Coasting: A Private Voyage – Jonathan Raban (1987)


“People who live on continents get into the habit of regarding the ocean as a journey’s end… For people who live on small islands, the sea is always the beginning…”

Having already read (pre-blog) Raban’s Bad Lands about his travels across North Dakota and co., I knew that this would probably be a great read as well. And it was.

Raban is a travel writer of sorts who journeys to see the world but also to navigate his interior terrain of memories and experiences along the way. (It sounds very boring and naval-gaze-y, but he maintains a balance on interior/exterior monologue that works.) For this volume, Raban decides to renovate a small boat and then to sail it tightly around the coast of Scotland, England and Wales (although Ireland was in sight at times if the weather was clear) and this is exactly what the book describes most of the time.

UK_map_coastalAlthough I have no real experience of a boat or sailing or tides or anything nautical really, I do enjoy reading about such topics and it was rather fun to follow Raban as he sails south down the west coast of Britain, stopping in at various ports of call along the way. He stops off for a time on the Isle of Man (which he describes with a good sense of humor and observation), and then follows the Irish Sea down to Wales and then around the corner of Land’s End. Along the way, he narrates his sailing experience along with some present and past history of the land he passes.

Written in the early 1980’s, it’s when there was a Thatcher government and the Falkland Islands war had just broken out. The UK miners’ strike was in progress, and high unemployment throughout the country. (This was referenced in the music of the time: Remember the group UB40? That group name was actually the name of the government form that you had to fill out when you were unemployed. And their song “I Am a One in 10” refers to the high unemployment rate at the time. So now you know…)

It was really interesting to read about this time in UK history as I was only 19 when it occurred and all this was very much on the periphery of my life at the time. (I was much more excited and interested in my near-future move to the United States than I was about some vague political struggle at the end of South America and governmental unrest.)

So it was a really fascinating read on many levels: recent history, long-past history, then-current governmental relations all mixed with Raban having personal reminisces of his unhappy days at boarding school and meeting up with Paul Theroux, another travel writer who seems to be constantly in a bad mood wherever he is.

Raban’s journey takes him around places that I haven’t heard mention of since I was a child: Anglesey in Wales, Cornwall, Portsmouth, Norfolk  – and I was very grateful for my book edition to have a map in the frontispiece so I could track his navigation. It was fun to see where he went and then read about his experiences along the way.


Tidal chart of the English Channel in 1880

And you know what I also found really interesting? The sailing part of this journey. As mentioned, I have next-to-little experience of boats and when people do engage in nautical talk, I get a bit lost. When sailors start talking about tidal charts and the Shipping Weather Forecast, it’s almost about a different planet at times, so it was great to expand my knowledge slightly in this area. Raban knows a lot about the sea and how it works generally, and he had clear explanations which enabled me, as the reader, to access this heretofore secret world (which I loved). Loads of new words to look up and learn.

Although this book got to a rather slow start, once I had buckled down and got into the narrative, it was a fast and fascinating read. I’m definitely going to track down more of Raban’s backlist in the future.

This is my nautical experience really...

This is my nautical experience really…

2 thoughts on “Coasting: A Private Voyage – Jonathan Raban (1987)

  1. Love the quote you chose! And what a great trip. I love Scotland and I’ve always wanted to go to Wales…just maybe not by sea. 🙂
    P.S. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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