It was a gorgeous boat, David Vann thought as he watched Bird of Paradise sink into the deep blue Caribbean. Bobbing in a dinghy a hundred yards away, Vann took a last look at his ninety-foot luxury ketch — the varnished pilothouse, the sumptuous teak deck, the mizzenmast, the cream-colored windlass. His wife, Nancy, snapped pictures as the boat tipped back and slipped beneath the waves. In minutes, it was gone: their home, their business, their ticket out of the middle class, now more than five thousand feet down on the ocean floor.
All things considered, the years Vann spent as a charter captain could have gone worse. Nobody died or even got seriously hurt. That seems like a miracle, given everything the Stanford grad went through: ferocious storms, life-threatening malfunctions, botched rescues, white-collar pirates. Reading his eye-popping memoir, A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea (Thunder’s Mouth, $14.95), you wonder, “What cruel god had it in for this guy?” And “What kind of a masochist is David Vann, anyway”?
Vann wonders too. The best he can figure, it’s all tied up somehow with his father, a reluctant dentist and failed commercial fisherman who committed suicide when Vann was thirteen. Vann resolved never to end up like that: working for work’s sake, loathing his life. But the harder he tried to avoid it, the closer he came. It still baffles him: “I kept running and running from wage labor and a job I’d hate and ending up in the same place I was trying to escape.”
Like many doomed plans, Vann’s seemed like a good idea at the time. In 1997, he started a business running educational charter cruises. He had grown up boating with his father in Alaska; he felt at home on the water. The gig was a natural fit. On a trip to the Mediterranean, he fell in love with the huge wooden tourist boats he saw in Turkey — “like floating hotels,” he says. He decided to hire a team there to build a marvelous yacht, with spacious mahogany staterooms, fully functional sailboat rigging, and a steel hull, strong enough to cross oceans. He attracted investors almost without trying. He just had to share his vision: passengers nibbling local cheeses and reading Homer’s Odyssey with the azure sea all around.
The reality, though, turned out to be quite different. Money was tight, construction fell behind schedule, and the shipbuilders cut corners. Caulking on the deck came loose. Paint peeled off the sides in sheets. Worse, the experts who inspected the hull had missed a crucial flaw. In a gale off the Moroccan coast, the rudder fell off. The boat wallowed helplessly. A nearby freighter offered halfhearted assistance, nearly swamping the smaller vessel. An out-of-shape Moroccan Coast Guard diver attempted a rescue, became tired, and abandoned Vann and his companions to their fate. Finally, the freighter captain took them on board — then claimed the broken yacht as salvage.
It was enough to make a man lose faith in himself. “At some point, you think: ‘God, maybe I just really suck at this,'” Vann says.
Stuck on Gibraltar, he brooded about his misfortune. Here he was, the valedictorian of his class at Santa Rosa High, Most Likely to Succeed, the winner of the Louis Sudler Prize — the Louis Sudler Prize! And look at him: wearing a stained T-shirt, facing bankruptcy. “It was the lowest point I’d ever sunk to in my life,” he says. “Everything about who I was and who I imagined myself to be was over.”
He’d always worried that, like his father, he would kill himself if times got tough. Gradually it dawned on him that he wouldn’t. Nancy, his friends, and even his investors stood by him. The sense of lurking suicide that he had lived with for so long disappeared. “I had this wonderful sense of relief from realizing, ‘God, it’s not going to happen,'” he says.
But he and the sea weren’t done with each other yet. He salvaged Bird of Paradise, restored her to her former splendor, and started running charter cruises out of the Virgin Islands. Then the unthinkable happened: After a freak storm, the boat lost its rudder again. This time, water rushed in. Vann and Nancy had just enough time to abandon ship and call for a rescue.
Back on dry land, Vann at first felt elated to have survived; then depression set in. He had failed again. He had lost everything. But by now he knew a thing or two about coping with disaster: “I thought, ‘Well, everything’s gone wrong, my life is completely over, but I’m going to continue on. I’ll be fine.'”
From here on out, it’s the writer’s life for him. He has written a novel about a shipwreck and a business deal gone murderously bad. He’s looking for an academic post. He has a financial interest in a charter yacht that he designed himself. But life at sea has lost its appeal. He laughs: “I’ve learned my lesson.”