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Much more than a rollicking tale of the sea,
This review is from: A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea (Paperback)
In Turkey David Vann had the idea of buying a boat that was big enough to take parties around historical sites in the Mediterranean. This would be his ticket to financial security and a rewarding lifestyle. His 'day job' had been lecturing in creative writing at Stanford and Cornell universities, without the reassurance of a fixed contract. He had also sailed his 48ft 'Grendel' in the Sea of Cortez whenever he could find the time. Vann was no weekend sailor. He held a US Coastguard 200-ton master's licence and had sailed more than 40,000 miles offshore at the time this book was published (2005).
He soon found the 'right' boat in Icmeler (near Bodrum), courtesy of larger-than-life Seref, who was soon to become his project manager - and later, his Nemesis. 'I am Seref, pronounced like the good guy in one of your westerns', he said. This proved to be misleading. The big steel yacht weighed 110 tons and measured over 90ft in length by 21ft 6ins beam, but was basically a bare hull that Vann took on without much capital to support the venture. It was love at first sight, an impulse buy, the first of many decisions he makes that have the reader silently screaming, 'No! Don't do it!'
This is a book to start when you have given yourself a little elbow room to finish it - no good opening it the night before your only daughter's wedding. She'd never forgive you. Lots of books are described as 'unputdownable', but this one is the real deal. If nothing else you will learn why not to have a boat fitted out in Turkey, or accept a tow from the shady skipper of a freighter off the coast of Morocco, with a cluster of small piratical fishing craft just discernible on the radar, waiting in the wings for their chance; or even why not to accept a tow from a US Coastguard cutter either, believe it or not. You will learn not to antagonise Trinidadian customs officials, and why you should avoid buying chandlery in Gibraltar. Most of all you will experience in vivid detail the heaven and hell of sailing this huge boat who soon evolves a dark personality of her own. In this respect I am reminded of Conrad's short story, 'The Brute', which is a chilling little melodrama about a 'homicidal' boat that was built with no expense spared by wealthy shipowners. Everything about her was made too big and too heavy, but that alone did not explain her malevolent nature. Vann's boat has a fundamental flaw in her design that brings him and his crew to the brink of disaster early on, in a rehearsal for the final electrifying pages.
But this is much more than a rollicking tale of the sea. It's a threefold love story enshrining his feelings for the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Nancy, 'a beautiful Filipina with long dark hair and an easy laugh', who becomes his faithful partner and support in these frequently horrendous adventures - and ultimately his wife. It's also about how he found inspiration and creativity in unexpected places, and how he managed not to lose hope despite being betrayed by most of the people he had to deal with.
There is a compelling psychological undercurrent. His father committed suicide when he was thirteen years old while suffering financial and other pressures similar to those brought on himself by the son. So the question arises as to how far David Vann becomes the prisoner of his own family history and subconsciously (or consciously) allows himself to tempt providence and test himself almost to destruction. He has woven this personal trauma into his other work, his short stories and his successful first novel, 'Caribou Island'. Not since Hemingway have we seen a parent's self-murder become such a powerful underlying force in an author's work. In my opinion Vann's personal demons are most successfully deployed in this book. It is the best true sea story I have read in a decade, and I finished it in a day.