted to an artillery base in Manitoba…He conceived the idea of refreshing his soul by sailing to Tahiti, that ever-beckoning paradise, never mind that he had never been in a sailboat before and could barely tell a rudder from a bowsprit. Acedia, incompetence and ferrocement – all the makings of a decent sea yarn. Add to those literary skills, wide reading, a decent humanity, humor, a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, a Force 9 gale and you have ”The Water In Between,” a delightful, finely written and, in the end, wise book.
It succeeds against a number of odds. First, there is no longer much novelty left in the genre. The damp, drizzly November-in-my-soul impetus to go to sea has been around since Ishmael started knocking the hats off people he passed. And it’s been over a century now since Joshua Slocum, the grandfather of modern nautical literary types, completed the circumnavigation that resulted in his masterpiece and best seller, ”Sailing Alone Around the World.” All books since on the theme of putting to sea in small sailboats – alone or not – are footnotes to Slocum. Patterson himself freely admits that no one, really, has equaled the old New Englander’s nautical or literary accomplishments…
I highly recommend that you read the rest of this review here; it is a thoughtful and clever summary and analysis of The Water In Between’s unexpectedly deep appeal.
I was myself born and raised in a relatively landlocked part of the world – hundreds of miles from the nearest seacoast – and I’m a dedicated landlubber. Beyond the fringes of the seashore I yearn not to travel; the ocean quite frankly terrifies me. Nothing I read in Patterson’s book has tempted me to revisit this notion. In fact, it has strengthened my resolve not to even toy with the idea of small-boat ocean travel, much as accounts of mountaineering reinforce my desire to stay safely on non-vertical ground.
But it’s absolutely fascinating reading about such exploits, especially when the writer is so articulate. Patterson references all the standard gurus of travel writing and solo adventuring, including a few I’ve not yet read myself, and may well have placed himself among them in a low key but more than competent way by this excellent first work.
Kevin Patterson has since gone on to publish more non-fiction (Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants, 2008), a novel (Consumption, 2006), and a collection of linked short stories (Country of Cold, 2003), and he still practices medicine, as of 2013 in Nanaimo, B.C.