Martin Chambers

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A cruising yacht library

The books we read take us to exotic lands and into the lives of people we might not ordinarily meet. 

This is the reason for cruising. Far-off places, exotic wildlife, interesting people, sunsets and scenery with no two days the same. Today, twilight, we are anchored in the sunken caldera of some long extinct volcano, surrounded by a ring of mountains and safe after a moonless passage playing dodgem with fishing nets and boats. Each net is kilometres long and strung from one of many of the unlit boats. There are so many boats we feel as if we are the fish, the starry sky is an ocean above us and these nets are the poisonous  tentacles of some yacht-eating monster. Perhaps, but for now we are safe and the mind returns to the here and now, this planet and this life. And so, this is the reason for cruising, to see and feel the world as others might, to see the world through alternative eyes, maybe even, occasionally, late on a lonely watch, through alien eyes. 

As we settle down to our first Bintang the only other boat anchored nearby is a dive charter vessel with a group of arrogant French onboard who by way of greeting yell across the water at us. ‘Do not dump rubbish, we don’t want to swim in your effluent.’ Now, to be fair, a deflated soccer ball did blow off our deck. We had found it floating and thinking it had blown off their boat had picked it up so such a greeting was a shock after we thought we had done them a favour. 

In our world things that are no longer any use to us are placed in the rubbish bin to once a week conveniently disappear. You, like me, probably sort it and have faith that some of it is recycled. In remote Indonesia old drink bottles are used as fishing corks and string and bags and metal cans all find a new use and even uneaten food is fed to the pigs. Or goats. Or chooks. Did you know it is illegal in Australia to feed food waste to pigs? The sense or otherwise of either way is not the point, it is the fact of here is a different way of life and so while onboard each day while we carefully sort and sink or wash or crush our waste, the sea around us is awash with rubbish tossed from boats or from the shore. So no, we didn’t bother to retrieve the soccer ball. Not a day went by that we didn’t diligently carry our cleaned and sorted garbage through a sea of litter, to land at towns and carefully dispose of our collected waste in a bin area. Immediately urchins would descend upon it. What they didn’t want they threw into the sea or burned on the shore. They must have always been disappointed that such a vessel could yield so little.  

Swept into paradise direct from an overseas flight we might assume things are the same here as there and it would be easy to arrogantly assert that all rubbish should be, well, what do we do with it? Slow travel by cruising yacht lets us see such things differently. The seeming endless hours of horizon and watchkeeping within the confines of a small boat installs significance in small changes. As we move East things change in subtle ways. The wildlife, the birds and the fishes, each village, each coral reef, the style of boats. Even colour of canoes and the shape of paddles is different. So, this is the reason for cruising- to notice the subtle and that the not much happening is in fact a whole world going on. 

Even so, not content to be traversing one exotic landscape we escape to others contained in books and we share these books and discuss worlds real and imagined. This too widens our eyes to experience. When we landed at Komodo Island I had just read a harrowing account of shipwreck in the Kimberley where crocodiles surrounded the beached vessel- it had been carrying tons of beef that slowly rotted in the heat. I spent nervous hours jumping at shadows while our tour guide laughed. That book was ‘The Koolama Incident’ by Bill Loane. In 1942 the Stateship Koolama was attacked by three Japanese bombers. The skipper managed to beach the crippled vessel with no loss of life, but it took, for various reasons, three months before all 160 passengers and crew made it home. The Koolama was re-floated and struggled to Wyndham where it was again attacked and sunk alongside the wharf where it still is today. This book is very detailed and easy to read. West Australians, historians, boaties and those visiting the Kimberley would find this little known part of our war and maritime history of interest. 

Also in anticipation of our passage along the Kimberley coast we had onboard ‘A Voyage of No Importance’ by Rod Dickson. In the late 1920’s the pearling lugger Henry was shipwrecked at Cape Voltaire. To get help two of the crew embarked on a voyage of 200 miles to Cape Levique in a 3.5metre wooden dinghy, and this voyage was likened to the epic small boat trip of Bass and Flinders. However, the editor of the West Australian Newspaper dismissed it as ‘A voyage of no importance’ and thus this story is virtually unknown. If crocodiles scare you, read this book and think of it each time you climb into your small dinghy to go ashore. 

It might not be the best strategy to read books about an area while you are there. Studying the history and wildlife of an area well beforehand is obviously a good idea, but often I find my interest greater after I have returned. Perhaps then, it was not a good idea to read ‘This is not a Drill’ by Paul Carter as we sailed by the Northwest Shelf and all the oil platforms. Was it all just too close? As one review describes it “This is a boys own account of life on the rigs”. Like I say, sail right past.

Alex’s Adventures In Numberland’ by Alex Bellos is a sort of history of mathematics. If I had understood more than seven words I could perhaps recommend it to, say, the navigator onboard. Oh, that’s right, I was the navigator. Luckily, navigation nowadays requires little more than keyboard skills and so I was able to doze peacefully with this book propped in front of me, impressing the admiring crew with my grasp of numbers. Some of this book is fascinating, such as the explanation of how different cultures use numbers, how some can count only to five and how this shapes their whole world view, but I found it required too much thinking at a time onboard when all I wanted was fantasy. One for the home fires.

