Running away to sea, Redmer Yska

Swirly World: the solo voyages
Andrew Fagan
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 186590402X

Wet Behind the Ears: adventures of a runaway sailor
Peter Taylor
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869504003

With the sea breathing down their necks, New Zealanders are drawn more than most to salty books. One theory has it that all of us retain memories of a long migratory voyage out to these shores.

Too many passages ended in calamity, with thousands of colonial sailing ships flung onto an uncharted coastline. The dramatic and gruesome wrecks are now the raw material of popular television history shows like Epitaphs. Tales of great-grandmamma’s grounding have become set pieces at urban dinner parties.

A good briny yarn can be a joy for hot water sailors like this one. What could be nicer than curling up with a tale about close shaves in remote or terrifying circumstances, without having to face the cramped conditions, wet clothes, nasty food, worse weather, and sleep deprivation of shipboard life?


Most sea books fall uneasily between autobiography, non-fiction and ship’s log. Peter Taylor’s Wet Behind the Ears is an engaging account of life as a greenhorn merchant seaman in the post-war years, especially the first sequence on board a British tramp steamer. Taylor is prone to such well-worn observations as “Acting on impulse can prove more profitable than the best-laid plans.” Nevertheless, the material about ships’ Articles of Agreement, the old watch system, and colourful descriptions of the Wellington waterfront make his book a useful addition to the nautical record.

Andrew Fagan comes a generation later, with a pedigree as a 1980s celebrity. It soon becomes clear that this small-boat sailor, sometime poet and top popstar is a natural writer. Swirly World: the solo voyages charts the decade after Fagan’s reign – according to a pop historian – as “Kiwi Rock’s most  flamboyant frontman”.

Having spent his teenage years as a heavy-weather dinghy sailor, Fagan is happy to forsake the pop world for unsung heroes of Kiwi yachting like Johnnie Wray and Adrian Hayter. Wray, for example, is the author of South Sea Vagabonds, a legendary account of building a boat in Depression-hit 1930s Auckland and heading out to the wilds of the Pacific and Tasman. Around 1986, Fagan hears about a small, bright green yacht, built for single-handed ocean cruising. The 18-footer Swirly World in Perpetuity, is owned (and neglected) by the eccentric leader of the Church of Physical Immortality, based in a suburban street in Avondale. Fagan later buys the vessel, and readies himself for crossing the open sea.

Fagan’s book spans his return voyages in Swirly World, first northeast of Auckland to Raoul Island in Wray’s footsteps, and later to Australia in the Solo Tasman Race from New Plymouth to Mooloolaba. His attempt to circumnavigate New Zealand ends in Wellington after weather and time close in. Fagan then flees to Britain for a spell, where he lives in the more sedate surroundings of a houseboat on the Thames with his partner, Karyn Hay, and their two sons.

Alone on Swirly World, Fagan battles against big weather, dodgy equipment, and sleeplessness. He calls it “trance” sailing. But Fagan refuses to stop loving the sodden romance of it all: “now and then an extra sloppy bit would crash down, silencing my submerged world, and sending a jet of water in through the locked main hatch. It was wet ocean sailing for the uninitiated and I liked it.”

The book conveys a bittersweet, almost elegiac quality. Fagan hints at emotional and financial struggles after the years of fame as the face of the Mockers. We get the odd glimpse into his state of mind as he talks of being “glum in paradise”. Back in New Zealand after some tough years in Britain, he hears a 4am weather forecaster predicting a “very deep low”: “I thought she was talking about my frame of mind.”

Fagan is not prepared to lead the reader into more personal waters. This makes such throwaway clues about the life of a talented and interesting man all the more tantalising. Hay, his longtime partner and fellow writer, is obliquely referred to as his “friend”. Economic hardships during a stay on Waiheke Island show him liberating fruit from holiday-home trees and sailing for six hours across Tamaki Strait to the mainland to get cheaper groceries.

His father’s illness and tragically early death to a brain tumour barely rate a mention. No one would blame Fagan for wanting to restrict his focus to the business of sailing. But I couldn’t help wondering whether his constant hunger to get to sea stemmed from these offstage miseries. It was difficult not to contrast his treatment of such a major life event with Jonathan Raban’s in his 1999 book Passage to Juneau, where he interrupts his landmark solo voyage from Seattle to Alaska to fly home to Britain for his father’s funeral. Raban’s subsequent meditations on death become one of the most powerful and haunting aspects of the book. Of course, not everyone wants to put his or her life on display.


Fagan’s book ends up sharing a lot of common ground with Taylor’s, both of these good keen salts swallowing the bohemian prescription as spelled out in Jim Baxter’s acute Listener review of Jack Keroauc’s On The Road: “It is a masterpiece of the psychology of flight – flight from marriage, from settled occupation, from what others think of us.”

For Fagan, it was the “familiar and grim faces I’d watched getting older on the Wellington trolley buses”. Taylor, too, loathed his brief experience in a public service office in the capital: “I looked at the faces around me. They seemed enveloped in a stillness of time despite the push of ballpoint pens and the shove of paper.”

Both men end up falling in love with their floating homes. Taylor writes of the Algonquin Park: “Tramp or not and scruffy as she was, like one’s first real lover, a man never forgets his first ship.” Out at sea, solitary Fagan and Swirly World are forever the royal “we”. The pair get so clingy that he can’t bear to leave the yacht for a moment when he reaches Raoul Island in triumph: “I was again invited up, but without an anchor watch I couldn’t leave my tiny transport to be teased by the hoards [sic] of disgruntled entities that surely roamed the coastline.”

The chief difference is that after many voyages, Taylor comes home to the dreaded marriage and settled occupation. Fagan remains the New Romantic hero, apparently destined to keep battling alone against the elements, out towards, as he puts it so eloquently, the “darkness behind Devonport”.


Redmer Yska is a Wellington writer. His recent book An Errand of Mercy: Captain Jacob Eckhoff and the Loss of the Kakanui was reviewed in our June 2002 issue.


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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