Captains Courageous

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Late 20th century entrepreneurs have invented high-adrenaline sports--hang-gliding, say, or canyoning. But the riskiest adventure is still to set forth upon open water and take a chance when, as the great single-handed sailor Joshua Slocum wrote a century ago, "the sea is in its grandest mood."

The experience may provoke grand writing, as it does in three new nautical sagas. Godforsaken Sea (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 272 pages; $22.95) is one of the best books ever written about sailing--in this case the extreme sailing required to go around the world solo in the toughest of all sailboat races, the Vendee Globe. Aboard wide-beamed, thin-hulled, 60-ft. racing machines--surfboards for maniacs, once they get to the 50-ft. waves of the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica--the Vendee Globe competitors are bound by brutally simple rules. They stipulate one boat, one person, no help, no stops, first home wins. The 27,000-mile course starts in November in the Bay of Biscay on the coast of France; points south through the horse latitudes and doldrums, past Africa to the bottom of the world; rounds Cape Horn; then turns north to home. The race takes 3 1/2 to five months.

In Godforsaken Sea, Derek Lundy, a gifted Canadian writer and amateur sailor, tells the story of the 1996-97 Vendee Globe. It gives readers the adrenaline rush of what Lundy calls "apocalyptic sailing." The sailors' skill is astonishing. "These are guys," an observer tells Lundy, "who can go downwind in 30 knots of wind, surfing on 20-ft. seas, carrying a spinnaker and full mainsail. And in those conditions they'll jibe the boat, with the spinnaker--at night, in the dark, alone!" Getting home alive was victory enough in the 1996-'97 race. Sixteen boats started from Biscay; nine finished. A Canadian sailor, Gerry Roufs, vanished in the Southern Ocean like a distant light winking out. The elaborate communications web binding Roufs' boat to the race's land handlers simply went dead.

Lundy's knowledge of sea lore and history is rich, his pace perfect, his intelligence full of energy. He differentiates each sailor with a novelist's touch. When Frenchman Raphael Dinelli's Algimouss capsized in a storm in the Southern Ocean, he managed to get on top of the inverted hull and cling there. The story of his rescue by his English competitor Pete Goss--who bravely turned back into the teeth of a force-10 gale and beat to windward until he located Dinelli--is one of those anecdotes of miracle that can be enacted only in an intense theater of life-or-death.

The Hungry Ocean (Hyperion; 261 pages; $22.95) is a much quieter ride. It is written by Linda Greenlaw, a commercial fisherman who is as accomplished at her form of seamanship as the sailors of the Vendee Globe are at theirs. In The Perfect Storm--an account of the savage Halloween gale of 1991 in the Atlantic off Massachusetts--author Sebastian Junger described Greenlaw as "one of the best sea captains, period, on the East Coast." The Hungry Ocean is Greenlaw's account of a 30-day trip aboard the 100-ft. sword boat Hannah Boden as it steams out with a five-man crew from the Massachusetts coast to the Grand Banks and then strings out 40 miles of line to catch swordfish. The book brims with the expertise of commercial fishing--and is especially interesting on Greenlaw's championship knack for reading subtle changes in water temperatures to find where the fish are. The captain radiates brisk sanity and humor. Being a woman, she declares, is "no big deal" (though Greenlaw, 38, writes wistfully now and then of wanting to get married and raise children). As captain, she relies on the authority of her competence and her obvious gift for command, whether she is mediating a racial feud among crewmen or pushing them beyond their exhaustion to fill the boat.

In the third book, Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss (Atlantic Monthly Press; 225 pages; $23), author Gordon Chaplin is an Ishmael--perhaps merely an incompetent--who lives after the boat goes down and, haunted, tells the story.

The tale is this: in middle age Chaplin, a journalist, and Susan Atkinson, a nurse married to Chaplin's college roommate, embark upon "an illicit, dangerous romance." In 1989, after years of landlocked child-rearing (four daughters between them), they leave their marriages and decide, like the owl and the pussycat, to set off to sea in the 36-ft. double-ended motor-sailor Lord Jim. Throughout the chronicle blow dark gusts of both families' anger and disapproval--bad emotional weather that is the underlying motif of Chaplin's memoir, even when tropical sun shines on the romantic fugitives.

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