Michael Cosgrove's Imperfect Passage is not your average cruising narrative, although it does describe the author's cruise in a 40-foot sailboat from San Diego across the Pacific and through many South Pacific islands. In part because he was educated as a psychologist, and in part because he had just turned 60 and was seeking personal accomplishment and greater meaning in his life, Cosgrove's voyage is as much an inner journey as a sea adventure. While this memoir quality with its personal focus makes the story less a classic sea story, it adds a satisfying dimension and a reminder that a small boat voyage is always at least as much about the human element as the boat and the sea.
Imperfect Passage: A Sailing Story of Vision, Terror, and Redemption
Skyhorse Publishing, 2012
302 pages, hard cover
What It's About?
Cosgrove at age 60 had achieved success as traditionally defined by building a successful business, attaining financial independence, and having a loving relationship and happy children. Then he had a three-quarters-life crisis, felt he needed to do something grand, and decided to buy a bigger sailboat and sail around the world. We join him in the humorous travails of choosing a boat, equipping and provisioning it with the help of a suspicious character, taking on an unknown and ultimately difficult crew, and taking off. I won't spoil the fun of reading why Cosgrove came to fear his crew, but he soon changes course to head for Hawaii, the nearest land, to get off the boat in a hurry. Disillusioned, feeling broken, he decides to give it up - an all-too-human reaction after what he has experienced so far.
But he is no quitter, so after more self-analysis he's motivated again and departs Hawaii with new crew headed for Tahiti - and three times has to return to Hawaii because of boat problems. Finally they're off again and the adventure continues as they battle a white squall and eventually reach Tahiti and then on to Bora Bora, Tonga, Fiji - all the romantic names of South Pacific islands.
After losing his crew in the islands, Cosgrove sails on alone, joined once by his daughters on a cruise to Vanuatu. Then, en route on his final passage to Australia, the adventure intensifies as he is hit by storms and loses his autopilot. Unable to heave to, he spends days at the helm, exhausted, occasionally hallucinating - the final ordeal that will eventually lead to greater self-awareness even as in New Zealand he abandons his original goal to sail around the world.
Why It's a Good Read
As mentioned, this is a story of a man's inner journey as much as a sailing story, and a strength of the book overall is that, as a man, he is not particularly special or heroic. Indeed, he is more an Everyman, and as such many readers will be able to identify with him more than with super-sailors like Bernard Moitessier whose sailing narratives approach the profound. As well, Cosgrove is more than competent as a writer and captures the daily realities of cruising and visiting exotic ports with clarity and moving detail as well as wit and charm.
I confess, however, to some disappointment with the book's final sections. After arriving in Australia, he inexplicably hits another boat while daysailing with a friend, and while the accident is clearly his fault, the story labors to make the other sailor such a jerk as he seeks exorbitant compensation that I lose sympathy for him as he engages in legal entanglements and flees the law for New Zealand. The focus becomes so jarring here that the reader may have difficulty accepting his final epiphanies as he gives up his cruise to return to land with a renewed vision of his life's meaning. When he refers to all he has learned from his suffering and the "constant specter of death" when he was forced to steer the boat by himself through storms that frankly do not seem all that bad, I think of the great sailors who survived pitchpoling at Cape Horn and fought for their lives for days and want to say "Enough already!"
Still, if you can forgive the ending, the book overall remains a good read and offers fine and engaging narrative passages. A personal favorite is his description of snorkeling with humpback whales off Tonga, where he touches a whale and looks her in the eye and has a mystical moment that will make your spine tingle.
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Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.