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A meditation on the sea - at sea

PASSAGE TO JUNEAU: A SEA AND ITS MEANINGSBy Jonathan Raban Pantheon 435 pp., $26.50

After chronicling the dry and dusty plains of eastern Montana and the western Dakotas in "Bad Land: An American Romance" (1996), Jonathan Raban takes to the sea in his new memoir, "Passage to Juneau."

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Here, the author pilots a 35-foot sailboat up the Inside Passage, from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, a complicated sea route. The passage has been in continuous use for several thousand years, first by coastal Indian tribes, later by European explorers and fur traders, now by fishing boats, barges, yachts, and cruise ships.

"I hoped to lay some ghosts to rest and come to terms, somehow, with the peculiar attraction that draws people to put themselves afloat on the deep, dark, indifferent, cold, and frightening sea," he writes. "I meant to meditate on the sea, at sea."

In addition to the account of his travels and incisive observations of contemporary American and Canadian society, Raban enlivens his story by drawing on a warehouse of knowledge about a vast range of subjects: the history and art of the Northwest Indian tribes, the early European explorers of the area, oceanography, meteorology, the physics of waves, the history of navigation, the English fascination with the Sublime in the 19th century, the death and burial at sea of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

He weaves the many and disparate threads of history, autobiography, reportage, and nautical musings into a cohesive, fascinating, and immensely enjoyable "interdisciplinary ragout," to borrow one of the author's many marvelous phrases.

This English-born writer who moved to Seattle in 1990 makes for a wonderful travel companion in part because he is such an atypical seaman. Although he has been pursuing it avidly for the past 15 years, he didn't take up sailing until middle age and, in fact, claims to be afraid of the water.

"I'm not a natural sailor," he confesses, "but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I'm at sea." Unlike most sailors, he eschews nautical spit and polish, refers to his boat as "it" (never "she"), and only mentions his boat by name once.

In his 1,000-mile trip, Raban follows much the same course taken in 1792 by Capt. George Vancouver, the English navigator and explorer, aboard Discovery. Vancouver and his crew were among the first Europeans to encounter the waterways and the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

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The fascinating story of Vancouver and his fateful, troubled voyage form an important part of the superstructure of "Passage to Juneau" and mirror, to some extent, troubles Raban encounters in his own life during his trip, namely the death of his father and the breakup of his marriage.

Like any good travel book, "Passage to Juneau" includes vivid descriptions of the many locales the author visits, along with a large cast of memorable characters, like John Munroe, a one-armed electrician who does work on Raban's boat; Neil, a young Englishman, who has left the daily grind in London to work in a cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska; and two young members of a logging crew in a remote area of British Columbia who, the author is surprised to discover, are avid bird watchers.

Books with both American and marine subjects abound in Raban's distinguished body of work. "Passage to Juneau" melds these themes together in a rich and rewarding nonfiction narrative, which can only further solidify his reputation as one of the outstanding travel writers at work today.

*David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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