As we've hopped from place to place over the past few months we've made a point to choose appropriate reading material for our surroundings. In South Africa we picked up a history of the Zulu War and a blushingly funny book on boarding school life called "Spud," which we can happily recommend. As soon as we landed Australia we picked up a few books, but I had finished two and given up on one by the time we reached Airlie Beach. We were set to depart the next morning on a three-day, two-night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands and I supposed that something to read would be as essential as Dramamine. There are seemingly trillions of boating excursions to choose from, but we had decided on the swashbuckling romance of a Tall Ship.
She was called the Alexander Stewart (aren't boats always female regardless of their name?) and unlike her newer and flashier harbor neighbors, she didn't come equipped with high-tech sound systems, DVD players and 16-inch flat screen monitors. So we anticipated that she'd offer lots in the way of hand-hewn character and plenty of quiet time suitable for reading.
Luckily you can always count on there being at least one used bookstore, even in the smallish tourist towns (tiny Airlie Beach has two). There seems to be a thriving secondhand book market in Australia and when you see the hefty prices on the new titles, you can see why. It wasn't easy searching for a paperback with a nautical theme among the haphazardly arranged shelves. Typical Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele beach reads didn't strike my fancy and the limited selection of Australian books I did find dealt almost exclusively with the dry Interior -- a vastly different country than the tropical paradise I would be floating around. I am still not sure how I found it, but somewhere between a fading Cold War novel and the 19th copy of The DaVinci Code, I came upon what might have been the perfect novel for this excursion and bought it for less than AU$3. [Editor's Note: AU$3 equals roughly $2.21.]
Unlike our earlier boating trip to the Great Barrier Reef, the Alexander Stewart promised to give us a good deal of relaxing downtime. Whereas we did little outside of sleep, dive and eat on our first sea excursion, sailing was more akin to sitting in a rocking chair on a lovely floating porch, only the boat did the rocking for you. There were still plenty of opportunities to snorkel, bush walk, hoist sails or kick yourself for not paying attention during Boy Scout knot tying exercises, but the better part of the trip was spent on deck, where a good book is second in importance only to sunscreen.
"Charco Harbor" is a fictionalized -- though thoroughly researched -- account of Captain Cook's voyage to Australia. While it is certainly not the greatest seafaring book I have read (and that's no great number), it was wonderful to read about Cook's contact with the continent as we sailed off that same coast, comparing his account of the Whitsunday Islands to the view before me. Dodging the occasional sea spray, I tore through the book, stopping regularly to underline unknown nautical terms that I would later quiz the crew about. The narrative made me grateful not to have had a personal brush with scurvy -- the food on board our boat was both delicious and nutritionally balanced. But there remain other less painful ways of experiencing traditional sailing as a tourist.
For example, it is much easier to imagine the strength it takes to run up a sail now that I have wrapped my hands around a thick hemp rope with two other "strapping lads" and been ordered to "heave." Also, when the book discussed Aboriginal bush tucker, it was nice to reminisce about that morning's nature walk, when we tasted the backside of a green ant, a flavor that is described as a weak lemon-infused 9-volt-battery. (When your pirate of a tour guide tells you to lick an ant's butt because it tastes like lemonade, how can you back down from that challenge?) Every time the book mentioned the creaking of the ship, the smell of the ocean or the brilliance of the southern sky at night, it was never difficult to picture.
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Posted by: Gordon | March 22, 2006 09:33 PM
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