Book Review: Ocean Notorious: Journeys to Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South, by Matt Vance

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ocean_notoriousThe Southern Ocean officially doesn’t exist anymore: the hydrological authorities redefined it out of existence. But sailors still know the body of water south of New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and stretching as far as Antarctica, as the Southern Ocean. And a fearsome place it sounds. The ‘roaring forties’ sounds bad enough, but the ‘screaming sixties’ is something else again. I know that it is supposedly the wind that is screaming, but I’m pretty sure that if I was there, the wind would have competition.

Matt Vance is a sailor who is much more at home in the deep south than most people. He is an expedition guide, and has ferried tourists, bird-watchers, artists and writers to many of the lonely places in this remote area. This book collects the stories he has heard, and the experiences he has enjoyed, and at times endured. Most recently he has guided participants in the Artists to Antarctica programme.

Just the names summon up awe: the Bounty Islands, South Georgia, Auckland Island, and Campbell Island – the list goes on. People will only have heard of most of these places from weather forecasts, disaster reports and reading about the explorers of the ‘heroic age’, like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Cold, barren, wind-swept, dangerous places are challenged by sailors, ornithologists, geologists, climate scientists, artists and writers. Starting on a Russian icebreaker running Southern Ocean expeditions, Vance has spent a great deal of time on the sub-Antarctic islands, and on the ice.

The author gives his own account of this region, and also introduces us to many of the other characters who have made their mark on, and been marked by, this remote and frightening part of the world. Explorers are there of course. So are sailors in small boats, and large ones. The story of the coast watchers during the Second World War (total sighting in 12 months: 2 ships, both ours), and their contributions not only to defence but to science, cast an interesting light on NZ’s attitudes during the war.
Solo sailors feature, as do bird watchers and conservators. What drives a person to spend many months alone, at sea in the worst conditions on earth, in constant danger? Vance tells their story and guides the reader to some understanding of the passions and obsessions that drive these sailors, and graphically describes some of their adventures.

As well as the sub-Antarctic islands Vance has taken expeditions to Antarctica itself, and he tells the stories of the well-known explorers of a hundred or more years ago as if he was there. In doing so he casts new light on them, their motives, and the challenges that they faced. He is able to write as one who has faced similar challenges – albeit with better equipment and much more back-up – and the empathy he has with them shows in the writing.

There are some nice photos to accompany the text, although their reproduction is sometimes a little murky. There are maps too: thank goodness. Vance tells these stories concisely and vividly, and paints a fine word picture of this world that few of us will ever experience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249260

Book Review: How to Sail A Boat, by Matt Vance

Having grown up in Taupo, people make assumptions cv_how_to_sail_a_boataround my upbringing. They ask how often I went skiing, if I enjoy fishing, and how much time was spent on boats out in the lake. The answers to these are very few times, no I don’t, and not much at all. The extent of my sailing knowledge is when I capsized the tiny boat I was sailing for the first time at Kawau Island on school camp at 12. And this remains the extent of my sailing knowledge, as author Matt Vance points out “If you are now aboard and quickly leading through these pages to find out how to tack your boat, you are in trouble.” Rather than teach the reader how to literally sail a boat, Vance has created a fundamental guide to the body and soul of sailing.

Divided into sections ranging from ‘I see the sea’, ‘A most dangerous book’, and ‘Solo’, the thirteenth edition to Awa Press’s Ginger Series does not disappoint. Vance uses stories of his own sailing experiences to take you deep in to his sailing mind and manages to create vivid images of the ocean, even when on land. “My favourite time to think about boats is during meetings.  When I’m asked to contribute I have to be careful not to blurt out ‘Lee-oh’ or ‘She’s dragging’ in case I get taken the wrong way.” He takes you below deck in ‘The Rat Effect’ to share in the less than pleasant experiences aboard Siward, where the theory that too many sailors aboard a boat “the rat effect takes over: past a certain critical density, rats in a cage go berserk.”

“Just occasionally you may find a boat that is the love of your life. It will have many things, but most of all it will have indefinable beauty.” Vance’s relationship with Siward could be compared to the courting of a fine woman from a very strict father, however, in this case the father still actually owned the yacht and Vance made constant attempts to buy her off him. Slowly he wore the owner down, being allowed privileges over the years, and his persistence eventually finally paid off with while the owner selling some of his soul to allow Vance to buy some of his back.
The section ‘Sailors’ was a particular favourite, giving an insight in to Vance’s views of the different types of sailors. There are, he explains, two types of mariners: tinkerers who enjoy working on their boats and engines but don’t enjoy sailing, and the small minority who have been “over the horizon”, which Vance clearly falls in to. On top of this, he notes that 90% of boats are rarely sailed, merely given maintenance every year or so, and the true sailors equate to about half of the remaining 10%. The section ends with the tale of a lovely couple (husband in white pants and wife in a sailor’s felt cap) declaring over chardonnay “Of course we wouldn’t keep our boat here. The cruising in Marlborough Sounds is far superior”. Deafening silence follows.

The book closes with a list of ‘Dangerous Books’ every budding sailor should read, and a very detailed glossary for all those readers who, like me, had no clue of the definition of some of Vance’s stunning words. There is no need to have an in-depth knowledge or sailing or boats to enjoy. This simple sentence sums up Vance’s life as a keen sailor and loving member of many families both related and not, and in itself is a succinct summary of this book: “‘Where’s your family?’ chirped the smallest. I pointed to the yacht. Heraclitus was right: some things had changed. I smiled. I wept.”

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

How to Sail a Boat
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551857