Book review: The Godforsaken Sea

“The best book ever written about the terrifying business of single-handed sailing….Lundy tells a harrowing tale, as tight and gripping as The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air.” San Francisco Chronicle

A chilling account of the world’s most dangerous sailing race, the Vendée Globe, Godforsaken Sea is at once a hair-raising adventure story, a graceful evocation of the sailing life, and a thoughtful meditation on danger and those who seek it.

This is the story of the 1996-1997 Vendée Globe, a solo sailing race that binds its competitors to just a few, cruelly simple rules: around the world from France by way of Antarctica, no help, no stopping, one boat, one sailor. The majority of the race takes place in the Southern Ocean, where icebergs and gale-force winds are a constant threat, and the waves build to almost unimaginable heights. As author Derek Lundy puts it: “try to visualize a never-ending series of five- or six-story buildings moving toward you at about forty miles an hour.”

The experiences of the racers reveal the spirit of the men and women who push themselves to the limits of human endeavor — even if it means never returning home. You’ll meet the gallant Brit who beats miles back through the worst seas to save a fellow racer, the sailing veteran who calmly smokes cigarette after cigarette as his boat capsizes, and the Canadian who, hours before he disappears forever, dispatches this message: “If you drag things out too long here, you’re sure to come to grief.”

Derek Lundy elevates the story of one race into an appreciation of those thrill-seekers who embody the most heroic and eccentric aspects of the human condition.

This was a great read. Most Americans don’t even know what the Vendee Globe is. Those who do probably have no idea how difficult a race it is. Lundy does an excellent job of interviewing the racers and relating the horror that is the southern ocean below the 40th parallel.

He touches on why people do things like this (has an entire chapter on it) but never comes out and says what many readers must be thinking… that the people who do this race must be ego maniacs with something to prove that none of us could understand. I mean – if you want to sail solo for long periods of time you certainly don’t need to do this race with all it’s expense and massive uncontrolable risk. If you want to race fast boats there are also easier ways to find a passage on them. I came away thinking that these racers had serious emotional issues – I simply couldn’t think of any other reason someone would go through such a convoluted suicide attempt.

Racing in the southern ocean is, as the racers point out, like playing Russian Roulette. I don’t see why someone playing a game like that deserves much respect. You need to be an amazing sailor to have a chance in hell of coming out alive but, even the best, are still just rolling dice. Surfing down 60′ waves at 26 knots when there are ice bergs floating all over the place is suicidal. And that’s just one of the loaded chambers. The only reason to be below the ice line in any given year is to shave time off your passage. That that reason can drive people to do these things shows their true character.

On top of that the winner of the race really can’t claim that his/her sailing abilities were the major contributing factor in winning. I’d say that the winner wins on about 80% pure luck. There are ice bergs, knock downs, weather, equipment malfunctions, rogue waves and medical problems that are totally out of anyone’s control that play a huge role in who wins this thing.

Still – insanity aside – it was a great book. The men and women who do this race are completely nuts and have far too many competitive genes to be healthy but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this book. The decriptions of the southern ocean are incredible. That such a place exists and is so large and is so violent is truely amazing.