Authors at Sea; Lively `Passage' drifts off course

  BYLINE: David Vance
  DATE: 11-28-1999
  PUBLICATION: The Austin American-Statesman

  "Passage to Juneau" never quite gains its bearings, never adheres to a direct narrative
  course. Ostensibly an account of author Jonathan Raban's solo sailing voyage from
  Seattle to Juneau through the Inside Passage, this engaging travelogue fails to let the
  reader know the literary latitude or longitude. The author seems not to know it either.
  Near the end of his journey, he tries "to see if anything resembling a pattern or a story
  was discernible in its tumble of places and events," and admits, "Not much, not yet."
  Not a good sign. Another problem: Three-fourths of the way through the book, Raban is
  less than halfway to Juneau.

  Using the voyage of the 18th century English ship Discovery as his guide and tenuous
  narrative thread, he weaves a deft but unwieldy tapestry of topography, personal
  narrative, history and social context. But this weak thread seems suspect. So willing is
  he to depart from the Discovery voyage -- which he vigorously relates in parts of the
  book -- that it eventually recedes and finally sails over the horizon of Raban's
  consciousness. At the end, it's not even mentioned.

  Raban, the author of "Bad Land" and editor of the "Oxford Book of the Sea," is a
  first-class worker of words, with no shortage of opinions and an unfathomable depth of
  knowledge. Yet, the sheer volume of information becomes a burdensome cargo. To wit,
  a short list of subjects covered and names mentioned: Industrial Workers of the World,
  Northwest nature writing, the Church of England, Native American art and myth, the
  sublime in 18th century literature, historic salmon populations, Mozart, John Muir, A.A.
  Milne, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Conrad and the late PBS painter Bob Ross. Raban
  quotes Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, Alice Munro, Ralph Waldo Emerson
  and Evelyn Waugh.

  Such knowledge-dropping is all very interesting when told by a writer of Raban's class,
  but one wonders if this massive context was actually realized on voyage, inspired by it,
  or merely created after the fact because he had a contract to write a book. The answer
  probably lies in a bit of each, since Raban confesses at the outset that he wanted "to go
  to sea in my own boat for the going's sake" and "meant to meditate on the sea, at sea."

  The author tells us a lot about waves and wind, land and water; he wants us to be
  impressed with his slice of ocean. It probably is impressive, but at times his voyage
  seems merely a navigation of tides, charts and winds. He lectures ominously about
  vortices, tidal gyres, back-eddies and other "fascinating movements of water." The tide
  is squeezed "into a firehose-jet"; a whirlpool is "a hungry, self-propelling eddy with a
  deepening center -- a Kansas twister made of water." A cogently rendered waterscape
  to be sure, but after the eighth water phenomenon is explained, it becomes
  paradoxically, quite dry. At one point, trying to convince his father (and us?) of the
  uniqueness of the place, he says he "rattled airily on about crags, precipices,
  cascades, whirlpools." That sounds like a description of passages in his book, though
  when "rattled" by Raban, interest rarely lags.