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Review of “The Half Bird” by Susan Smillie: Embracing an Unconventional Life

Radical shifts in direction often appear dramatic in their retelling, characterized by pivotal moments, a departure from discontent, and the summoning of profound internal strength. However, in reality, these transitions are frequently more subtly influenced, as demonstrated in Susan Smillie’s captivating narrative of her life aboard the vessel Isean. While catalysts such as the transformation of a long-standing romantic relationship into a deep friendship and the societal turbulence following the 2016 UK referendum played a role, there was also a gradual reprioritization, a slow recognition of the potential for a different, more fulfilling existence.

The journey may have commenced when Smillie rescued Isean from a boatyard in western Scotland, where the vessel’s elegant design obscured the substantial financial investment required for restoration. Over time, the leisurely voyages along the Sussex coast ceased to satisfy her, prompting Smillie to embark on the challenge of acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary for more extensive and intricate expeditions. Concurrently, as she progressed through her forties, holding a secure editorial position at the Guardian, she came to realize that one can outgrow their aspirations. A recalibration was in order.

Armed with a voluntary redundancy package, Smillie bid adieu to her houseboat in London and set sail around Britain on Isean, eventually navigating her way to her father’s residence in Dunoon, Argyll and Bute. The prospect of following her desires at her own pace brought about a sense of liberation. However, while in Penzance for repairs on Isean, a new idea took hold: what if she veered left at Land’s End?

For those unfamiliar with sailing, the notion of crossing a vast expanse of sea may seem implausible compared to navigating along the coast with land constantly in view. Even Smillie herself found the idea fairly incredulous – “Could I really sail to Spain?” she pondered before upgrading her communication equipment and acquiring a life raft. Extensive chart analysis of the Bay of Biscay and concerns about the formidable “big Brittany seas” preceded her realization that she needed to take the plunge. Little did she anticipate the duration of her absence.

The title “The Half Bird” alludes partly to the name Isean, which means “chick” in Scots Gaelic, and partly to the sirens of Greek mythology, enchantresses who captivate and ensnare sailors like Odysseus. While Smillie’s attraction to the sea stems from a restlessness on land and the exhilaration of encountering dolphins en route through the Mediterranean towards Greece, she remains acutely aware of the dangers. Solo sailing demands meticulous preparation, constant vigilance regarding weather changes, and the ability to tap into reserves of endurance and resourcefulness.

Moreover, this lifestyle necessitates a shift in perspective. Smillie eloquently describes her transition towards desiring and possessing less, both materially and emotionally. While she forges numerous friendships during her journey and contemplates extending her stay in picturesque or hospitable locations, she recognizes the importance of a more mobile, minimalist existence. She also acknowledges its vulnerability. A harrowing encounter with Algerian refugees one night underscores the voluntary nature of her expedition; encounters with aggressive individuals highlight the unique risks faced by a woman traveling alone; and the escalating frequency of unpredictable storms underscores the detrimental impact of human actions on the environment.

The narrative also delves into the relationships left behind. Amid the daily challenges of survival at sea, Smillie reflects on the losses she has endured: the tragic death of her brother Stephen in a car accident during her twenties, the passing of her cousin Lorraine from cancer at a young age, and her mother’s prolonged battle with illness before her eventual demise. These poignant aspects of her story are conveyed with remarkable resilience, underscoring her belief that her new lifestyle serves as a tribute to her departed loved ones.

Reading “The Half Bird” may evoke the contemplation of embarking on a similar odyssey – abandoning the familiar, heading south, and embracing a simpler life on the open water. While the prospect may seem daunting, Smillie’s broader message resonates: to uncover true happiness, one must first pause to appreciate the world around them.