March 1, 2011

Modesty, and a book revived

THE TROUBLE WITH BEING MODEST (as I would like to think I am — but I am always subject to correction) is that you cannot claim in public to be modest, for fear of destroying your claim to modesty. Consequently, as you have probably noticed, I tend to refrain from expounding the virtues of the books I have written, in the hope that the more perceptive minds among you will discover these merits for yourselves and, with any luck, recommend my books to others with unbridled enthusiasm.

Today, however, I am throwing modesty to the winds. The thing is, one of my best books, Small Boat to Freedom, is being reprinted after being out of print for several years. Lothar Simon, boss of one of America’s largest nautical publishers, Sheridan House, in New York state, thought Small Boat was worth preserving. So, this month, it was reborn in paperback, and any bookseller can order it for you.

My aforementioned modesty naturally forbids me from telling you how good it is, so I’m going to reproduce an article from The Washington (DC) Times of October 17, 2004 with the fervent wish that they don’t sue me for contravention of copyright. (I have my fingers crossed, so I think it will be all right.)

Small boat voyage

by Duncan Spencer (Special to The Washington Times)

NOT SINCE Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle in 1965 has there been a true sailing story as fresh and authentic as John Vigor's Small Boat to Freedom (288 pages). A middle-aged man can no longer abide life in South Africa, so he quietly prepares and embarks in secret with wife and son on a tiny sailboat for a new life in America.

Manry wrote his bestseller after he threw over his safe newspaper job in Ohio and fitted up a tiny sloop, vowing to sail the Atlantic. He made it to huge acclaim, carrying the banner for millions of men tied to desks and to tedium while life slips past.

Mr. Vigor is the worthy successor to that great story. The man is a 51-year-old newspaper reporter and photographer, a sailor and writer of gritty resource, not one of the nabobs of the media. It is his gift to see the world always in the direct bright light of reality, not fogged with egotism or anchored to rank; though an intellectual, he manages to sail, write and work almost completely within the life of physical action. It is no surprise to read that Mr. Vigor's other passion, besides sailing, is bricklaying.

Which is the secret of his escape and his success in the remarkable small boat voyage he undertook in 1987.

Mr. Vigor reveals the strange burdens borne by the white South African, despised and feared by black Africans, simply despised by Europeans (and most Americans), and thwarted in the normal transactions of life by numerous sanctions put in place to "punish" the apartheid regime of his first adopted land.

No matter that he wrote for an anti-apartheid paper; that he foresaw the long and difficult years ahead for white South Africans as the races adapted to a profound shift of power. As he writes, "Whites who left South Africa at that time were treated almost as traitors." Those who stay must accustom themselves to a life of watchfulness and fear; the years of subjugation had made enemies of everyone with a white skin.

Restrictions led him to sneak out of the country with his meager life savings in gold Krugerrands hidden aboard his tiny 31-foot sailboat. "It was my idea to go in our own boat. I reasoned that when we got to America, we'd have a home to live in and a mobile base from which to start looking for work," he writes.

While other whites felt trapped in South Africa, Mr. Vigor had less reason to. He was English, one of the thousands who immigrated to South Africa for opportunities. His wife June was an American born far from the sea in Utah. His son Kevin was about to graduate from high school. And neither, though practiced sailors, had ever spent a night offshore in a small boat. Mr. Vigor builds his story like he builds a brick wall, methodically, neatly, logically. There are no literary frills, just straight rather humble reporting.

Step by step he prepares; selling his house, finding a boat, accumulating the gold coins to thwart currency export restrictions, readying his wife and son. The voyage itself is what you would expect from an extremely competent and cautious seaman with his family as crew. The sea is immense; it is boring and terrifying. Like many small boat voyages, Vigor's is a triumph over storm, frustration and adversity, a severe test of a marriage and a study of father-son relationships in extreme circumstances.

In this age when some people part saying, "Be safe," Mr. Vigor's book shows what people with skill, energy and expertise can still accomplish in the world with little money and no help. Mr. Vigor and his crew and the little yacht Freelance make it across the South Atlantic - taking six months - to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The family thrives modestly in America after moving to the Northwest, he as a freelance writer, she as a copy editor. Mr. Vigor never sought publicity, and never got any. This slim book is his story told at last.

PS: I don’t know Duncan Spencer, but for a reviewer he’s quite perceptive. The only thing he got wrong was his reference to me as an intellectual. I’m definitely not. --JV

Today’s Thought
Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise.
— Lord Chesterfield, Letters.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #166
Roller furling and reefing on the headsails has become very reliable, but many deep-sea sailors are still wary about jamming (and the weight and windage of a rolled-up foresail) in survival weather. Remember, jibs with hanks always come down when you want them to.

“What is your age, madam?”
“Officer, I’m approaching 40.”
“Yes, but from which direction, madam?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Deb said...

John can you ask the publisher to put this one on Kindle?

S/V Nomad

Lezlie's World said...

I just bought this book, and I'm really enjoying it.


J.Con. said...

I look forward to buying a copy and reading your story, John!
S/V Mrs. Chippy

Anonymous said...

I read this book and really enjoyed it. As a South African now living in Oregon, raised in Pietermaritzburg and completing my training in Durban, it brought back many memories. My grandfather kept a boat at the "Yacht mole" called "Jonathan" and we would leave PMB at 4 in the morning to travel down to the boat and go fishing when I was a kid.
We have a Westsail 32 here in Brookings..and happily, its nothing like what the Sailnet boards would have you believe :)

Micky-T said...

OK, OK, all this horn tooting can stop now, I'll buy the book.

Do you charge for autographs?

Micky-T said...

Your lack of modesty is showing John, my comment got moderated and posted within the minutes it took me to order the book, so you must be silently waiting at your computer for all your fawning admirers to comment. (or something like that)

John Vigor said...

Jeez, Micky-T, gimme a break, willya? I've been up all night waiting for fawning admirers and I tellya, they're damn slow in coming. What's the matter with them? Don't they recognize true modesty when they see it?

John V.

John Vigor said...

To the person in England who said he or she was having trouble ordering the book.

Sorry, I somehow managed to lose your comment. Bad finger trouble this morning. It could take a while for this new edition to make its way overseas, but meanwhile try the UK version of Alternatively, ask the publisher at


John V.

John Vigor said...

To the reader in Brookings, Oregon:

You brought back some schoolboy memories. I remember Jonathan. Beautiful big powerboat. She was well known in Durban.


John V.

John Almberg said...

You're far too modest, John. I have all your books and have enjoyed every one.

Wait, I lie! I sold "20 Sailboats" after buying my latest boat (Tom Gilmer "Blue Moon" yawl), because who needs that sort of temptation.

I hate to say it, but you need a new boat, yourself. Can I recommend a book that will help you choose one?

Chris Harris said...

Forget about modesty. Your story is one of the best I've ever read. I'm so happy to hear that they're reprinting it. That's a great review from The Washington Times. Thanks for sharing that.

Noel said...

Yes please put a version out for the kindle.

David Browne said...

John, that was a great book. I read it when it was first published..a real page-turner!