Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Book Review No.10: Three Ways to Capsize a Boat by Chris Stewart

The blurb from the back:
"If you're wondering what Chris Stewart did before he moved to El Valero, theSpanish farm immortalised in Driving Over Lemons, here's one of the answers. He took to the sea, landing a post as a yacht skipper, sailing a Cornish Crabber around the Greek islands. It was his dream job - but there was just one tiny problem.He hadn't even sailed before and had not the foggiest how to start.
In a series of madcap and hilarious adventures, we follow Chris from a shaky start in Littlehampton harbour to his epic Odyssey to Spetses (a bucket would have been handy), and then on to the journey of a lifetime - battening down the hatches on a trip across the North Atlantic. writing at its most enjoyable, crackling with Chris's zest for life, irresistible humour, and unerring lack of foresight. Dry land never looked more welcoming"

I've read three other books by Chris Stewart - Driving Over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society - all of which detail his life on a remote farm in Spain. As far as I remember (it was a while ago), I enjoyed all of them, which must be why I bought this book. Obviously, this book isn't set on his farm in Spain and the action all takes place several (many?) years before the farm was acquired, although it was written after he had penned at least two, if not three of the books about the farm. It has crossed my mind that he may have been cashing in on the popularity of the Spanish farm-based books, but perhaps I'm just being mean-minded to think that way. 

Anyway, back to the book in question: it is divided into three main sections, the first detailing how the author learnt (using that word in its loosest sense) to sail; the second detailing his job sailing in Greece; and the third detailing a mammoth voyage across the North Atlantic in a vintage Cutter. I have to say I found the first part very dull and a little contrived. How is it that some people seem to find themselves in the most ridiculous situations? Hmm, let's see, I've been offered a job sailing a lady and her husband on their boat around the Greek Islands for the summer. Sounds wonderful; I'll definitely accept. Just one tiny, tiny problem that I won't mention to the couple in question - I've never sailed a boat before. Ever. So, the first part of the boat documents the author's attempts to learn how to sail; all manner of misfortunes befall him (naturally), but he finally comes good and passes a course.

Part two of the book finds the author in Greece, ready and eager to sail the boat round the Islands. Oh, except the boat doesn't really exist. Well, it does, but it's certainly not sea-worthy, and thus ensues the next few chapters of craziness as the carpenters he employs attempt to get the boat ready in time for him to meet the owners. Of course, everything gets finished just in time and off he sails to meet his employers. Except along the way, someone nearly drowns, the boat catches fire (twice, if I recall correctly), and the author then rams it into some concrete piers right in front of the owners. It's all a bit madcap and crazy, this sea-faring lark, eh?!? Of course, the rest of the summer passes in a blissful haze of blue seas, ouzo and no-one falling overboard.

I definitely found the third part of the book the most interesting. In it, the author details his epic journey across the North Atlantic to Newfoundland with several other hardy souls aboard a vintage Cutter. This was a different kind of sailing entirely; no more blue skies and blue seas, but mostly grey, grey and more grey - sea, sky, surroundings for days and days and days on end. The description of the Force 10 storm that envelops the boat (ship? I don't know the correct term...) for several days, during which the crew still have to take turns to keep watch up on deck, was quite fascinating, with a few heart-in-mouth moments; the same goes for the section where the boat approached Iceland and two crew members were needed on deck at all times to keep watch for icebergs. And the account of their arrival into Newfoundland was enjoyable too. Perhaps I preferred this section of the book because it felt like the author wasn't trying so hard with his writing, or perhaps it was simply that this part of the story was more interesting and engaging.

If I hadn't been on holiday while reading this book, I'm not sure I would have bothered to finish it; although, since it's only about 180 pages long, perhaps I would have. But, you get my drift - I didn't enjoy it enough to be worried either way. One of the things that annoyed me was the constant use of the 'correct' terms when it came to discussing sailing paraphernalia, parts of boats, and anything else related to life on the sea, without any attempt to describe to the layman what was being discussed. The author should have remembered that at one time he had no clue when it came to boats and there are plenty of other people out there who are the same. Perhaps only boating enthusiasts are expected to read the book and it did cross my mind to wonder whether people 'in the know' would appreciate this book in a kind of 'I know how he feels' kind of way, or whether they would roll their eyes at the author's 'mishaps'.

So, all in all this book earns a thumbs down from me; the third part and the length (ie, just 180-odd pages) were its only saving graces.

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