He conveys powerfully the fear and the joy of his new challenge; “the fickle extremes of single-handed sailing”. He does so without concessions to landlubbers, without laborious explanations of what exactly he’s up to. I don’t know what it means to hank on the jib or sweat the halyards, but I know what it is to be borne along by prose as fresh as an Atlantic breeze. “Watching water move,” Jonathan Raban wrote in his modern classic Coasting (1986), “is a much sweeter and less unpredictable way of altering the mind than inhaling the smoke of marijuana”. Reading Marsden on watching water can be similarly effective in opening the doors of perception: he tells how “a low surf folded its queries on to the sand”; he reckons that “white horses” must be a description of wave crests first coined from the land – “at sea, they look vulpine, a pack of pale predators cantering across the open plain”.
He writes beautifully, and transforms what could easily have been a conventional travel book into something far more evocative and personal: “a sea journey is a passage of the soul”. The harsh coastal landscapes and shifting moods of the sea are vividly described. But what is so memorable and indeed magical is the way he interweaves the imaginary and the real. In these islands at the edge of the Atlantic, staring out into “the endless blue of the west”, he finds a rich tradition of myth, poetry and ancient lore that still speaks to us across the gulf of time.
Marsden is hardly the first travel writer to cast himself adrift: both Jonathan Raban and Adam Nicolson have done so with style and distinction in recent years. But he does it with a deftness and lightness of touch at the tiller that make it look deceptively easy. And like his last outing, Rising Ground, this book is gratifyingly free of the more ornate nature-writing style that has become so prevalent recently. No dictionary is needed. ... Marsden never does quite reach his destination, but he pulls off the far more difficult achievement of marrying an exciting physical journey to a complicated navigation of time and myth. The result is a triumph. It is unlikely that a finer travel book will be published all year.