Across the bottom of the cover of Michael Hurley’s memoir runs this apt description: “An Improbable Voyage and One Man’s Yearning for Redemption.”
That description is characteristic of the honesty with which Hurley tells his absorbing tale, and it also suggests, correctly, that this book is much more than a tale of nautical derring-do.
Hurley did set out in August 2009 to sail an aging 32-foot sloop single-handed from Annapolis, Md., to Nassau in the Bahamas. He did eventually arrive in Nassau, and from there he embarked on further sailing adventures, which this memoir chronicles into early 2012. But when he began his voyage, he knew that he intended to make a spiritual journey into his own soul as well as a physical one across the waters. He was looking for a safe harbor for his battered hopes and dreams as well as a welcoming port for his boat.
Readers who have only a dim understanding of what’s involved in piloting a sailboat, and especially doing so solo, may expect this book to be largely a mariner’s tale of exploits and adventures in exotic ports. In truth, it is both less and more than that.
Hurley progressed in fits and starts, putting in at various ports intentionally or because of problems, and from time to time returning to his home, his law practice and the realities of life in Raleigh before resuming the journey.
He managed feats that seem pretty impressive to the landlubber, but he also made mistakes and suffered setbacks, some because of forces beyond his control and others because of his own bad decisions. He relates all these developments frankly and with considerable awareness of himself and his limitations.
There are plenty of sea stories here to interest other sailors, and enough descriptions of the places he visited to interest armchair travelers.
But at the heart of Hurley’s memoir is the story of that personal voyage, a story that has much to interest anyone who ponders the imponderables: faith, prayer, life and death, love, what makes a marriage work, what is really important in life.
It was brave — bordering on foolhardy, he acknowledges — for him to set out alone in a sailboat that had seen better days. But it may have been even braver for him to force himself, by the very nature of his voyage, to spend a great deal of time alone with his thoughts when he was at a low point in his life. His marriage of many years had failed because of his infidelity, leaving him more distant than he wanted to be from his children. His career was also faltering. He was, by his own accounting, a failure. What had he done wrong, and why, and was it possible to make a fresh start?
It is also brave for Hurley to share the struggles of his soul with others. The book, he says, grew out of letters he wrote to close friends. We do not often these days see a man who is so openly introspective, so willing to discuss love, romance, faith and doubts with his friends, much less with the greater world.
“Once Upon a Gypsy Moon” is a love story, as Hurley meets someone and dares to try again. It is a book of spiritual growth, as Hurley, an Episcopalian who spent years as a practicing Catholic, struggles to find his redemption. It is a reflection on life in America, where, he maintains, a mistaken belief that if only we live right we can postpone and maybe even conquer death has far too much influence on how we live.
“So to my worried family and friends clinging tightly to this life, who see sailing upon the open ocean as a reckless risk to all that I should hold dear, I lovingly demur, “ he writes. “The world offers no safe harbors — that is an illusion. The end comes for all, and if we choose to remain in port, it will come for us there. … It is life that I am at risk of meeting on the open sea —not Death, who already knows where to find me.”
None of this is to say that Hurley’s book is heavy, preachy or slow going. It’s a good tale, told well and honestly, one that has much to say to us whether or not we ever literally set sail in a small boat.
Linda Carter Brinson writes a books blog, Briar Patch Books (lindabrinson.com) and lives in Stokes County near Madison.