“A Pacific Quest by Bamboo Raft”
It’s been far too long since I’ve allowed myself a good non-fiction adventure story. Usually I enjoy accidental survival tales like Alive, Into Thin Air, or The Perfect Storm, though occasionally a purposeful tale of risk-taking also suits me well, for example A Walk Across America or Aku-Aku. The China Voyage falls into the second category, as Tim Severin skippers a crew of volunteers on an improbable voyage across the Pacific Ocean on a 60-foot raft built entirely from bamboo and bound together with natural fibers.
For nearly half a year, this small crew of 5-6 traverses the waterways from Vietnam to Hong Kong to Japan and into the depths of the North Pacific in their hunt from the California coast, all in an attempt to discover whether or not it had been possible for pre-Columbian Asians to have made a similar voyage and shared their technological advances with the native peoples on the two continents half a world away. While this book is heavy on details of ship-building and general sailing, it truly is a tale of adventure from start to finish, and I enjoyed it immensely. I just wouldn’t go as far as Sunday Times is quoted as saying on the front cover: “Exciting enough to trigger a panic attack.”
Severin’s ship, the Hsu Fu (XuFu in pinyin), is nothing terribly unique to Asian waters, though such boats still used today are sensibly restricted to coaster waters and rivers, not the vast expanses of the Pacific (70). Its strength lies in its ability to shift and bend with the waves, as a bamboo stalk itself might in the pounding winds of a tropical storm. Severin writes: “Hsu Fu was an amazingly stable platform. It was the maritime version of the Chinese proverb of the bamboo which survives the hurricane because it bends with the wind, while the great trees resist stiffly and are destroyed.” (94) Its strength in malleability also proved, however, to have its severe drawbacks, mainly that the constant push-and-pull friction rubbed the ropes and bindings to threads in terribly short periods of time. Dangers such as these, as well as the ships total inability to make headway in storms, though it survived them easily enough, added just the right amount of suspense to keep the tale a lively page-turner.
Tim Severin’s talent as a writer can be seen in his keen observations not only of the progress and failures of his adventures, but also in the natural settings around him and the personalities that pepper his journeys. Overall, Hsu Fu boasted eight different sailors, some well-seasoned and other total novices. One man in particular, the Vietnamese fisherman Loi, proved to be the most hard-working and yet also the most forlorn of the bunch, as he had to endure that entire half year isolated behind a thick, insurmountable language barrier. Though only joining the voyage for its second leg, Trondur Patursson proved to be the most entertaining volunteer of them all, as he made a habit of fashioning as many hunting weapons as proved useful to their trip and attempting to kill every fish in sight, within reason. His burly, violent presence added much strength to The China Voyage, for he was a blast from the past, a true seaman of old.
My paperback copy of this book (reprinted in 1999) was filled with black-and-white versions of original watercolors both by Japanese artist, Nina, and by Trondur Patursson. There were also numerous pages of color photographs from the voyage, which I considered (as usual) as simply stacked section of spoilers and thus avoided until I was about 70% through the book. One thing, however, that I really wasn’t happy to see was the map posted in the very beginning of the book. I enjoy not knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time in a book, so noticing where the Voyage ended was pretty big letdown for me right off the bat. Still, I steamed on, but with less anticipation that I would have had, had I not seen the ending from the beginning.
An adventure book like this does more for me than merely open my eyes as an armchair adventurer. It allows me to anticipate the possibilities that still await me in life. I’ve never set foot onto a motor-less boat in the ocean, and I’ve never been so far out to sea that I’ve lost sight of land. In fact, the thought of such a vast amount of water beneath my feet terrifies me, so I may never get out very far onto an ocean voyage. Nevertheless, the possibility exists that I could venture from California to ShenZhen on a shipping-container cruise, or take a fishing vessel from a Chinese island to Vietnam. It’s not out of the range of possibility, even, that I retire and purchase a yacht, if only to face my fears of the sea and battle her like Ishmael of long ago. Adventure books like this keep those doors of possibility open, and that’s exactly why I enjoy them so much. So if you’re like me and you need an adventurous fix with a tinge of history and Asian culture, The China Voyage should make a solid fit.