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Travel Books - Slow Boats to China

After twenty years as a peripatetic foreign correspondent covering wars and revolutions for the Observer, Gavin Young finds that he needs a break and convinces his editor to give him a leave of absence. He decides to follow a lifelong dream and run away to sea. His plan is to port-hop around the world from his home in England to the furthest point he can think of—China. He asks for four months leave, but in the end it will take him more than seven to reach his destination, for he learns that he has nearly left his dream voyage too late: cheap air flights have almost put an end to passenger travel by sea. Nevertheless, he decides to persist and trust to luck.


Young begins his journey in Piraeus and ends in Canton, sailing on twenty-three vessels, not all of them safe or mechanically sound. He crosses the Arabian Sea in a wooden dhow, cruises from Sri Lanka to Tuticorin in a three-masted wooden sailing vessel, is boarded by pirates in the Sulu Sea off the Philippines, and sails from Colombo to the Maldives in a tiny 40 foot motor launch in a terrific storm:


Facing me, [the cook] was smiling and gibbering unintelligibly. Suddenly his eyes switched from my face to something over my shoulder—something, to judge by the horror on his face, too appalling to imagine. His eyes stretched open to an amazing size, and he opened his wide mouth and screamed, “Eeeeeeeeeee——aaaaa——-aaayyyyyyyyyy.” … Thanks to the Starling Cook’s scream, I had time to wedge myself into the cabin doorway, bracing myself with feet and elbows. The Starling Cook himself leaped with astounding agility for the mast and clung to it, wrapping his arms and wishbone legs around it like a koala bear on a eucalyptus trunk. The impact of the wave was awesome. The launch heeled over—ninety degrees? God knows. Solid slabs of black water toppled over the gunwales, and everything on deck or in the cabin seemed to go adrift. Water filled my clothes, eyes, ears. Water cascaded from the legs of the Starling Cook’s shorts. He squawked like a wet hen and gestured at me, pointing once more at the moon with one hand and at the waves with the other.


Young often finds himself stranded in a foreign port, walking from office to office, begging for passage to accomplish the next leg of his journey. Nothing is easy or straightforward. But that is what makes Slow Boats to China such a wonderful book. Difficult and dangerous journeys make the best stories. In his travels, Young meets some delightful people: colourful ship’s captains, helpful shipping agents, eccentric hotel keepers, and endearing crew members. Only two people in the entire voyage earn his ire: two men in positions of authority who go out of their way to put deliberate obstacles in his path. Otherwise, he finds people remarkably hospitable and helpful in every port he visits.


Slow Boats reminds me a lot of Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar (reviewed here). One is a journey around Asia by train, the other a journey by boat. Perhaps Young was inspired by Theroux? (Theroux’s book was published in 1975 and Young’s in 1981). At any rate, Slow Boats is highly entertaining and thoroughly recommended.

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