“I want simply to learn about the world and to live freely”

Alan Villiers' ship, the 'Joseph Conrad'

Alan Villiers’ ship, the ‘Joseph Conrad’

As a child my idea of an almost unbelievable real-world adventure (as opposed to battling talking beasts and wicked witches in Narnia) was encapsulated in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, by Arthur Ransome, wherein four children find themselves far from their imaginary pirate islands in the Lake District, swept out to sea on a sailing boat in a storm. They make it over to Holland where they are met by their astonished, exasperated and ultimately proud father, who sails back with them.

I wonder if the thirteen-year-old girl who wants to sail round the world single-handed has read We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. Perhaps she would be pretty unimpressed by it, having already made the same trip herself, on her own (she was picked up by social workers in Lowestoft earlier this year. Her father apparently didn’t want to come from Holland to collect her, believing she was quite capable of sailing back on her own.)

Have children’s dreams really got so much bigger since Arthur Ransome wrote his Swallows and Amazons books in the 1930s? I had no idea before reading the news coverage over the weekend that there are a whole load of teenagers who want to or already have circumnavigated the globe alone. The last one to break the record for the youngest person to do so (seventeen and a half years old) held the record for six weeks, the current one (seventeen and just under a half) expects to hold it for eight months. This in an age where most British parents are afraid to let their children pop round the corner to the shop on their own.

On one hand I want to applaud such audacious ambition and confidence. Part of me is full of admiration, part of me is jealous (what was I doing when I was thirteen, sixteen, seventeen…? Having wild adventures, sure, but only in my head). On the other hand, I’m concerned about what on earth you do next, after something like that. Where else is there to go, when you’ve already been round the world and you’ve still got the rest of your life to get through? And why are they doing it really (the title quote notwithstanding) – to test themselves, to prove something to their parents, to break a meaningless record and be famous for five minutes?

Reading Arthur Ransome made me, for a short while, mad about sailing, although in reality I never got further than a week-long school sailing camp on a local lake. I was enchanted by the apparent freedom and self-reliance it represented; I think even then I realised that the sea and sailing were a metaphor for a way of living. I’ve long grown out of the Swallows and Amazons books, but one of my favourite books as an adult is The Mirror of the Sea. Joseph Conrad takes incidents from his maritime adventures to reflect on the discoveries we make and decisions we take about how to live with other people and with ourselves. It’s a wise, wonderful book written in old age, after a lifetime of merchant sailing and of writing. Conrad was sailing as a job, with all the responsibility and toil that represented. I wonder if these teenagers, for whom sailing is a competition and a privilege, will grow up to be as wise.

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