Seeker: A Sea Odyssey by Rita Pomade (Guernica Editions, 2019)

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Reviewed by Michael Hogan

The title – Seeker: A Sea Odyssey  – is illustrative because the adventure at sea that this book chronicles is indeed one, which reflects the epic journey of Odysseus, with tropical storms, pirates, paradisiacal islands, mystical beliefs, palm readings, predictions, shattered sails, and a broken mast. Also, beneath it all is a relationship strained to the breaking point by this odyssey. In this case, the author, Rita Pomade, is an active participant with her husband on the same fragile vessel, but unlike long-suffering Penelope she doesn’t stay on shore.

[Ed: Rita Pomade is a long-time contributor to MexConnect)

The great sailing adventure begins as an embryonic idea when the author falls in love with a charming and adventurous man by the name of Bernard when they are living abroad in Mexico. They discuss what they would really like to do if they had the means, and ultimately agree their ideal dream would be to travel the world in a sailing ship of their own design. They would see new lands, learn about different cultures, enjoy exotic cuisines, and enjoy the shared adventure of sailing. “No hotels. No limited stays. No heavy backpacks…”

They immigrate to Montreal with her two sons, Jonah and Stefan. There, Bernard finds work on a dam site in the north, and Rita teaches school. They live on Rita’s earnings and use Bernard’s to save and invest with the goal of raising enough money to build their yacht. She buys mining stock and gold, the latter at only $250 an ounce when she begins. By 1980, it’s worth more than $850 an ounce, and they decide it’s time to make the move. They transfer their funds to Taiwan, where according to their research some of the best and least expensive fiberglass custom-made yachts are constructed.

Joined by 16-year old Jonah and later by the older Stefan, they head to the Far East. In Taipei Rita discovers that, while building a yacht anywhere is a challenge, constructing one on a Chinese island is Sisyphean. There is the language barrier, with even the written symbols a mystery; there are dissatisfied customers who condemn most of the boatyard work as shoddy, and there are actual reports of boats encountering major problems days after they leave the boatyards with no refunds or offers of repair. Finally, they choose a yard with a good reputation and have a yacht built to their precise specifications – a 45-foot ketch with fiberglass hull, teak decks, clean lines and sleek sails. The cabinets are teak, the curtains, velvety, and the countertops marble in both galley and head.

When the boat is delivered, they make plans to sail the Formosa Strait to Hong Kong. But Bernard registers the yacht in his name only. For convenience, he says, although he graciously names it Santa Rita.  Naming the boat after wife cannot undo his heavy-handedness, and it rankles. Off they sail, but within hours they enter a rough sea, and are burdened by an inexperienced crew who sail with them and nearly scuttle the yacht. Bernard’s competence saves them.

From Hong Kong they visit Macao and then sail on to the Philippines, Borneo and Singapore. Rita does all the cooking and buying of supplies, and keeps the cabin shipshape. Bernard handles navigation and maintenance. Rita feels she’s treated more like a lowly crew member than a partner. This causes tension that grows in time, exacerbated by the fact she refuses to learn how to use a sexton and insists on calling the head a bathroom.

They leave Singapore for Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka they must sail back to Singapore to outrace the monsoon season. They are too late, and are caught in a storm so fierce and violent their small yacht comes close to breaking apart. Waves reach the height of a two-story building, and Stefan risks his life to crawl out on the bow sprit to take down the stay sail. The young lad has nothing between him and certain death. He holds on to a cable with his feet on a four-foot beam that rises and sinks 20 feet with each new wave. Rita’s heart is in her mouth as she watches from the cabin, and begins to regret her decision to bring him aboard. But Stefan makes it back to the cabin, and she recognizes he’s gained an inner strength from his ordeal. Stefan leaves the yacht In Singapore to return to school. Jonah had left for school years before. Rita and Bernard, now alone, leave Singapore for India. From there they cross the Arabian Sea to Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain.

Travel for travel’s sake begins to appeal less and less to Rita. “I expected an independent life, free of social constraints. But I am confined in a bubble at the mercy of an unpredictable sea and caught in a precarious relationship. I feel adrift.”

Yet, there is the memory of the sun on the teak deck, the sails filled with a fresh wind, the sleek ketch plowing through the waves, the porpoises playing in its wake, the exhilaration of speed, and the adventure of the next port. “Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor!” Mark Twain urged. Rita Pomade did that and has few regrets.

The reader, safe at home, will be forever grateful that she made this journey. Her wonderful crafted prose swells and bursts in verbal waves as she describes the storms at sea. Her keen eyes not only catch the green flash of sunrise, but also the promise of a distant landfall.

Published or Updated on: July 15, 2019 by Michael Hogan © 2019

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