Ocean eggshell

Climb aboard a 20ft junk-rigged, bilge-keeler, lined out with carpet offcuts to protect against the sub-Arctic chill and stuffed full of instant mash potato, pre-cooked rice and squeezy Marmite and set sail for Iceland. You have no engine, no EPIRB, no liferaft. You do have a sextant, GPS and handheld VHF.

Welcome to the world of mimimalist sailor Roger D. Taylor and his gallant mini-steed MingMing, a customised Corribee Mark II the cabin of which he has made even smaller by foam filling the ends behind watertight bulkheads in case he hits an ice-berg in anger.

Roger has written a wonderful book, MingMing and the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing, about three voyages made from the UK: one from Burnham-on-Crouch, his home port, around the Faeroes and back to Plymouth; the second to the Azores and back from Plymouth and the third from Scotland to Jan Mayen island, around Iceland and back to Scotland.

MingMing is a Chinese phrase meaning that man and object both have a shared destiny. It is apt for the solo-sailing Roger and his little eggshell of a boat for both most certainly share the same fate: either life or death in the unforgivable territory of the northern seas.

But it is exactly that: man and machine in perfect harmony (courtesy Henry Ford, sorry Roger) pitted against the great elements which he seeks. To be confronted with a greater truth: how well has the science of his artifice performed, but much more importantly of what is he himself made?

Roger is dismayed by many aspects of modern living: its shallowness, superficiality, and spiritual death and we follow his sometimes profound, sometimes dismissive, but always eloquent passage both away from the land and towards the self.

En route his reverie of close-to whales, full on storms and sinister ice provide the Arthurian tests for hull and soul, but always the world he is escaping from intervenes: a centrally-heated cruise ship, a freighter with its website emblazoned in 60 foot letters, a deep-sea trawler dragging up the contents of the seabed…

As he leaves Burnham-on-Crouch he sails by Frinton, Clacton and Walton ‘all on sea’ he notes with a sneer knowing that while they may be on sea they are not of it.

But our narrator is honest as well as uncompromising. Towards the end of his third voyage he starts cracking up: hating the sea, hating the head wind, hating the clouds, hating the crashing noise of his tiny boat. He longs for beer, a warm bed, a hot meal and, although we know he is a superb navigator, we are there with him when storm conditions mean he has to run off 40 miles in the wrong direction rather than risk missing a two mile sound through an Icelandic reef.

Simple sailing it might be, but it is also simply one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject.

MingMing, by Roger D Taylor, published by The Fitzroy Press at £9.99.

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