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Adventure Magazine

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  Writer Spotlight
Our Man and the Sea
How a shocking family tale drove Adventure contributing editor Philip Caputo to confront the open ocean

In the summer of 1899 William Mimms Ware reportedly gave his young sons license to the family yacht and told them to be home in time for school, in September. The boys sailed from Massachusetts to Cuba, where a storm wrecked their boat and they were rescued.

Ware was writer Philip Caputo's wife's great-grandfather, and in the September/October 2001
Adventure's "On the Sea's Terms," Caputo tells how this family legend inspired his recent novel, The Voyage. But to write it he needed more than inspiration; he needed the experience only a marathon blue-water sail could provide.

"The Book Wouldn't Get Written If. … "

Hearing the story of the three young boys sailing from Boston to Cuba from my father-in-law helped gel the idea for my book. I didn't know what I was going to write about or even when it was going to take place, but I knew it would be about an old New England family.

Once I heard the story, I knew the book wouldn't get written if I didn't go on a blue-water voyage. There's a point at which one's imagination can't make the leap. I had reached that point.

Even though the sea has been done, I felt that I could say something fresh about it in the story of these three boys.

I thought to myself about books I've read: Lewis and Clark's Journals, Moby Dick, accounts of Stanley in Africa, novels by Cormac McCarthy, and I wished I had been on those journeys. The book that really comes to mind is Lonesome Dove—I didn't want that cattle drive to end; I wanted those guys to drive the cattle all the way to the North Pole. I wanted to write a book like that, taking the reader on a journey that he or she'd want to be on and one that he or she wouldn't want to end.

The actual sailing experience, of steering by the stars and of the harmony of being with the ship and the wind, enhanced my ability to write the story. There were things, certain notions and ideas for the plot, that I had to throw out the window as a result of that experience—ideas that would have been impossible or very unlikely.

"If You're a Fraud, It Will Be Made Obvious."

I had this romance of the sea long before I ever saw an ocean. Before, my image of the sea was almost directly taken from the movies, where you'd see a ship under sail, with background music and enhanced sound of the bow wake crackling.

I discovered that the real romance of the sea is self-reliance, both as an individual and as part of a crew. Even though we now have all these instruments, self-reliance is required to make a voyage safe and successful, and it requires a mastering of certain skills, of doing things completely right the first time.

The captain and first mate have to establish their authority first, so that everyone understands these are the two guys who we're going to listen to. That automatically forges a group identity; we were all quite literally in the same boat no matter what we were ashore. In other words, the main thing is to build a crew out of these disparate strangers who have different agendas and to keep the egos under control.

Joseph Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus was all about the dangers of discord amongst the crew. In the book their spirit of unity was spoiled and discord rises. Then this terrible storm comes up and they don't perform well. When unity, especially in that story, doesn't prevail, the consequences are serious.

Taking even one step in a gale can be difficult, as things are more exaggerated. I saw that when the halyard got fouled on the Tudy. The boat was pitching up and down and up and down and there were seas washing over the decks. First mate Herb McCormick went up the mast, not in any sort of bosun's chair but hand over hand, just climbed up the mast to free the halyard. There you see the difference between a real sailor and a duffer.

That's the other thing about the sea: It finds you out. If you're a fraud or a phony, it will be made obvious very quickly.

Working together to do a job right under hazardous conditions was a great satisfaction. These days, you don't get that on land.

"If There Is Some Danger, That Enhances It."

Most modern life is dreary, with an awful lot of routine drudgery. It's not the same thing as working and sweating and having the job right there literally and physically in your hands. And again, on a boat you're working together to do it. And if there is some hazard or some danger, that enhances it, because you're having to overcome your fear as well.

You could make a metaphorical comparison with writing and sailing. You learn the importance of subtlety and delicacy in both, but I think the real parallel is that people who love to write are craftspeople by nature, and they love anything that has craft.

I loved the craft of sailing. It required me to think, and in a way it requires a certain degree of creativity. I responded to that, not because I was doing it myself, but in watching our skipper, Andy Burton, make his decisions. He makes things look so easy, both physically and with his mental capacity.

I'd watch Burton move around the boat, and it was like watching an athlete, even if he wasn't doing anything athletic. He had an economy of movement and didn't waste a move. He's got 200,000 hours offshore, and at that point I'd imagine you start feeling more at home out there than you do in your own house.

Not only did Burton not waste any movement, he never yelled. I've seen this before. That's a sign of someone who really knows what they're doing.

—As told to Katie McDowell

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Related Web Sites

Learning the Ropes on Renegade
In less than a year Adventure writer John Vaillant went from sailing novice to salty dog, then sped off to capture one of sailing's fastest stories.

National Geographic Sailing Simulator
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Volvo Ocean Race
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