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Mast appeal

High-seas stories that are page turners and stomach churners.

November 18, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

We're embarked on a rollicking voyage, many of us. Friday, 20th Century Fox released the tall-ship action film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," starring Russell Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey of the British Royal Navy, 1805. The dauntless Aubrey, of course, is the creation of writer Patrick O'Brian, whose 20-volume serial novel contains the most engaging and full-bodied fictional accounts of seagoing adventure written in modern times.

The film will surely draw newcomers to O'Brian's work. So, for those perusing the nautical shelves at the bookstore, it's an opportune moment to contemplate some nonfiction offerings too. After all, none of our encounters with wild nature inspires lyricism and wonder in adventurers as much as true-life voyaging on the high sea. (Mountaineers, be still.)

Here are five favorite nonfiction sailing adventure books. More are left out than included. To avoid argument, the description "favorite" is employed rather than "best." The choices begin with publication in 1939, avoiding the need to revisit the classics of Melville, Conrad, London, Slocum and the like. Another thing: The list is weighted in favor of schooners, for which no apology is extended. Nothing on the water before or since has matched the schooner's grace.

"Wanderer" is the improbable result of miscasting. Tall, blond and handsome, Sterling Hayden was a seafaring man. At the end of the era of commercial wind ships, he worked his way from hand to mate and, finally, master. Then Hollywood discovered him. By 1959, he had made 35 films, had a high-priced contract for more, and was, as he tells it, miserable down to his very soul.

In January of that year, he hoisted anchor on a 100-ton schooner, Wanderer. With his children, a volunteer crew and his mate, Spike Africa, Hayden defied a judge's order in a custody dispute. He was all but broke. He set sail for Tahiti. For freedom. For adventure.

"In the worship of security we fling ourselves beneath the wheels of routine -- and before we know it our lives are gone," he wrote, by way of warning.

Late in life, Hayden discovered that of all his talents, none equaled his gift with the pen. His memoir of this voyage, of Hollywood, of his youth in New England's fishing fleet, is one of those rare books that you wish you could forget -- for the joy and soul-searching inspiration of reading it again.

"Give Me the World" is the wholly unexpected tale of a woman born with beauty, wealth, position and itchy feet. With her preschool son in tow, Leila Hadley casts loose. She quits her job in post-World War II New York and heads for the Far East aboard a freighter.

"I had wanted to get away," she begins, in a sentence that sets the remarkable tone for all that follows.

This woman, who later would marry Henry Luce III, talks her way onto a weather-beaten, three-masted schooner Californian, named after the home state of the four men who were sailing it around the world for the sheer fun of it.

For all of us travelers, Hadley's exuberant, hopscotch voyage from Singapore to Malta shows what miracles the eyes can behold, if only we have the clarity of vision to look. This is not a tale of battling nature but rather of daring to act on one's dreams.

If you want it wild and wet: "The Long Way" is Bernard Moitessier's enduring tale of single-handing it around the world, and then some. It is, to borrow from Hemingway, the true gen, the real thing -- as captivating and close-to-the-gulp as sea stories can get.

In the long-ago year of 1968, before global positioning systems, before satellite communications, before round-the-world sailboat racing became big business, nine men left England in the first contest of solo circumnavigation. Only one crossed the finish line. It was not Moitessier.

At the crucial turn in the race, he commanded the lead. Fame and fortune awaited him after rounding both capes and circling the great southern ocean. But he asked himself, "Does it make sense to head for a place knowing you will have to leave your peace behind?" He answered by altering course. He bore east and sailed on -- halfway again around the world, to Tahiti.

Moitessier's connection to the ocean, to solitude, to his hardy ketch Joshua is mystical, almost hallucinogenic. What happens during 10 months alone at sea in the toughest waters on the planet? For others, madness, failure, death, glory. For Moitessier, self-discovery and joy too.

A far different and slower circumnavigation is undertaken by Tania Aebi. "Maiden Voyage" is the coming-of-age adventure of a troubled 18-year-old New Yorker. Her father risks her very life to save it. He offers her a 26-foot sloop if she'll sail it alone around the planet.

"Sometimes," she recalls him saying, "you only learn things in this world the hard way."

With a one-time family sailing vacation her only experience, Aebi and her cat embark on a 2 1/2-year, 27,000-mile journey awash in ebullience, terror, love, sadness, determination and triumph.

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