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Valentine Howells

‘Sailing Into Solitude’ was originally published in 1966. It is the story of one man’s experience of the first singlehanded transatlantic race in 1960. Now, half a century on and with Val Howells the only one of the original five competitors still with us, he has re-written the book and added a lot of new material. The resulting volume is a compelling mixture of rip-roaring yarn, insightful autobiography and sailing history.

The book opens with the description of the voyage down to the start line at Plymouth in Eira, the author’s 25ft clinker built Folkboat and chosen tool for the adventure. The reader is immediately ‘on deck’, the business of delivering a small boat with a seasick and useless crew brought vividly to life by the author’s dynamic writing style, which resembles a live broadcast rather than a report written with hindsight and filtered through memory.

In Plymouth we are introduced to the other participants in this historic event, all as fascinating as Howells himself, all with a history to be told and a character to be probed. There are some fantastic black and white photographs of the competitors and their boats, and even a reproduction of the rather unusual eve-of-race dinner menu.

Within hours of the starting gun being fired the other boats are out of sight and we are alone as invisible passengers in the mind of Val Howells, a tall, bearded Welsh sheep farmer in a very small boat with a big ocean to cross against the prevailing winds. That first night among the shipping of the Western Approaches - the noise, the thump and groan of our tiny wooden vessel working her way to windward, the start of voyage apprehension, the lack of sleep, the failure to eat, the yellow bucket . . . by the time the destroyed battery, the only means of powering the VHF radio, is deep-sixed the reader is as exhausted and alarmed as Eira’s skipper.

With no communication and a library of only five books that includes ‘Sea Angling’ and ‘The Farming Ladder’ the mind is liable to wander freely in the ocean wastes, and our skipper’s does. There is plenty of the minutiae of the day to day running of a small boat – the navigation, food, and drink, the sail handling, the self-steering gear - to keep the cruising reader happy, but this book is so much more than just another transposed ships log with some extra descriptive passages thrown in. As we reach the mid-point of the passage we realise there is an extra crew member on board. After weeks of bashing remorselessly to windward a cantankerous alter ego turns out for its watch, arguing with the skipper, critical of the way the voyage is being conducted, making scathing observations about simple day to day decisions and personal habits.

All the usual ingredients of the small boat yarn are here – loneliness, apprehension, fear, a storm, indecision, self-doubt, perseverance, bravery - all watched over and reported on in the most unflattering way by this fiercely critical invisible crewman. Howells mocks himself unmercifully, showing a degree of self-awareness and a sense of his own ridiculousness that is missing from the character of many seafaring adventurers. As a result we are right there on board Eira, more closely involved in the voyage than a mere reader has any right to be.

After an interlude in Bermuda with sun, sand and nearly but not quite sex, Eira and her skipper leave on the final short (600nm) hop to New York. Reunited in the Big Apple with his fellow competitors, now connected for ever by the historic race they have completed, the voyage winds down - but the book does not. We still have nearly one hundred pages to go.

The last quarter of the book is a fascinating collection of musings, history and analysis. There is a testament to Joshua Slocum, the brief but penetrating biographies of the other competitors and involved parties in the ‘Obits and Appreciations’ section and finally the section of the book entitled ‘Demolishing The Myth’. As the last man standing, Howells seems to feel an obligation to put the record straight and to lay a couple of myths to rest. It is not for this reviewer to say more here, save to say that this section is in itself every bit as fascinating as the rest of the book.

More than a ripping yarn, more than a fascinating bit of sailing history, a book that is greater than the sum of its parts, this new edition of Sailing Into Solitude is a must for every cruiser’s bookshelf.

Sailing Into Solitude can be purchased direct from the author's website in various formats including E-books and an audiobook.

Sailing Into Solitude - 2011 edition
Val Howells
The folkboat 'Eira'