Sailing Alone: A Surprising History of Isolation and Survival at Sea by Richard J. King

In May of 1952, a 43-year-old British woman named Ann Davison departed Plymouth for the Caribbean in a sailboat called Felicity Ann. Felicity was a thing that she needed—the wooden boat was a mere 23 feet long and Davison, a newcomer to long-distance sailing, would be the only person on board.

Three years earlier, Davison had set out on another transatlantic voyage, in the company of her husband, Frank. A storm in the English Channel had wrecked their boat and taken Frank’s life. Now she was back, attempting to reach the Caribbean on her own.

On her way out of the harbor, Davison nearly crashed into one of her escort boats. When she eventually reached the open ocean, she suffered through fierce squalls and endless windless days, with little distraction beyond “unspeakably sinister” sharks and a “ceaseless, tireless, lonely, loveless sea.” But, finally, after enduring 65 days on her own, she reached Dominica, becoming the first woman to complete a single-handed ocean crossing.

In Sailing Alone: A Surprising History of Isolation and Survival at Sea, the writer Richard J. King uses Davison’s story and those of others who made historic solo sea crossings to explore an obvious question: Why would anyone willingly take on such a lonely, risky endeavor?

The characters in his insightful, elegant, and entertaining narrative had a variety of reasons—for some it was fame; others, activism; still others, escape. But the most powerful explanation for the question of motive—what King calls the Why go?—was Davison’s. “I had a life going spare,” she wrote years after her Atlantic voyage, “and wanted to use it.”

King deftly interweaves Davison’s story, and those of his other characters, with the tale of his own 2007 solo crossing of the North Atlantic in a 28.5-foot boat called Fox. His journey was not, as he readily admits, record-breaking or historic, but it included all the essential elements of a solo-crossing narrative. King helpfully lists them: “Some yarn about a shark … at least one storm, one ecstasy-so-pure moment of sailing, one clever repair, and one near miss by a passing ship.”

Exploring his own Why go?, King echoes Davison. The voyage, he writes, “felt as if it were the right thing to give my little life a jumpstart…. In short, oh, the cliché, my crossing was a midlife-crisis.” The contours of that miniature existential adventure provide narrative thrust to a topic that could easily get marooned in tedious, technical detail.

King’s cast of sailors—dreamers, oddballs, and loners—helps, too. There’s Joshua Slocum, who in 1897 completed the first single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in a sloop called Spray. Slocum, a romantic hero for generations of sailors, comes off as a bit of a tyrant and hustler whose early career as a commercial mariner was marred by mutinies at sea. You get a sense from his own words why he took to solo sailing: “There was never a ship’s crew so well agreed.”

More likable is Kenichi Horie, the gentle Japanese yachtsman who, after completing the first nonstop solo crossing of the Pacific, in 1962, donated his plywood boat, Mermaid, to a San Francisco museum with instructions for its care: “Please be kind to my tired lover.... And will you please speak to her, this lonely heart, when you are moved to do so.”

Bernard Moitessier on his sailboat, Joshua.

Another soulful traveler is Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor who in 1968 set sail from England as part of the first single-handed race around the globe. After successfully crossing the Indian and Pacific Oceans and rounding Cape Horn, he was just a quick trip up the Atlantic away from completing the race in the fastest time. But after a trippy meditation involving communion with a passing tern, he instead elected to stay on the open southern seas. “I am continuing nonstop toward the Pacific Islands,” he wrote to London’s Sunday Times, “because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

Like an ocean crossing, King’s 400-page book has a broad, somewhat featureless midsection, which at times feels a little too light on action. King is a nobly accurate writer who resists the age-old maritime habit of exaggerating sea stories for effect. (He includes a great line attributed to Gabriel García Márquez: “Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed whole by a whale.”)

Those who float through to the latter stages of the passage will be rewarded with ample adventure and inspiration, too. Doubtless, some readers of this book will nurture fantasies of their own solo adventure across a broad expanse of sea. I, a land lover, will not be one of them. Still, I suspect that the wise words of Ann Davison will long linger in my head: “The only way to live is to have a dream green and growing in your life—anything else is just existing and a waste of breath.”

Jonathan Darman is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America and Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President