I have been on the road a lot over the past two weeks and heading out again tomorrow afternoon. Afterwards, I hope things settle down a bit. This is a book I read last month and for some reason I felt a need to write my opinions on it. On January 1, I was watching Lasers race in Bank's Channel (North Carolina) only to get home last night to frozen pipes and more snow and extreme cold temperatures being called for early next week (while I'm out of town!). I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year.
William F. Buckley, Jr. Racing Through Paradise: A Pacific Passage (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1987), 344 pages, photos and maps
I found myself with a love/hate relationship with this book. I am a sucker for journeys and sailing across the Pacific sounds enticing to me. However, there were times I was so mad at the snobbish attitude of the late William Buckley, I found myself wondering if I should just toss the book into water and let it sink. But I kept reading. Early in this book, William Buckley refers to an article in a California sailing magazine, Latitude 38, in which an author blames two words on the public perception that boat owners are "idle, indolent, and insolent rich." The first word was William and the second Buckley. Obviously, Buckley wasn't impressed and retorted that he doubted the magazine was read even in latitude 39. He suggested that the author didn't like his life on board and probably wouldn't like it on shore. (55) Interestingly, from my point-of-view, Buckley spends the rest of the book confirming (at least for me) the author's perception of Buckley's sailing adventures: he's rich and expects his money and his connections with those in power to meet his needs. Yet, even so, there were parts of the book I enjoyed although I can't imagine that I would have enjoyed traveling with Buckley when he was alive. For me, Buckley falls into the category of Paul Theroux, another author I enjoy reading but don’t always agree with and couldn't imagine having as a traveling partner.
The first third of the book provides a brief overview of Buckley's sailing adventures on boats he owned and those he chartered. Such adventures include crossing the Atlantic, sailing the waters of the Northeast United States, the Canadian Maritime Providences, the Azores, the South Pacific and the Caribbean along with racing to Bermuda (where he generally came in last except for one year when F. E. Bailey—the famous attorney—beat him out for the last place spot). As he briefly recalls these other adventures (it appears he covered them in more detail in his other sailing books), Buckley tells about the selection of the crew and the development of an itinerary for his Pacific crossing. In creating this story, he borrows liberally from the letters that were exchanged between the various members of his crew.
The second part of the book focuses on the journey itself. The trip is taken aboard the Sealistial, a boat Buckley had sailed in the Galapagos Islands and around Tahiti. It is a rather large boat (72 feet) but when you have seven passengers (Buckley, his son and five others) plus a crew of five, large is relative. They begin their journey in Hawaii and ended off New Guinea. In this part of the book, Buckley liberally (I love using this term when referring to Buckley) borrows from the journals of his fellow shipmates. One of the conditions of their passage is that they will keep a personal journal and, at the end of the trip, give them to Buckley so he can use them in his planned book.
Each crew member is given position aboard the boat. Daniel Merritt is the procurement officer, Reginald Stoops the safety officer, Van Galbraith the meteorological officer and diplomatic advance man, Dick Clurman the Communication officer, Christopher (Christo) Buckley the entertainment officer. The younger Buckley supplies the boat with enough candy for a round-the-world voyage, a portable ping pong table (that's given to natives on an island along the way), movies for every evening, books, tapes of David Niven reading his memoirs (which were listened to every evening for 20 minutes), board games, a rifle for the member assigned "shark duty" while the rest swim and a 410 shotgun along with a case of clay pigeons, along with a model to assemble of the Titanic. (320) The boat has a large musical selection, which does not live up to Buckley's standard: “one part rock, one part schmaltz.” (124) Buckley (he refers to himself as WEB throughout the book) was the navigation officer and also oversaw the important task of stowing away cases of wine (32 cases of various vintage). Obviously spirits were necessary for morale as there was another 50 cases of beer. (116) On top of it all was the attractive chef, who could have been plying her knives and sauté pans at some five star restaurant in New York, but had agreed to work in the galley to assure that no one went hungry. With the exception of Chef Liz and an accident of the first mate (who almost lost fingers on the first day), the crew are mostly ignored within the book. At one point, they tried to arrange the movie time so the crew could watch it, but it is a failure due to "Abstract planning, welfare-state-style." (390) The book is mostly without political rants, but at some points WEB can't help but to cleverly throw in his two-cent worth.
One of the interesting elements of the book is navigation. Buckley spends a number of pages talking about the LORAN system and a bit (I wish he had written more) about celestial navigation. Due to his contacts (another example of why he wasn't in league with the average sailor), the boat is equipped with an early GPS prototype. He discusses the possibilities of this system as more satellites are placed into orbit. In the early 80s, the device could only be used at certain times of the day when satellites were within range. The other interesting part of the book is the routine developed between the passengers as they go on and off watch and joke with one another. There is always a bonding that comes from long periods of time in tight quarters. For WEB, shipboard life also included three of them gathering each week to recite the "Latin mass." (211)
The title, Racing Through Paradise, is appropriate as they have little time to sit back and enjoy the trip for Ambassador Galbraith has to get back to France for his retirement party (which will include the Vice President). Only limited amounts of time are spent on the islands in which they refuel and take on fresh water. I was disappointed the WEB didn't provide more detail into life on the islands. The one island that seemed to get more than its share is Johnston atoll. Most sailors wouldn't be allowed near this military controlled island upon which is stored lots of gas for chemical warfare. By pulling strings, Buckley stops and seems to take affront at the commander's lack of hospitality. He is provided water, fuel and ice, but told not to let the sun set on his sails. Even having an ambassador on board didn't help. Another example of WEB's self importance was his telling of going to a White House function. His excitement didn't come from meeting the President (by his own admission, he'd met plenty of them), but from meeting the Chief of Protocol, who was also the recent captain that had won the America's Cup. (242)
Of course, even the rich have those to be envious of and in WEB's case, this was William Simon, President Reagan's economic adviser who was having built a 124 foot sailboat, “The Freedom” was being built at an Italian shipyard. (204-206) Buy American never came up within the text as there was plenty of wine for other countries as well as Swedish cookies and other stuff.
I would only recommend this book if you really like sailing and if you are interested in the changes of navigation over the past couple of decades. Now that I reviewed it, I’ve left the book at my parents for my youngest brother who seemed enamored with all things conservative.