His voyages are simple, his reflections about them anything but. Roger Taylor’s writing is unsettling and brilliant, says Dick Durham
Most people don’t ‘get’ Roger D Taylor. At one time, blinded by sunny photographs of exotic ports in over-written pilot books, nor did I. Roger sails round in ever-increasing circles finding himself, but why doesn’t he do it somewhere the butter melts?
Okay, so his boats are discarded bilge-keelers rescued from looming landfill and rebuilt, but why doesn’t he fit an engine?
His passage plan is to get nowhere fast, until, as the days begin to shorten, he turns round and comes back, but why doesn’t he take a run ashore?
Sod that for a game of sailors.
No, to get Roger you have to read him; Roger’s destination is in his prose – is his prose. His voyages are Homeric; they are living allegories because through his reality our own is revealed.
In his latest and best book, Mingming II and the Islands of the Ice, we board an Achilles
24 that Roger found abandoned in a Welsh boatyard and which he brought back to Essex to spend two years restoring, remodeling and finally re-powering with his trademark junk rig.
Once finished and road-trailered to Scotland, we sail with him from Whitehills on the Moray Firth towards islands that have been named by Norsemen with a dislike of vowels – even the Os have a line through them.
Over the next 55 days we get under Roger’s skin as he gets beneath ours in a shared voyage of discovery with Mingming II’s prison-like bunk as our casting couch; her grey interior as the dark room we lay down in to confront the human condition via both the animal world and the world of the inanimate.
Like Robert the Bruce he watches a spider build and rebuild a web, but there are no flies to catch; the creature’s tenacity is a ‘genetic imperative’ neither noble nor stupid.
While observing a harmonious flight of ‘exact replica’ guillemots he ponders homo sapiens: ‘Is man over-attached to his individuality? Does it lead to the wrong kind of competition? Is there something inherently destructive in our need to assert our differences over others?’
‘We sail to islands named by Norse men with a dislike of vowels’
When two humpback whales swim alongside Mingming II within arm’s reach: ‘All experience is stripped of relevance and meaning; the world and one’s place in it is redefined at every level. Thought is reduced to tingling primeval sensation; there is nothing but the moment…’
Yet when considering the inanimate coast of Bjornoya in the Barents Sea, he is placed in humankind’s fullest context: ‘Our few hours there constituted just one single day in more than thirty-six billion days. Perhaps it was the remoteness and the overwhelming muteness of the rock, that brought home the weight of all those days… for a fleeting moment I sensed the mind-numbing dimensions of geological time, and heard the echoes of its silence.’
Or sailing towards the glacier at Edgeoya: ‘… the only constant is the ocean. Land is ever- shifting and ephemeral; so, too, is ice. Despite its scale and seeming solidity, I knew that the glacier was moving. I could hear it. The ice was murmuring and groaning and every few minutes let out a rumbling roar, sometimes a distant roll of thunder, sometimes a sharp- edged artillery salvo.’
It is, appropriately, his own creation which is both the vessel of his physical voyaging and the vehicle of his self-discovery; while off Jan Mayen Island he asks himself what he is doing there and quickly answers: ‘ … An urge for total immersion in a world spared the stultifying contrivances of man? …this simple voyaging … in the bleakness of these wild places … I could find clarity and repose; it was only here that my mind, the only thing that was truly mine, could find the space to soar.’
No-one else writes like this; few can sail like this. Through his plucky singlehanded ‘cruises’, Roger has produced the Baedeker of Being.