Four new books about epic expeditions

As author Philip Marsden sails solo around the British Isles’ western shores, he finds reality gets fascinatingly foggy.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 1 Nov 2019, 07:00 GMT, Updated 26 Jul 2021, 12:01 BST
Yacht sailing off Brandon Head.
Yacht sailing off Brandon Head.
Photograph by Getty Images

A tide of sailing terms rolls around this travelogue like choppy waves, but don’t reach for the glossary (there isn’t one); stay with it, and the music of this book’s briny lexis will lull any worries of it being a work of yachtsman geekery. This is a story about sailing, but in many ways it’s not. Marsden sets off from his home in Cornwall for the Summer Isles, off Scotland’s northwest coast, but it’s soon clear he is, as with his previous books, more interested in what happens in the liminal spaces between long-awaited destinations.

The mainstay of Marsden’s journey takes him around Ireland’s west coast — a remote, frayed place at the edge of comfortable human existence. Marsden hops on and off his beloved Tsambika (a wooden sloop), meeting an almost impossible cast of characters: a blind bird-spotter, exiled mainlanders, a modern-age monk. But he also magics these ‘borderless places of the imagination’ through the myths, sagas and nature poems that were shaped by the west coast’s mercurial outcrops, the islands themselves often in turn shaped by legend. Marsden also maps the most atmospheric of Celtic histories, its stories still sculpting these lands where sidhe (maverick fairies) carve caves, and selkies (shape-shifting sea creatures) inhabit the intertidal zone. 

Marsden grapples with storms and exchanges surprised expressions with a seal who makes an appearance in a deserted Atlantic bay. Thrillingly alive, the journey is nonetheless haunted by death from its outset, Marsden writes of the passing of his aunt, who inspires the journey, and the tales of countless sailors swallowed by freak squalls. As for the islanders who once inhabited the ghostly, abandoned villages that Marsden encounters? “The Atlantic beat them. It hammered them into submission.” Yet, his treatment of this relentless hammering — from the weather, from loss — is somehow, as he says of Ireland’s relationship with the sea, ‘a genuine delight mingled with terror’.  

The Summer Isles, A Voyage of the Imagination, by Philip Marsden, is published by Granta. RRP: £20

Three more books on epic expeditions

Running Free: Record-breaking sailor Robin Knox-Johnston’s autobiography charts his career. RRP: £9.99 (Simon & Schuster)

Hungry: Journalist Jeff Gordinier and Noma chef René Redzepi go on a four-year gastronomic globe-trot, ticking off molecular pastry in the Bronx along the way. RRP: £16.99 (Icon)

Extreme Survivors: Adventure doesn’t get more hard-boiled than this definitive look at 60 of the most death-defying human tales in history. RRP: £12.99 (Harper Collins) 

Published in the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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