In Batavia’s Graveyard (Crown, $25, 384 pages) historian Mike Dash, a student of the strange and horrific, presents the tale of one of history’s most appalling shipwrecks, the loss in 1629 of the Dutch East Indian “Batavia” on a tiny Island near the west coast of Australia.
This is no ordinary story of hardship and survival, for the ship’s company was soon under the control of a cunning madman, Jeronimus Corneliszoom who solved the dilemma of too many mouths and scant rations on a desolate reef by literally cutting the numbers down in fact murdering 96 of the 250 survivors with the help of fellow mutineers. Eventual rescue by a relief ship, capture and trial by court followed.
Mr. Dash is able to make use of extensive records and letters which have survived, many published here for the first time. In the best Fleet Street tradition, Mr. Dash makes the most of each gruesome step of this ordeal, which winds on and on until Corneliszoom himself is hung, his hands having been hacked off, back in Holland. Though Mr. Dash cites the most meticulous research for his story, he follows the unfortunate practice, current in nonfiction, of simply making up details to embellish the narrative.
Wall Street Journal reporter and “avid sailor” G. Bruce Knecht’s The Proving Ground (Little Brown, $24.95, 304 pages) is his entrant in the rush to memorialize (two other books are already in print) the fateful 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a traditional event made remarkable when six sailors among the fleet of 115 competing yachts died due to fierce storm winds.
The story, and the rescue effort which enabled 55 sailors who might otherwise have drowned to be saved, made world headlines, and still makes thrilling reading here. Mr. Knecht’s approach, through interviews with the survivors and careful research, produces many insights to the why and how of the deaths.
But the question left unresolved remains to nag everyone who is interested in the sport of ocean sailing or racing: When is the time to call off an event or a contest in the face of terrible and life threatening conditions, in an age when communication is no longer a problem? For there is little doubt that if the organization sponsoring the race, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, had called a halt, some of the drownings would not have happened.
In Deep Descent (Pocket Books, $26.95, 301 pages), an exploration of the risk-filled world of wreck divers, Kevin F. McMurray faces the ominous fact that many of his best friends have drowned doing what they loved best.
So tricky is the equation of compressed air and oxygen and other gases commonly used to support human life in deep diving that there is no sure protocol, no conservative or proven safe way to go. All is still experiment in an environment completely hostile to man; one of the most difficult factors is the mental derangement a kind of false euphoria of the deep which a lot of people experience.
“The risks are many,” Mr. McMurray writes. “Are they worth it? Perhaps not.” But wreck diving men and women are anything but sensible. Their thrill is to go where no one has gone before, and in the case of deep wrecks (Andria Doria, 250 feeet down, is but one of the famous sites) almost every dive is a new horizon in the tiny world of these sportsmen.
Diving deep is one way to die in the ocean while trying to conquer it but sailing singlehanded around the world will do as well, as Peter Nichols recounts in A Voyage for Madmen (HarperCollins, $26, 293 pages), his overview of the first singlehanded yacht race around the world, the 1968 Golden Globe.
In those days, before the French began to develop their system of sponsored, record attempting voyages, the thought of sailing alone was considered heroic and foolhardy. Sir Francis Chichester, remember, was knighted by the Queen of England in 1966 for his voyage in Gypsy Moth, but today the feat would hardly be noticed.
Mr. Nichols, an English adventurer and writer, who himself has sailed the Atlantic (failing to reach America when his 27-foot wooden boat foundered a week short) ably tells of that remarkable race which nine rather eccentric men began, but only one, Robin Knox-Johnston, was to finish.
The story of one competitor, the driven electronics genius Donald Crowhurst, who committed suicide rather than face the discovery that he had faked most of the voyage while idling in the South Atlantic, became a monumental bestseller 10 years ago but is revived in Mr. Nichols’ skilled hands here.
And Mr. Nichols gives much space to the character of the most famous of the voyagers, Bernard Moitessier, the poetic Frenchman who opted not to complete the race, even though he had won. He sailed on to Tahiti, after sending his famous message, “I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.”
Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.