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TIME ON THE OCEAN:

James Harpur reviews Theo Dorgan's sailing memoir.

 

 

James Harpur

James Harpur has published four volumes of poetry with Anvil Press, including his latest, The Dark Age, which won the 2009 Michael Hartnett Prize. Anvil have also published Fortune’s Prisoner, his translation of the poems of Boethius. He lives near Clonakilty in West Cork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time on the Ocean by Theo Dorgan reviewed in Southword JournalTime on the Ocean

Theo Dorgan

(New Island, 2010)

ISBN: 978-1848400757

£10.99 paperback

 

Buy from New Island

 

 

 

‘One of the greatest pleasures in life is to stretch at your ease in a warm bunk, somewhere deep in the ocean, in a good boat making headway in a heavy sea, and consider where you are; to lie there and listen to the sound of water rushing past your ear, millimetres away on the other side of the hull …’ Theo Dorgan’s pleasure has not always been shared by other sea farers. His words reminded me of a voyage made by the medieval pilgrim Felix Fabri, who, during a storm, remembered the ancient sage Anacharsis saying that ‘those who are at sea cannot be counted among either the living or the dead’they are ‘only removed from death by the space of four fingers, four fingers being the thickness of the sides of a ship’.

 

Very little separates the sleeping sailor from the ocean, and you can tell what sort of personality you have by opting for Dorgan’s or Fabri’s point of view. The fragility of the boat compared with the primal potency of the ocean is one of the many fascinations that the voyage narrative has exerted on readers. Indeed, the voyage is one of the oldest and most widespread literary genres. Utnapishtim and the Sumerian flood, Noah, Odysseus, and Aeneas all spring to mind. The stories of Brendan the Navigator, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Seafarer’, and Felix Fabri are all medieval classics, and modern accounts are legion. The most widely read voyage is undoubtedly the one told by a Jewish doctor. Luke’s account of St Paul’s final journey to Rome includes a classic stormthe sort that every sailor fears, yet, as Dorgan intimates, secretly relishes.

 

With Sailing for Home, Dorgan joined the great tradition of writer-sailors. Now in Time on the Ocean he makes further headway in the genre. It is the story of his voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town across the unpredictable and hostile seas of the South Atlantic. Dorgan joined a group of about a dozen strangers, fee-paying passengers, under the stern leadership of the veteran antipodean skipper Steve Wilkins. Wilkins’s task was to supervise, guide and teach the ship’s company to sail the sleek Pelagic Australis (a 70-foot, three-masted, aluminium-hulled vessel fortified by an engine) across some of the most dangerous seas in the world. No pressure then, as they say.

 

In addition to the sheer exhilaration of sailing, Dorgan had his own private motive for making the trip. His great grandmother died while giving birth to his grandfather on board a ship sailing off Cape Horn. It was an opportunity for Dorgan to mark her death, to remember and honour his ancestor.

 

As a committed landlubber I was gripped by Dorgan’s account. I cannot think of anything worse than being confined on a boat for five weeks with a dozen strangers, a stroppy captain and the perpetual fear of a storm. Dorgan, as quoted above, remarks on the pleasure of being in a snug bunk at sea; I can only remark on the pleasure of reading Dorgan’s book in bed, thanking god that I was experiencing from one remove the freezing cold, driving rain, gale-force winds, mountainous seas, and constant scrubbing of the decks. Yet the voyage had its numerous pleasures too. For every spell of rain there was sun and clear skies, unparalleled starscapes; the tension and friction on board between the shipmates was balanced by companionship, running jokes, the delight in simple pleasures, not least a bowl of soup or a hurried smoke on deck.

 

Dorgan’s triumph is to construct a narrative that employs not only his lyrical gifts but his psychological insights. Parallel to his intense and passionate evocations of the sea are his observations of the ship’s company: a competitive Italian, a quiet and eccentric American, a clutch of Brits and Antipodeans, and a fellow Irishman. Alliances are formed, friction surfaces, group dynamics alter, and Dorgan is alert to them all. The voyage plunges him into the crests and troughs of self-reflection – loneliness, mortality included – and his deep connection to his wife back in Dublin.

 

Within the consistently absorbing narrative there are many poignant and dramatic cameos: Dorgan dropping the tricolour into the sea off Cape Horn to commemorate his great grandmother; landing on Port Stanley, still bearing the scars of the Falklands War; stopping at Tristan da Cunha, where the sheep, fields, cattle and washing lines remind him of the Cork and Kerry Gaeltachts of his childhood; and of course the much-awaited storm (with a ‘wet cold sort of mountainy sea rolling in from behind us, with nothing at all in mind except catching up with us, rolling over us and smashing us down, down, down, into cold wet overwhelming dark forever’).

 

Dorgan has written a truly compelling account of what it takes and means to sail in an ocean where reaching one’s destination cannot be taken for granted, and of how a group of disparate strangers cope under extraordinary pressure. Filled with natural and human drama, the book marries poetry with spontaneous existential philosophy and is infused throughout with wit, wisdom, warmthand mugs of Barry’s tea.

 

 

©2010 James Harpur

 

 

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Author Links

 

James Harpur Homepage

Harpur at Anvil Press

Extended bio and poems at Poetry International Web

 

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