Seeking Fortune in the Pacific Ocean: A Review of Three Great Books

I didn’t set out to read three books in a row about three completely different casts of characters as they seek their own kind of fortune in the expanses of the Pacific Ocean, but two Audible daily deals about this topic happened while I was reading another book that had been on my to-read list for a while.

So, here is my review of each of them.

Dove by Robin Graham

In the decade of the 1960s, popular attention tends to get focused on the latter half of the decade with its sexy cultural revolutions and controversial wars. Last year I read a book called Cobras in His Garden by Harry Kursh. It is about a man named Bill Haast who loved snakes. His love for them led him to start a Serpentarium in Florida (0f course), where he would keep hundreds of venomous snakes that he would milk for venom. He would also inject himself with incremental doses of venom to build up a tolerance to being bitten. As a result, he survived over 80 bites by some of the most venomous snakes in the world. His blood was used in transfusions to other snake bite victims to get life-saving antioxidants to the victims in the absence of antivenins. This book was published in 1965, and it is no longer in print. It can still be found in libraries or in rare/used bookstores. For those who read it, you get a glimpse into a period of American history during a time of national confidence and unbridled optimism. The first book I’m going to review comes right out of this same window of history.

Dove by Robin Lee Graham is an autobiographical account of the author’s decision when he was only 16 years old to sail around the world by himself.  The year when he sets sail is 1965. Oh, how far we’ve come when it comes to parenting. He subsequently becomes the subject of several profile pieces in National Geographic and a national celebrity. Yet, despite the grandiose backdrop to his story, his voyage ultimately becomes a love story as he cultivates a romantic relationship with an American expat girl that he meets on an island in the South Pacific. The voyage takes several years, and he has his share of adventure on the high seas, the experience of other cultures, and personal struggle and growth. All of this makes for great reading, and if you’re like me it will make you start to seriously consider if there is still time to get some kind of similar life experience even if it doesn’t involve sailing around the world.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

Following in Robin Lee Graham’s wake, quite literally only about a decade later, is William Finnegan’s memoir about surfing, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. He was one of the early adopters of the sport and spent the early half of his life surfing some of the world’s best waves. We get glimpses into his early life in both California and Hawaii where he learns to surf. Once he reaches his twenties he goes on a global journey with a friend to explore the world’s best waves. His travels take him to many of the same places explored in Dove.

I have surfed once, but it is something that I have always wished I could do. I get the allure of it. And, there was a period of time when I was a teenager where in between watching the movie Point Break and listening to song after song by Seattle grunge bands about the glories of surfing that I was tempted to run away and become a surf bum. I never did, but I was there for the dawn of the snowboarding age. I can say that to a small extent there are aspects of Finnegan’s life spent surfing that resonated with me on the snowboarding front.

Many of the reviews I read of this book noted his ability to recollect and describe very specific waves in great detail that he surfed – many of them decades ago. Some people were exhausted by this, and to be fair this is a lengthy book where descriptions of waves and surfing conditions make up a big chunk of it. However, to anyone who has ever had “the perfect ride,” you get it. Activities like surfing and snowboarding are often considered to be sports by those who don’t know better. But those who have found the right combination of natural conditions, physical ability, and mental awareness know that these “sports” become something more like art, complete with spiritual transcendence and unrivaled aesthetic beauty. There are at least two snowboarding runs that I have experienced that I can remember with the same vividness as Finnegan remembers some of his best waves. While they might not be enough to fill a book, they are cherished experiences. If you’re someone who has had similar experiences, this is a book you will enjoy even if you didn’t pursue the exact same passion to the same level.

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett

While the first two books I reviewed here were true stories of fortune seekers in the Pacific, the fortune sought in the first two books was rooted in unique experience. In Island of the Lost, we are dealing with literal fortune seekers 100 years prior. This is the story of a crew of men who plan to sail to the Auckland Islands over 200 miles south of New Zealand (technically this is in the Southern Ocean and not the Pacific Ocean, but since when did the Southern Ocean become a thing?). They are going to find precious metals that they have heard exist in the island in recoverable quantities. Ultimately, their ship wrecks and the book is primarily a tale of how they survive for over a year on the desolate Auckland Islands.

I enjoy the genre of survival tales. I occasionally watch and enjoy shows like Survivorman, Naked and Afraid, and anything with Bear Grylls in it. Cable TV survival narratives operate on a simple premise: Modern humans with various levels of survival skills are dropped in some godforsaken corner of the earth, and their goal is to not die. The shows usually turn into escalating exercises in misery. Even the most capable survivalists usually end up in pretty desperate shape. After reading Island of the Lost, it will take a lot more for cable TV survivalists to impress me.

The men who are shipwrecked in this book, don’t just survive. They become prolific at finding food. They build a shelter. They tan leather to make new clothes. They make soap. They forge tools out of iron collected from the wreckage of their ship. They distil alcohol. It’s basically like Swiss Family Robinson but on an even more deserted island and none of the Disney whimsicality.

I won’t give away how things end, but by the end the book one is left to marvel at the level of masculine mastery of the art of being human we have lost to modernity.