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BOOK REVIEW : Wrestling With Midlife Alone in Pacific : ALONE: The Man Who Braved the Vast Pacific--and Won. by Gerard d'Aboville,translated by Richard Seaver . Arcade: $21.95, 167 pages

September 15, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some men cope with the onset of middle age by running out and buying a fast car with leather seats and shiny chrome wheels. But Gerard d'Aboville chose an entirely unique approach to his midlife crisis. At 46, he resolved to row a boat across the Pacific Ocean simply to prove to himself (and everybody else) that it could be done.

"A feeling that I was not getting any younger, a general sense of wear and tear on mind and body" is what prompted d'Aboville to go to sea in a one-man boat. "I vaguely knew that I needed to cleanse my mind, refocus my priorities, engage in some real combat."

D'Aboville had already rowed solo across the Atlantic, a much shorter and gentler crossing, and so he set himself the task of performing the same feat in the Pacific, where both the distances and the risks of bad weather are greater.

He launched his little boat from Choshi, Japan, and landed at the fishing village of Ilwaco, Wash., nearly five months later.

"Never do things the easy way has to be my motto," he cracks.

D'Aboville's boat was christened "Sector" in honor of his principal corporate sponsor, Sector Sports Watches. At 26 feet in length, the boat weighed only 600 pounds empty and 1,500 pounds fully loaded. His parents insisted that the local priest--a "faith commando," as d'Aboville puts it--bless the boat with holy water, but d'Aboville himself put more faith in the sophisticated design and construction of his craft, the high-tech communications equipment he carried and, above all, his own considerable experience in survival at sea.

"Alone" is a short, fleet, mostly graceful account of the adventure that d'Aboville invented for himself. But there's a sense that even these spare 167 pages of prose have been fluffed out a bit.

D'Aboville, for example, devotes a considerable amount of space to the planning and preparation for his voyage--and, especially, the frustrating bureaucratic and technological obstacles that delayed his departure and forced him to cross the Pacific in storm season. As a result, the crossing itself does not begin until page 52.

At times, D'Aboville's experiences at sea were a matter of life and death. Sector repeatedly capsized in rough weather, and d'Aboville was once trapped in the water for nearly two hours before he managed to right the boat. But, at least according to his own account, d'Aboville always conducted himself with the courage and elan we expect from a maritime hero.

"At least two times I might well have given up," he recalls. "Two times when death seemed the easiest way out. Only later, in full tranquillity, did it occur to me that, very simply, I was not yet ready to die."

More often, though, what d'Aboville describes in "Alone" is a physical and spiritual ordeal of quiet, self-imposed suffering. "Unbearable heat," he notes in a journal entry, and later he reports on an eruption of boils on what he delicately calls "the fleshy part of my anatomy." Describing himself as "a poor rower facing backwards," he rowed 12 hours a day, 17 strokes a minute, in a clockwork routine that amounted to a kind of penance.

As the title suggests, the sheer fact of his solitude was an ordeal in itself. At moments, he turned to the radio for companionship: "My little pill of ephemeral happiness" is how he describes the brief radio contacts. But mostly he found himself in silent conversation, sometimes with the heavens and sometimes with himself.

"Through the lens of my sextant, my head was in the stars, and the scope of my mind expanded then to universal dimensions," he writes. "And yet, what did my mind really focus on, sometimes to the point of obsession: things of human dimension--sounds, smells, familiar places. What a paradox!"

"Alone" shows d'Aboville to be a droll fellow and something of a bon vivant . The Sector was provisioned with a supply of cigars and French wines, and he cracked a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1978 to celebrate Bastille Day at sea. D'Aboville judged the wine to be even more crucial than water in provisioning the boat.

"A half-glass of wine with every meal made all the difference in the world," he insists, "especially when it was consumed in a proper wine glass, another slight indulgence."

"Alone" does not earn a place in the literature of survival that reaches its highest expression in books such as "Alive!" and "Survive the Savage Sea." After all, d'Aboville was not thrust into danger by an accident or a force of nature--he concocted his own ordeal, and he enjoyed a considerable material and technical support along the way. In that sense, the crossing was an artificial adventure.

D'Aboville himself shrugs off the notion that his voyage was essentially a dangerous stunt. And he reminds us that the impulse to thrust oneself into harm's way merely to make a point is a profoundly human trait.

"Only an animal does useful things," d'Aboville told the literary adventurer Paul Theroux, who contributed an introduction to "Alone." "I wanted to do something that was not useful--something only a human would do."

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