Adam Nicolson Sails Alone at Night Navigating by Stars Like Greek Hero Odysseus

“You only have to sail by the stars once or twice for that connection to remain with you for the rest of your life,” writes prolific British author Adam Nicolson. His brilliant book “The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters” is a magical journey of re-discovering Homer and of understanding ourselves. World of Homer is a world where nothing is certain, things can go wrong and heroes are not role models. Author shows that Homer’s poems exist in ‘radiant present’ and are about us.

Adam Nicolson is a writer and a sailor who once owned an island, now inherited by his son. In an interview about his love for sailing open boats, I ask, which book has shaped the way he thinks about the sea? It’s Homer’s “The Odyssey” for Adam: “It has been my route to understanding the sea as the grandest of metaphors, as the realm in which the essential disciplines and fragilities of human life are revealed, where islands hold both promise and threat, where submission to the sea-goddesses can save you from the rage of the great sea god himself, where the most carefully made craft can still be broken, where illusions flower and riches are to be found.”

“The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters” by Adam Nicolson was first published in 2014 by William Collins. This is a paperback edition from 2015. Photo by Beach Books.

In the last chapter of “The Mighty Dead” author re-tells Odysseus’ nearly final stretch of his ten-year-long voyage home to Ithaca after winning the equally long Trojan War. Greek hero navigates in the sea by the stars for seventeen nights straight on his self made raft.

“Now Odysseus enters his crowning moment. He is the master mariner, the great soul, godlike, commanding his own craft technēentos, a word that blurs the boundaries of ‘skilfully’, ‘cunningly’ and ‘magisterially’. He steers by the stars, as Calypso has told him, keeping the Plough and the Great Bear, of which it is a part, on the left hand, to the north. For seventeen nights he sails with the west wind behind him like this. ‘Sleep never fell on his eyelids as he watched the stars above him’, seeing the Plough wheeling around the North Star and ‘never bathing in the waters of the ocean’, while the Plough in turn is watching Orion on the other side, the two of them circling each other in eternity, ‘the axis always fixed’.”

Adam Nicolson “The Mighty Dead” 2014

Adam Nicolson shares a similar and unforgettable experience. “I can never now look up at Cassiopeia, the five bright stars of her ‘W’, and not think of those hours in a driving and stormy night that I kept them in the shrouds of the Auk, as we headed north in a storm off the south of Ireland. Nor Orion without seeing him as he was when we made our way out with the tide one summer night into the Minch,” he writes.

Illustration by Tom Hammick for Adam Nicolson’s book “The Making of Poetry”, published in 2019

What soon follows is a paragraph, which is one of my favourite fragments in the Sea Library. Timelessness of the sea fascinates me and makes me to re-read these lines again an again. Adam Nicolson sails under the stars and feels intimately connected with Odysseus.

“This exposure of Odysseus to the stars is the closest I ever feel to him, knowing that the experience of being out there, alone at sea at night, for all the changes in technology that three or four thousand years might have brought, with the sky arrayed above you and the sea and its threats dark and half-hidden, is materiality the same for me as it was for him. It is the most cosmic experience of the world I know, when the universe seems not like a background but reality, and when the scale of earthliness shrinks to nothing much. There is no history here. I am in the Bronze Age, and as Odysseus stays awake, keeping the sleep at bay, watching the movements of craft and sea, I do the same, and he and I are momentarily and marvellously intimate.”

Adam Nicolson “The Mighty Dead” 2014

You can borrow “The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters” together with other books written by Adam Nicolson. Sea Library has his “Sea Room”, “SeaManShip” and “The Seabird’s Cry” in the collection. There’s a lot of wisdom and mystery about ancient navigation techniques in Christine Thompson’s book “Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific”. Let me also remind you of a beautiful paragraph where Philip Hoare swims at night in the sea under the stars.

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