Viral Loop’ however, was enthralling. This is a short and fast history of the internet, in particular those household name businesses that have risen from nothing in less time than it takes to sail to Indonesia. Google, Facebook, eBay, PayPal etc. Because we use these everyday and are familiar with the rise and rise of the internet we all devoured this book. It was like reading your own life. What comes next? Written by Alan Pennenburg. Read it before it goes out of date.

For old times sake we had ‘The spy who came in from the cold’  (John Le Carre) and for detective thriller we had ‘R is for Ricochet’ (Sue Grafton). One of these is a classic, but both are easy to read. When the weather is wild or the crew revolting the worlds contained here are a relief. You sort of can’t go wrong with this genre onboard.

Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbury is a debut novel that sold over 2 million copies in French even before it was translated. I loved it- for the language, the wit, and the far-away world it built that was totally believable and again, it was a great escape from the smelly sox of the skipper. It is the story of life in a Parisian apartment block as told by the concierge, but saying that makes it sound like a soap opera. It is not. A good book should take you from laughter to tears and back. This does. Well done.

  As we sailed by some of the poorest and remotest parts of Eastern Indonesia where village life is without power or running water I was reading ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver. Perhaps it was the smiles of people despite what we might perceive as their poverty that emphasized the whinging self centred character of this book. Is this the western way? Written as letters from the mother of a teenage boy who murdered 13 in a schoolyard massacre it is as compelling as it is disappointing. Through incidents we learn of Kevin and the family but ultimately we don’t care because we don’t find the mother very likeable. She seems so full of resentment and too quick to blame, so while this book does explore important questions, particularly at a time of history when ‘The American Way’ is being challenged all across the globe, it could have been so much more. How could I cry over the fictitious incidents of ‘Hedgehog’ yet be left cold by the emotionally charge topic of ‘Kevin’?  A book needs to entertain. Tears and laughter, that’s the thing, and this book didn’t have it.

The next book was ‘Say you are one of Them’ by Uwem Akpan. Now, you are going to think I am a sucker for punishment because this is a series of stories told by children in war ravaged central Africa. But unlike ‘Kevin’ here, and despite genuine tears at how badly humanity can treat its own, there was a real sense of greatness. The triumph of human spirit, or at least the possibility of triumph. Kids who resort to prostitution merely to survive in a hostile world don’t, here, seem to be carrying the blame or the woe-is-me rife in Kevin’s America. You sympathise, want to rush to help, not just them but their whole nation and the sooner Kevin’s America self implodes the better. We row ashore near here and surrounded by happy children and want to cry tears of joy at how wonderful the world can be, and have just an inkling that the Indonesian Government might be doing a pretty good job at keeping such an archipelago together.

It would be easy to idolize the simple but happy life of these people. Maybe in simpler times the world was all like it is here now, but ‘The Miniaturist’ by Kunal Basu, set in the 16th century court of Emperor Akbar kind of ruins that thought. It is the story of a master artist in a time of conflict between Muslims and Christians. The book builds a long ago world steeped in the ancient culture of Persia, and the romance of such a cultured simple time could not fail to be lost on us as we then anchor and row into a thatch hut village to buy a fish to BBQ on the beach. This is an ancient culture too, and Muslim, with the call to prayer broadcast each morning and night from loudspeakers along the shore in a way that makes the book seem even more real. Oh, How wonderful!

But in the back of my mind is a worrying thought that right now on some other planet Muslims and Christians are in some sort of conflict. ‘People of the Book’, by Geraldine Brooks, co-incidentally has as its back story a similar time and conflict. The book in question is an ancient Jewish text that has been rescued from war torn Sarajevo by a Muslim librarian. The text is illustrated in the Persian Miniaturist style and a reader could almost think the hero of Kunal Basu’s novel was the artist, but no, it’s a fiction. None of it is real. This is a made up story about a book conservator who is asked to assess and restore a text and who slowly pieces together the people who, over its centuries of survival, have become part of the story of the book. A well told story that successfully holds the threads together through the centuries while being told in the contemporary, allowing the writer to cast a long view across history. War, religion, and one people invading or subjugating another. Like I say, it’s all made up.

Again and again I find the world we have been reading intersecting with the world we meet at the beach. On the island of Madang we played a game of volleyball with the village teenagers. Janet taught little kids Hopscotch and I showed off some juggling and cheap party clown tricks. We took photos and were soon crowded by hundreds of kids all keen to see themselves on screen. I had just read ‘That Deadman Dance’ (Kim Scott, - just announced winner of the 2011 Miles Franklin Award). So this was first contact. Told from the point of view of a single character who is also all dispossessed indigenous people and who contains in him the entire history of first contact and subsequent dispossetion, ‘That Deadman Dance’ explores how small misunderstandings arise in the interaction of two vastly different cultures, and how, perhaps, things might have been different. If Cook or Phillip or Stirling had read this book before they set foot on Australia maybe they would have played cheap clown tricks and not handed out iron axes. Are we really doing people a favour by handing out free gifts- pens, school books, soccer balls? By giving things useful in our world but less so in theirs, rather than sharing who we are, sharing with them something of ourselves and not our possessions, what are we really doing? I don’t know for sure, it just seems to me if you want to destroy a culture a good way would be to sail in and hand out gifts so that the kids of that villiage want to grow up and be measured by material things, like, well, Kevin. Shiny pointless things or our old rubbish? Secondhand drink bottles that could be used for fishing floats. Still, for the world to be different like that and such a great book get back to be read by the first fleet there would need to be a time machine. Science fiction. Now there is an idea for the next voyage.