Life Boat is a wonderful account of a sailing adventure founded on do-it-yourself ingenuity and a shoestring budget. I mean, imagine finding a one-hundred-year-old traditional ocean-lifesaving vessel on the banks of the Thames River, originally designed to be rowed by a handful of trained rescuers. Then imagine, through passion and determination, driven by wanderlust, transforming her into a unique, junk-rigged sailboat — a magic carpet named Arab.
Mark recounts his adventure with his partner Karen as they set off for the warm climes of the Mediterranean Sea from Bristol, England, via the canals and river ways of France aboard Arab. With its junk rig, solid Lister inboard engine, and charming good looks, the ex-lifeboat carries them across the English Channel as the author and first mate gain their sea legs and experiment with sailing this ageless rig. Through mishaps and rewards that only travel by boat can afford, the couple arrive in France all the wiser. With the simplicity and economy of the junk rig, Mark handily lowers the mast on Arab converting her back to a motor vessel for navigating the oftentimes narrow and congested locks and waterways of the French interior. Throughout this segment of their journey, Mark and Karen motor their way through the beautiful countryside and experience France from a perspective no tourist could ever imagine, and at a pace that puts them squarely in the hearts of the people they meet along the way. Ultimately, after a stint living in and working on a French farmhouse owned by a friend, they make their way south to their ultimate goal — the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea and the Balearic Islands. This is where they start sailing in earnest, doing mostly what all self-respecting sailing dreamers would do — hopping from port to port in this beautiful island paradise enjoying the warmth of the water and people they meet along the way.
Mark is a fine writer, chronicling in the beginning the steps he took to get Arab into shape for making a long coastal journey while simultaneously providing glimpses into his own personal story to give the reader an idea of who he is and what is driving him towards his dream of sailing free. He is a humorist as well as a philosopher, and weaves his talents into the story to create a rich account of their journey. His passion for his ship and respect for her rich history is made obvious through his romantic writing style, which serves the reader well in bringing Arab to life and reminding us that we are actually following three characters on this journey. Moreover, his relationship with his first mate, Karen, is one to be admired by all skippers and crew the sailing world over. Filled with an ease that only humor can create, they work as a team to drive Arab, accomplish goals, and run down dreams, all while learning to sail. That’s right! This is both sailors’ maiden voyage. Life Boat is our ticket to ride. And for someone still dreaming of his own “magic carpet,” I’m glad they had me along.
Life Boat: How a Century Old Boat and a New Dream Inspired an Adventure of a Lifetime by Mark Harwood (Lulu, 313 pages, 2014).