William F. Buckley, Jr., wears many hats: editor, columnist, novelist, television personality, wit, and pundit. In Atlantic High: A Celebration, he puts on, for the second time, his captain’s yachting cap. Ostensibly, the book is a record of a cruise in the chartered ocean yacht Sealestial, from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to Marbella in Spain, by way of Bermuda and the Azores. As crew and companions, Buckley had with him Richard Clurman, former chief of correspondents for Time/Life and now a private consultant; Evan Galbraith, a United States diplomat to France; Tony Leggett, a young New York banker; Danny Merritt, a friend of Buckley’s son Christopher; Reginald Stoops, a plastics engineer and long-time sailing companion of Buckley; and Christopher Little, a professional photographer responsible for most of the photographs in the book. Clurman traveled only to Bermuda, and Galbraith left the ship in the Azores.
Both the voyage and the book are really an outgrowth and continuation of a similar 1975 voyage across the Atlantic and the resulting book, Airborne: A Sentimental Journey (1976). On that voyage, Galbraith, Merritt, and Stoops also accompanied Buckley. This voyage, however, is not merely a reprise of the earlier one. For one thing, the first voyage was made in Buckley’s own ocean yacht Cyrano; this second cruise is made in the chartered Sealestial with its professional crew of four (who are rarely figured in the narrative). Also on this voyage, there is a professional photographer, as well as, for the St. Thomas-Bermuda run, a motion-picture cameraman and a sound man, all for the purpose of enabling the group to finance the voyage. The idea was that the book which would result from the voyage, augmented by the work of a professional photographer, and a documentary film based on the group’s experiences, would help pay the expenses. This note of planned financial calculation does tend to undercut the expected romance and pleasures of the sea and sailing.
Atlantic High is not really a book about sailing. While there are the requisite references to reefing and halyards and navigating and genoas, this is really a book about yachting, which is a very different thing. Yachting is a rich man’s sport, and Buckley clearly moves in worlds unfamiliar to ordinary mortals. The Sealestial is equipped with a multitude of electronic devices and gadgets (a fair number of which do not work), including a stereo tape-player and an ice-maker. A well-stocked wine bin is an absolute necessity; a cook to produce succulent meals is another. The often sybaritic life aboard Sealestial bears little resemblance to the experiences of Sir Francis Chichester or Horatio Hornblower. Indeed, one is reminded of those people who go camping in the wilds and take along with them all the mechanical and electrical marvels of the modern American home.
Atlantic High, while full of many interesting and entertaining bits, remains a bit unfocused; there is really no climax. The ship does eventually reach its goal, but almost too easily. There are no real problems on the voyage, no emergencies (except almost running out of ice), no great pains to be endured or difficulties to overcome. There is, of course, no absolute requirement that every sailing voyage contain a brush with death, gales, and mystical insights into the eternal fascination of the deep. There is always a danger in confronting the sea, whether in an ocean liner or a racing ketch (Sealestial was about the same length as Columbus’ Pinta), but the narration of such a confrontation is usually expected to have more pace to it, more point, more rising action than the shorebound reader is likely to find here.
The book is also structurally unbalanced. Actually, less than half of the work deals with the trip itself. The first three chapters deal, inter alia, with a cruise to Yucatan, a week’s sail in the Fiji Islands, and a Christmas cruise in the Caribbean, where Sealestial was first chartered. As he had for the Airborne...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)