Flowing tale of a poet in a boat

Time on the Ocean: A voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Hope
Theo Dorgan
New Island; €15.99

Richard Fitzpatrick says poet Theo Dorgan lyrically evokes his 36 days on board a small boat with 10 strangers.

SEAFARERS are a superstitious bunch. Theo Dorgan’s sailing trip round Cape Horn to Cape Town began at a port in Chile, on a Friday. You’re not supposed to set sail on a Friday.

“I never in my life met a deep-water sailor who isn’t intensely superstitious,” says Dorgan. “If you ever want a box in the mouth, go out on deck in a force nine and start whistling. People will queue up to give you a dig: ‘We’ve got more than enough wind. Thank you’. I would always pour a drink over the stern, for Poseidon, as a libation. We carry all the evolution of the human mind inside ourselves. The reptile brain, which is preternaturally connected to the world – before conscious thought ever even evolved – has this sense that everything is in touch with everything. A lot of layers get stripped away out at sea.

A part of your mind – and, literally, it might be apart from your mind – is prepared to believe anything. It certainly sees nothing foolish in pouring a glass of Jameson’s over the stern of the boat, as you set off, if it might help to placate the gods of the sea,” he says.

Despite the inopportune launch date, Dorgan’s passage was safe, which wasn’t the case for his great-grandmother, when she passed by Cape Horn in 1896. She died in childbirth along those waters.

Part of the impulse for Dorgan’s sailing expedition, which he has documented in a book, Time on the Ocean, was to pay his respects. “It’s a very old Irish imperative of visiting your dead,” he says. “I haven’t done the sums, yet, but I must add it up. Here’s my great-grandmother put over the side of the Rimutaka, probably after dark, because that’s usually when they bury people at sea on passenger ships, and her last thoughts are that her child won’t survive, but he does, and that child becomes my grandfather and he has six children, and they marry, and they have children, and now their children have children. And I haven’t added up the numbers, yet, but how many lives have been led – are still being led – by people who owe their existence to the accident that there was a wet nurse on board the ship? So much of life is chance.”

Dorgan is a good man to have at the tiller of a seafaring yarn. His account of the 36-day voyage is lyrical, as could be expected from the pen of a poet, but also full of unexpected drama, as he and 10 strangers bounce off each other at sea, amid waves that reached six metres in height. There is an authoritarian skipper, who retains the respect of Dorgan for piloting his crew successfully in dangerous waters, but irks his charges with the lashes of his tongue.

There is infighting and bitterness within one of the two teams of watches. There is romance, on a 70-foot boat, between an Italian, Federico, and Diane, a young, English university teacher. There is even madness, as Marko, a Slovak, growing greyer in the face by the day, jumps ship at one port. “I think two things were happening there,” says Dorgan. “I think he did become ill. No one can possibly say how much of it was physical and how much of it was psychosomatic. He claimed he didn’t like the food. I don’t know whether he did or not, but he felt alienated from everybody else. I think, actually, he had this great idea what it would be like, but he’d no sense of what the reality would be – that you’re going to spend the next five weeks in a boat, on the ocean, with these people. I think he had a mental picture and the reality didn’t correspond with it.”

Dorgan occasionally takes care to point out that “someone has flung out fistfuls of stars on the dark ground of night,” or describes the wonder of soaring albatrosses and petrels overhead, but, more than unbounded nature, what strikes the reader is the manner in which a single, frail human comes to terms with the vastness of the ocean.

“What fascinated me was, first, the relentlessness of it,” he says. “It was utterly relentless. Even in sleep, you’re constantly adjusting to the flow of the boat. You do become part of the boat and the boat becomes part of the ocean. That was an extraordinary sensation. Second was the sense of timelessness. You go into this strange timeless zone. It’s to do with performing repetitive actions, day after day after day after day. There’s always the wind. There’s always the sea. A calm day would be two-metre waves. Two metre-waves off Schull in a force seven or eight would give you pause for thought. That was, ‘Oh great, a day off.’

“I would consider myself a healthy, natural coward, in many ways, but the third thing was learning how natural fear is; you just have to deal with it. Part of your mind is thinking, ‘I’m on a deck that’s jumping four different ways at once, it’s rising and falling four or five metres at a time, there’s an 80-mile-an-hour wind blowing and I’m crawling up to the bow to make sure that nothing’s fallen loose.’ Part of your mind is standing back saying, ‘This is a deeply stupid place to be’. But the rest of you is exhilarated. You’re on the edge, which gives you that absolute sense of trust in the world that you had as a kid.”

- The Munster Literature Centre and Cork City Library will host a Cork launch and reading from Time on the Ocean, Cork City Library, 61 Grand Parade, Cork, 7pm, Thursday, November 18. Free event, all welcome.

Picture: TO THE SEA: Theo Dorgan (author of Time on the Ocean) at Howth yacht club, Co Dublin. Setting sail from Chile, he passed Cape Horn, where his great grandmother was buried at sea in 1896. Picture: Billy Higgins

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