H2O: life, death, war -- and sailing

Books On Water

July 23, 2000|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,Sun Staff

We and the surface of our world are mostly water. It sustains life and, sometimes, visits death. We drink it, bathe in it, swim in it, sail on it. It is at once our most precious and most abused resource. We bless with it when it is holy, and fight over it when it is short. It may soon replace religion as the most common cause of local wars.

Little wonder then that it is an ever-flowing source for authors, who study it, worry about it, dabble in it and celebrate it. Another shelf has recently been added to the published library on the science, history, adventure and romance of water. Perhaps the best place to start reading is Marq de Villiers' "Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource" (Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, $26). It offers us "the where, what and how much of the water world."

With a water crisis looming, we must, he says, look to human inventiveness for the solution to "these wars we are waging against our own worst nature." Chemist Philip Ball's "Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 417 pages, $25) is an absorbing scientific treatise on the "only substance to exist on earth in all three of its physical states: solid, liquid and gas."

The largest bodies of water, of course, are the seas. In "The Oceans" (McGraw-Hill, 314 pages, $24.95), marine scientist Ellen J. Prager and Sylvia A. Earle, explorer in residence at the National Georgraphic Society, take us down to the 142 million square miles of mystery beneath the seas.

Their research leads them to join the chorus of environmental concern: "What we do -- or do not do -- at this point of history will determine the fate of this ocean planet, and of humankind."

Staying under water, Trevor Norton recounts the history and development of diving, from the early spear fishermen who held their breath to John Haldane, who learned how to control the bends. His quirky book is "Stars Beneath the Sea: The Pioneers of Diving" (Carroll & Graf, 282 pages, $25).

Back on land, journalist Gerard T. Koeppel records one city's struggle to obtain an adequate and clean supply of water. In "Water for Gotham: A History" (Princeton University Press, 350 pages, $29.95), Koeppel traces the suffering, politics and corruption surrounding construction of the Croton Aqueduct last century, a prerequisite for New York's development as one of the great cities of the world.

For sailors more than citizens, water holds special allure. Too often it is a fatal attraction. John Rousmaniere gives a stark and chastening account of the dangers of sailing in a new edition of "Fastnet, The Deadliest Storm in the History of Modern Sailing" (W.W. Norton & Co., 287 pages, $14.95).

A sailor with 35,000 blue-water miles in his wake, Rousmaniere tells of the storm that struck the 303 ocean racing boats that set out on Aug. 11, 1979, from England to round the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern tip of Ireland. A ferocious gale sank five yachts, killed 15 people and forced 24 crews to abandon ship.

Rousmaniere, who survived the race but has never sailed another Fastnet, is still haunted by the Plymouth "quay crowded with solemn men and women ... whose hearts were aching for more than two thousand sailors."

Peter Goss' story is less heart-rending, but equally hair-raising. A competitor in the 1996-97 Vendee Globe nonstop, single-handed race round the world, he rescued Frenchman Raphael Danelli from a sinking boat in the Southern Ocean. How he did it will keep you turning the pages of "Close to the Wind: An Extraordinary Story of Triumph Over Adversity" (Carroll & Graf, 273 pages, $25).

It may just whet your appetite for Derek Lundy's "Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters" (Carroll & Graf, 272 pages, $13), which recounts the experiences of the 14 men and two women who risked their lives to accept the Vendee Challenge.

In "Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss" (Plume, 223 pages, $14), Gordon Chaplin seeks to assuage the guilt of the 1992 drowning of his sailing partner, Susan Atkinson, during a Pacific typhoon, which turned a piece of romantic escapism into catastrophe.

The sail-off escape of Kevin Patterson proves more funny than fraught as he flees a broken heart and tries to put his army days behind him. "The Water in Between: a Journey at Sea" (Doubleday, 289 pages, $23.95) should encourage as well as amuse other amateur sailors.

Three books deal with the tragic past and gloomy present of the New England fishing industry -- "Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn, Hero Fisherman of Gloucester" by Joseph E. Garland (Touchstone Books, 30 pages, $13); "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 302 pages, $24.95); and "Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman" by Richard Adam Carey (Houghton Mifflin, 381 pages, $13).

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