The Solitude of the Open Sea
by Gregory Newell Smith
Seaworthy Publications (2005)
paperback; 259 pages; $15.95
available at www.seaworthy.com
Reviewed by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho
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Gregory Newell Smith's The Solitude of the Open Sea, a collection of narrative essays drawn from Smith's around-the-world sailing adventures, is much more than a sailing book: it is an insightful reflection on cross-cultural misunderstandings and the problems of cultural isolation; an album of portraits of fascinating people (his account of a young English woman, "Florence," was my favorite); and, most of all, the book is a philosophical examination of solitude and how being alone on his journey shaped his experiences.
The title essay, which tells of Smith's 53-day solo passage from Panama to Hawaii, explains how a full appreciation of solitude goes beyond merely being alone, away from other people. On the contrary, it is through solitude that Smith is able to experience communion with nature and all of its power, a sublimity that, for Smith, is inspired by the breadth and majesty of the open sea. The experience of the sublime is a distinctive aesthetic that overwhelms the observer in a way that ordinary perception cannot.
The sense of what Smith calls "wonder and awe" is difficult to apprehend outside of nature, though it is perhaps approached in some Chinese and Western landscape paintings. As Smith writes, "It took the sea's total freedom and the solitude I found there to finally achieve the communion I'd sought for so many years. When I found that communion, . . . it was a communion with Nature, with the universe beheld each day, with the wind, the waves, the sky, and the creatures of the sea. . . . For a brief time I was at peace. There was nothing I truly desired, no other person I needed to make me feel whole. My world was complete."
What Smith experienced on the open sea was nature mysticism, which differs from traditional mysticism in at least two ways. First, nature mystics are extroverted, by which I mean that all their senses, including the kinesthetic, are stimulated. By contrast, other mystics turn inward and deliberately shut down their senses. Second, traditional mystics, rather than merging with nature, experience a fusion with God or the universal soul (atman) of the Hindus.
Both types of mysticism, however, do draw a person into the Eternal Now. Smith writes, "I can think of no more immediate experience than sailing by oneself. . . . we feel bored or lonely when we are no longer living in the present moment. We want a change of circumstances, to be somewhere else or doing something else. We separate ourselves from our immediate reality by positing an alternate. We react rather than respond." The mystics and the sea teach us the same lesson: "The key is acceptance: eventually the sea will get you to admit that one of the few things you can change in life is your attitude. A successful ocean passage is therefore nothing short of the union of the boat and its crew with the natural environment, and exemplifies the difference between reacting and responding."
By the end of the book, however, Smith has learned that he really needs soul fusion and not just nature mysticism. "I know I should be savoring each and every moment of this wonderful sailing-around-the-world life, but my willingness to experience wonder and awe has been drained by the absence of a soul mate with whom to share it." This confession appears at odds with his claim that the open sea is a cure for loneliness and boredom, but now, although he has "increased [his] capacity for solitude," he admits that he is lonely.
Smith fears that his profound experiences of the sublime have made him less than fit for ordinary human fellowship. Nature accepts us unconditionally and she is fair and faithful, "treating us with he same care and respect she affords all." But most human beings want more than this-they are after all social animals-and each of us desires a special someone in a unique relationship of love and trust.
Smith is able to admit that his life is not complete, and that he really does need another person to make him whole. He acknowledges that he has been "nursing [a] resentment about having no partner, no soul mate, no special person with whom to share the journey." Furthermore, he has discovered that other lands, such as New Zealand, even though very much like his own Pacific Northwest, could not really be his home. "I'll leave those places to their own natives, to those people who, as Terry Tempest Williams writes, naturally comprehend their landscapes and hold them as sanctuary inside their unguarded hearts."
In addition to insightful ruminations on solitude, the author also reflects on the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding. The reader gets the impression that Smith initially assumed that Euro-American "cruisers"--those who sail leisurely from island to island, continent to continent--would be ideal emissaries for international understanding. The actual experience, however, was far from what he expected.
Though he is not as cynical as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein ("One culture misunderstands another; and a petty culture misunderstands all the others in its own nasty way") he still comes to some rather negative conclusions: "There is little meaningful interaction between the cultures, as if both sides recognize the impossibility of either being able to fathom the other. Notions of universal brotherhood are pragmatically reduced to simple acceptance, without any real understanding of each other's lives."
He expresses his frustration at his failure to make further inroads into the native environment, but recognizes that his frustration is equally a measure of his own society's values and their hold on him. Nor does Smith believe that we westerners can hope to "go native;" no matter how much we may try, they will always remain at a distance from the culture we would embrace, forever identified by the locals as the outsider, the "Other."
The Solitude of the Open Sea is a marvelous book, both philosophically astute and a constant pleasure to read. Through a series of carefully chosen snapshots, Gregory Newell Smith has ably recreated the daily realities of extended travel and the insights it provides, ranging from the depths of despair, to the humdrum quotidian rituals, to the dizzying heights of rapture. The book is also a portrait of a caring, deeply introspective man-a nature mystic if you will-searching for peace with himself and with the world.