December 29, 2013

A look behind the scenes

IT HAS BEEN YEARS since the hard-cover version of my book, Small Boat to Freedom, was published, and more than a year since the paperback version came out.  But during that time people have occasionally asked for more details about me, the man behind the book. I have ignored those requests because I am not much of a glory seeker; but one of my publishers recently asked for a fuller resume from me, and I thought I might as well use it here as well, for no better reason than to save me from having to write a new column when I need to be cheering on the Seattle Seahawks on television. (Yeah, they’re beating the Rams into the dust.) 

So let me tell you that there was a time when I had it all: a loving family, a successful career as a newspaper columnist and a comfortable home in Durban, one of South Africa’s loveliest cities. But a repressive apartheid regime and a clampdown by government forces on people’s freedom of expression made me decide to leave the country I loved.

With my wife and seventeen-year-old son, I gave up my life of contentment and security and set sail on a long voyage to America aboard my 31-foot sloop, Freelance. Everything I owned was on that little sloop as we battled our way around the aptly named Cape of Storms and wondered how we were going to smuggle our meager supply of gold Krugerrands out of South Africa and into the United States. And then, when we were stopped in mid-ocean by a U.S. warship, there was the question of my expired visa . . . this is the book that explains it all.

To save myself the shame of praising my own wares, I repeat here a review of Small Boat written by Duncan Spencer and published in 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.  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 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. Why did he wait so long to write of it?

“Because, he says, the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11 spurred him into action lest Americans "give away their hard won individual rights and freedoms almost as easily as they distribute candy at Halloween."

“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 over three 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. June Vigor says she never wishes to embark on an ocean voyage again - but the couple still sail together.”

Today’s Thought
We are all sailors on the spaceship Earth.
— Frank Braynard, Newsweek, 4 Jul 76

“Any Royalty in your family?”
“No, but I had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.

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


biglilwave said...

Thank you for sharing a little of your story. I will definitely read your book that you just shamefully self promoted :)
Seriously though, I had no idea of the circumstances that led you and your family to the U.S.A. You've always inspired me with many of your writings, beginning with your list of small boats you can take anywhere. I love your philosophy of self reliance, humor and "go small,go now" attitude. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and indulging me by posting my comments.
Your #1 (maybe only one) Fan

Keep Reaching said...

I am pleased to tell you that there are definitely at least two fans out there.

Great story. Inspiring.

R W Rawles said...

Not available in Kindle format?

John Vigor said...

RW: I'm afraid not. Six of my books are available in Kindle editions, but not Small Boat to Freedom for some reason over which I have no control. Abe books has plenty of lightly-used hardcover editions of Small Boat at bargain prices, though, and the hard-cover version includes a chart of the voyage that is missing from the paperback.

John V.

Ken said...

This is a wonderful prompt for me to read it "again".
Thanks John.

Unknown said...

Ditto. Only this time I bought my own copy instead of borrowing it from the library.


Unknown said...

I appreciate and enjoy all of your writings. Thank you for sharing your experience, your wisdom, and your wit.