Paul Waterson, a documentary film script writer, is in Kenya doing research for a documentary on the full-on and ancient maritime culture of the Swahilis. The story begins in 2001 when the World Trade Centre in New York is destroyed. The relevance of this event is that Paul’s girlfriend Hannah works for CNN in New York and he fears for her life.
Although he learns that she is okay when he eventually manages to call her, she ditches him because there is someone else in her life. In this emotional state he submerges himself in the research about the dhows and sailing culture on the East African coast. He becomes obsessed with finding the last remaining mtepe dhow, which is somewhere in Somalia.
He battles to get someone to take him into the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast, but when he eventually manages to get going, he discovers how treacherous the situation is.
“Whoever fears the sea is no traveller” is a Swahili proverb and the inspiration for the title. It is very clear that the author is an intrepid traveller and superb travel writer. That side of the publication is top-class. Justin Fox’s research and his knowledge of the east coast of Africa are comprehensive. He did his homework well and it is clear that he didn’t write the book from the internet or any other second-hand source of information. He was mostly there. His narrations of the sailing episodes especially are impressive. I am not a sailor and have had limited exposure to sailing, and have only once been on a dhow, but the voyages of Paul and friends at sea was a clear picture to me.
The story kicks off at a breakneck pace and soon I was swept away into Africa, feeling, hearing, smelling the typical vibes of the continent and its people, all the way from Mombasa to Malindi to Lamu. But once Paul gets going on his search, the pace slackens and the middle section of the book feels as though it is dragging. However, I realised later on that this might be intentional, because Africa has patience and travelling Africa can more often than not mean hanging around and waiting, waiting, waiting for things to happen.
I like Justin’s writing style and choice of words. My favourite is where he describes how Omar, the skipper of the dhow he sails on, speaks: “He spoke sparingly, as if his words were knots tied in a rope.”
In the last quarter of the book the pace picks up again and I anticipated a grand finale. That did happen, but some other elements did not. For instance, part of the reason why he undertook this trip was to find solace from the loss of Hannah, but the issue is never really resolved. From time to time he gets involved with other women, but I missed how he related that to Hannah in respect of finding closure.
The final section in Somalia does not have the reality feel of the rest of the journey and I can only guess that it might be because the author possibly had not been there. There are just too many things – like finding the mtepe dhow – relying on chance and leaving the reader with a few loose ends.
All said and done, Whoever fears the sea might not be the greatest novel, but it is a great travel story. It is a good read, especially if you love travelling, Africa and the romance of sailing.