If I had to come up with an alternate title for this book, the only one that could do it justice would be Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance. It has all the same elements: an epic journey, intellectual observations, and practical technical explanations. A romantic, yet thoughtful book, Song of the Sirens is rich in detail, colorful characters, and poignant insights. An unabashed naval romantic, I enjoyed it immensely.
It’s the story of one man’s love affair with the old boats he has owned or chartered. Focusing on his favorites (his 17 sirens), the book explores the fascination man has with the sea and attempts to explain the allure of the vessels he has designed to sail upon her. Like the sirens of Greek mythology who, with enchanting songs, lured sailors to dash their ships against hidden rocks, Gann’s ships are seductresses, tempting and urging him on until he plunges forward into their purchase, unmindful of the dangers that lie ahead. And dangers there are. For the ships he describes are not the sleek beauties pictured in glossy magazines. These are sailing and working vessels with flaws and problems.
All the things we lovers of old boats know so well are here: leaky bilges, recalcitrant pumps, cantankerous generators, and motors that gleefully wait for the most inopportune times to strike. Nor are his crew members always ideal. The tension and frailty of human relations, which stressful situations and life in close quarters intensify, are explored. All this is presented with a wry sense of humor. I particularly loved his description of the boat with two heads that shared common plumbing so that when one was flushed, it drenched the unlucky person sitting on the other one.
Romance there is aplenty in this book. However, like Persig’s book about motorcycles, Gann’s is a distinctly masculine love. His reminiscences tend to focus as much on t’gallants, tops’ls, and typhoons as they do on people. Moreover, Song of the Sirens is not simply an autobiography. The ideas expressed take some thought to understand. While Gann’s digressions into intellectualism might not appeal to those seeking a pure romance or adventure novel, I found them to be a welcome counterpoint to the mundane details of, say, life on board a fishing trawler. Song of the Sirens is well worth reading.
In his introduction, Charles Doane describes the book as one he has read several times, and that it has “spoken to him” each time. I can understand why. It’s truly a story that can stand up to multiple readings. Ernest K. Gann has woven together a wonderful tale about our romantic relationship with the sea and the old boats that carry us there. I was charmed by this book, and I fully expect that it will charm me as much when I re-read it 10 years from now.
Song of the Sirens by Ernest K. Gann (Sheridan House Inc., 1968); New Edition 2000)