Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting
My Rating – Must read
Level – Quick, easy (with the exception of nautical terminology), medium length (250+)
Seaworthy is the apparently true, but often unbelievable, story of William Willis and his adventures rafting across the Pacific, his attempts to cross the Atlantic, and a wild, nonsensical story of a jailbreak in Guiana. The book is broken into 11 chapters, all with random names (three are names of his rafts/boats) that doesn’t tell you much of what is happening. The final chapter, Full Stop, is something like a conclusion and final thoughts.
The opening chapter has a 73 year old Willis being unable to cross the Atlantic in a small boat. Then circles back to his early life at 14, then a bit of an excursus into jailbreak that I just can’t fully believe (not doubting the author, but the original source), then to the building of his first raft that he will take from South America to Samoa (this is really four chapters and the heart of the book), but even with in this, there are the stories of other sailors/rafters/academics/physicians/crazy people, his attempt at normal life, then his attempts to fully cross from South America to Australia, before ending full-circle back to crossing the Atlantic from New York.
I ended up reading this book by accident. I thought my dad offered it to me by putting it on my things one day when I brought my kids to see them during the Covid Pandemic (my mom put it there it get it out of the hands of one of the Nuggets) but was interested because I thought it was corollary story from an autobiography I had read about someone shipwrecked (it isn’t). Regardless, this book is nuts. I read it in a few hours and it might be the best work of narrative non-fiction I have ever read. Willis is absolutely insane and the Pearson’s writing is outstanding.
He does a good job of painting Willis as who he really was. Not some hero or someone necessarily even looking for fame, but a fairly flawed individual, who was unnaturally determined (and stubborn) yet still lacked follow-through, took short cuts, and often didn’t seem to think of much outside of himself. The Seven Little Sisters adventure is fascinating, as are the forays into other trips by various people and the historical accounts of similar voyages. As I mentioned above this is the meat of the book, while the longer trip (all the way to Australia, but broken into two trips) gets less narrative.
It looks like you can get some used copies of this book for under five dollars, and that prices alone is worth it for the Devil’s Island chapter. This is a story so wild, I really struggle to believe it. If it weren’t for his mishaps and essential failures, I couldn’t believe it. Willis seemed to run head long into things, often with no plan or thought (or just a vague idea of one), yet the ball would bounce his way and things would turn out (mostly) alright in the end. Even if you aren’t interesting in sailing, survivalist/endurance, etc. this book, well written and about a character that is far stranger than fiction, is a must read.