H2O: life, death, war -- and sailing


We and the surface of our world are mostly water. It sustains life and, sometimes, visits death. We drink it, bathe in it, swim in it, sail on it. It is at once our most precious and most abused resource. We bless with it when it is holy, and fight over it when it is short. It may soon replace religion as the most common cause of local wars.

Little wonder then that it is an ever-flowing source for authors, who study it, worry about it, dabble in it and celebrate it. Another shelf has recently been added to the published library on the science, history, adventure and romance of water. Perhaps the best place to start reading is Marq de Villiers' "Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource" (Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, $26). It offers us "the where, what and how much of the water world."

With a water crisis looming, we must, he says, look to human inventiveness for the solution to "these wars we are waging against our own worst nature." Chemist Philip Ball's "Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 417 pages, $25) is an absorbing scientific treatise on the "only substance to exist on earth in all three of its physical states: solid, liquid and gas."

The largest bodies of water, of course, are the seas. In "The Oceans" (McGraw-Hill, 314 pages, $24.95), marine scientist Ellen J. Prager and Sylvia A. Earle, explorer in residence at the National Georgraphic Society, take us down to the 142 million square miles of mystery beneath the seas.

Their research leads them to join the chorus of environmental concern: "What we do -- or do not do -- at this point of history will determine the fate of this ocean planet, and of humankind."

Staying under water, Trevor Norton recounts the history and development of diving, from the early spear fishermen who held their breath to John Haldane, who learned how to control the bends. His quirky book is "Stars Beneath the Sea: The Pioneers of Diving" (Carroll & Graf, 282 pages, $25).

Back on land, journalist Gerard T. Koeppel records one city's struggle to obtain an adequate and clean supply of water. In "Water for Gotham: A History" (Princeton University Press, 350 pages, $29.95), Koeppel traces the suffering, politics and corruption surrounding construction of the Croton Aqueduct last century, a prerequisite for New York's development as one of the great cities of the world.

For sailors more than citizens, water holds special allure. Too often it is a fatal attraction. John Rousmaniere gives a stark and chastening account of the dangers of sailing in a new edition of "Fastnet, The Deadliest Storm in the History of Modern Sailing" (W.W. Norton & Co., 287 pages, $14.95).

A sailor with 35,000 blue-water miles in his wake, Rousmaniere tells of the storm that struck the 303 ocean racing boats that set out on Aug. 11, 1979, from England to round the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern tip of Ireland. A ferocious gale sank five yachts, killed 15 people and forced 24 crews to abandon ship.

Rousmaniere, who survived the race but has never sailed another Fastnet, is still haunted by the Plymouth "quay crowded with solemn men and women ... whose hearts were aching for more than two thousand sailors."

Peter Goss' story is less heart-rending, but equally hair-raising. A competitor in the 1996-97 Vendee Globe nonstop, single-handed race round the world, he rescued Frenchman Raphael Danelli from a sinking boat in the Southern Ocean. How he did it will keep you turning the pages of "Close to the Wind: An Extraordinary Story of Triumph Over Adversity" (Carroll & Graf, 273 pages, $25).

It may just whet your appetite for Derek Lundy's "Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters" (Carroll & Graf, 272 pages, $13), which recounts the experiences of the 14 men and two women who risked their lives to accept the Vendee Challenge.

In "Dark Wind: A Survivor's Tale of Love and Loss" (Plume, 223 pages, $14), Gordon Chaplin seeks to assuage the guilt of the 1992 drowning of his sailing partner, Susan Atkinson, during a Pacific typhoon, which turned a piece of romantic escapism into catastrophe.

The sail-off escape of Kevin Patterson proves more funny than fraught as he flees a broken heart and tries to put his army days behind him. "The Water in Between: a Journey at Sea" (Doubleday, 289 pages, $23.95) should encourage as well as amuse other amateur sailors.

Three books deal with the tragic past and gloomy present of the New England fishing industry -- "Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn, Hero Fisherman of Gloucester" by Joseph E. Garland (Touchstone Books, 30 pages, $13); "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 302 pages, $24.95); and "Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman" by Richard Adam Carey (Houghton Mifflin, 381 pages, $13).

Spanning the centuries with disturbing constancy, of course, has been warfare at sea. In "The Monitor Chronicle: One Sailor's Account," edited by William Marvel (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $35), the letters of sailor George Geer give new insight into life aboard a 19th century warship. The book also details the campaign to recover the Union ironclad, which sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1862.

Spencer Dunmore uses "In Great Waters: The Epic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic" (McClelland & Stewart Inc., 342 pages, $24.95) to acknowledge the pivotal role of the Air Force in determining the outcome of one of the most important campaigns of World War II. It cost the Allies more than 2,600 merchant ships, 30,000 seaman's lives, 5,000 aircrew and 2,500 aircraft.

If war takes a heavy toll at sea, so can nature. "Eye of the Storm; Essays in the Aftermath" (Coastal Carolina Press, 227 pages, $19.95) is a collection of essays, edited by Ellen Wood Rickert, on the devastation and human cost of the 1999 hurricane season, which included Hurricane Floyd.

"Fire in the Sea -- The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis" (Cambridge University Press, 258 pages, $34.95) by geology professor Walter L. Friedrich revisits the legend of the lost city of Atlantis. Friedrich suggests it may have been wiped out by the most colossal volcanic earthquake in world history, strong enough to make Krakatoa seem like a "firecracker."

An utterly more relaxing volume is "The Golden Age of Sailing: Classic Yacht Photographs by Beken of Cowes" (Times Books, 172 pages, $25). Three generations of the Beken family, Alfred, Frank and Keith, focused on the boats in England's premier sailing venue. Their sepia photographs remind one of Aubrey Bodine's classic Chesapeake Bay collection. It's a charming little book.

But for sheer distraction, you might pick up "Beach: Stories by the Sand and Sea" (Marlowe & Company, 332 pages, $15.95). Editors Lean Lencek and Gideon Bosker present writers of the calibre of John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike. It's just the thing for the beach.

Gilbert Lewthwaite, The Sun's boating columnist, has been with The Sun for 29 years, half of them as a foreign correspondent. Today, he spends as much time as he can on and by the water, often on his 31-foot Westerly Sloop.

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