Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting
I live torn between my two landscape loves, the mountains and the oceans but when it comes to literary choices, I’m a sucker for anything that occurs out on the wide open seas, particularly in a wind-driven craft. The photograph that graces the cover of Seaworthy of an emaciated, but whip strong, William Willis guiding one of his handmade craft out on the loneliness of the ocean is all by itself enough to draw me in. The story the lies between the covers is an adventure like you’ve never read, mostly because Willis embarks upon the solo ocean journeys voluntarily and often against the advice of friends and family. The novelist T.R. Pearson takes us along onboard the various ships and into the various ports of call that Willis visits, often making us feel the salt spray, the tumult of the tides, and the discomfort of being constantly damp.
The tale of William Willis is a little known bit of sailing lore, being the story of a man who at the age of 60 decides to cross the Pacific on a raft made of lashed together balsa logs alone. Unlike the better known Kon-Tiki expedition years earlier which carried a crew and an anthropological objective, Willis made the decision to embark upon his voyage simply because he couldn’t sit still. A love for the open sea combined with an obvious inability to function normally in polite society ignited the passionate pursuit of the trip. Though his wife Teddy is vocally against the trip, she acquiesces too easily in the end, perhaps knowing the Willis has no mechanism within him to comprehend the wisdom of his adventure.
Willis displays flashes of genius to temper his inability to complete his preparations or his need to face danger eye to eye. His days at sea are filled with mundane chores, care for his hernias, seeking peace with his shipmate animals, and questions about the wisdom of his endeavor. When we find ourselves in the chilly water with him after falling overboard, we along with Willis see the raft in the distance and wonder if this is the end, watching the raft lumber along ahead of him just out of reach. We wait cringing as he contemplates some shipboard exploratory surgery with whatever rusty implement he has at hand. We wonder why, in our own lives, we can’t summon the courage to do things just to do them and to prove our mettle only to ourselves.
Pearson takes the reader on two Pacific cruises filled with adventure; the second has Willis leaving port at the age of 70. His prose is an excellent transition from novel to non-fiction and the book is just right in its length. From his early prison break escapade to his last voyage across the Atlantic in a glorified rowboat, the reader is engaged in the life of a most interesting man. Little is said about his wife and we are left to wonder is she too was a bit of a vicarious adventurer, living through her companion and knowing the muse that drove him.
This is an excellent addition to your library. We can only hope that T.R. Pearson treats us to another real life tale somewhere down the line mixed in with his other storytelling.