- by Carol Standish
A Mile Down
(Thunder’s Mouth Press; 233pp; $14.95)
Reading A Mile Down is like driving by a train wreck. Trying not to gawk is like trying not to turn the page of this book. The subtitle, The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea is insufficient preparation for the litany of unrelenting consequences of every effort on the part of our author/hero to prevail in the boat charter business.
Author/adventurer David Vann is a many faceted young man with a Stanford education and an MFA in writing. His ambitious dream is to own and run an educational charter business sailing out of all the mythic ports on the Mediterranean and the Aegean. At the beginning of this book, he has been successfully running a similar business on the west coast of the United States, teaching creative writing workshops to students while sailing from California to the San Juan Islands of Washington state on his 48-foot sailboat. The charters were offered through Stanford’s Continuing Education Department. That plan was so pleasant and successful that Vann decided to expand to richer waters.
In 1997, he visited Turkey. The reason for his initial visit is not clear but assuming it was a vacation, the results of that trip were significantly more life changing than mere R and R. The next year he returned, chartered a boat and sailed his “educational cruises” along the coasts of Italy, Turkey and Greece. “I taught creative writing workshops morning and evening, enjoyed the tours with my guests, and had a glorious vacation all summer long.”
But the seed of damnation had already been planted. While kicking around the boat yard he had fallen in love with a boat—a partially finished 90-foot steel hull. And when he talked about this boat to his charter customers, “without quite meaning to, I sold loans.”
An accomplished sailor and articulate dreamer, definitely, but, a hard-nosed business man Vann was not. The early part of the book is a harrowing account of Vann’s dealing with the boat builder and broker and the boat builders in the Turkish yard. Throughout the rushed (he had booked charters before the boat was finished) and painful completion of the boat he constantly worries and objects, albeit ineffectually about inferior materials and short cut methods. On the maiden cruise, the paint and the undercoat literally slides off the steel hull.
Cost overruns and a dearth of bookings which Vann attributes first to the war in Kosovo and then to his sales manager back in the states threatens his financial house of cards—literally. He has maxed out all his and his girlfriend’s credit cards after running through the loans of 17 private lenders. He decides to sail the boat to the Caribbean and run the charter business in more lucrative waters. In the middle of the Mediterranean in the middle of a storm, his rudder falls off. Vann’s account of that near fatal horror show puts you in the middle of the maelstrom.
As he and his incredibly stalwart girlfriend and a variety of crew continue to hobble west, the litany of disasters continues, including bankruptcy, piracy, a keystone cops attempt at rescue by our own Coast Guard recounted with breathtaking intensity. Woven into the action of the narrative are introspective passages in which Vann examines his drives and motives in the light of the emotional scarring he carries from his father’s suicide. But, oddly, the book is not a downer. Vann concludes that life consists of constantly re-shaping yourself. A new, better you is just around the corner. Hope and perseverance are at the core of the narrative, in part because people keep lending him money. But it is also a cautionary tale. Very few of us have the kind of friends who could afford to finance such an extravagant and expensive way of growing up.
For more information about the author, David Vann, including a series of photos of the boat sinking, visit www.davidvann.com