In his new book, Charles Wilkins, author of nine previous works of non-fiction, chronicles his successful attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados. The crew for this 2011 journey consisted of several experienced rowers and elite athletes. By contrast, Wilkins, “a scrawny, bespectacled sexagenarian,” recognizes that he is the group’s weak link: “We got failure, we got fuckup, we got farce. And I, more than some, was a contributor to that failure and farce.”
Wilkins does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of his seven weeks on the water. Readers will learn a great deal about the sores blistering the author’s ass and the brown discharge flowing from his ears. He is equally candid about the psyches of extreme athletes. Rather than glorifying the rowers and their voyage, he explores the ultimate selfishness of such endeavours, and provides astute commentary on the toll adventures of this kind can take on athletes’ bodies and their families back home.
On a broader scale, he describes an ocean filled with garbage and confesses the alarmingly cavalier way the members of his crew chuck their waste overboard. Furthermore, he does not paint the journey as a romantic escape from the obsessions of life on land. The boat is crammed full of electronic devices, and most rowers remain in daily contact with their families.
The story is told in a meandering, colloquial style, balancing the philosophical elements with comedy. Wilkins has a flair for self-deprecating humour, though the criticism he levels at himself is nothing compared to the derogatory descriptions of his fellow rowers, who often come across as caricatured villains.
At its best, Little Ship of Fools is a story about human vulnerability and resilience. However, like the boat, the book is overloaded with personalities, the pages bloated with mini-biographies and backstories. Rather than using the epilogue to recapitulate the book’s themes, Wilkins provides a detailed account of where each of the 16 rowers is now. The excessive amount of attention devoted to these individual portraits robs the narrative of the tension and forward momentum that readers expect in an account of such a risky journey.