Small Boat to Freedom: A Journey of Conscience to a New Life in America is John Vigor’s tale of a wrenching lifestyle change made in 1987 at age 50. The South African government was crumbling as the anti-apartheid ANC became increasingly violent. Blacks and whites, regardless of political persuasion, were being lumped into color-coded groups, and the Vigors — who had raised their three sons in Durban and enjoyed good jobs for many years — were trapped in an uncomfortable position between the white Afrikaners and the black tribes, primarily Xhosas and Zulus.

John unravels the complicated politics of an unhappily multi-cultural society as he explains the desperate decision he and his family (wife and youngest son) made when they chose to leave their home and much of their accumulated wealth in order to start over in a place they hoped would allow them to live without fear. John’s wife, June, is an American citizen, and their two oldest sons were already in the U.S. when the threesome decided to sail from South Africa to Florida and not look back.

In addition to providing insight into the South African political turmoil of the time and the striking geography of the area, John offers information about stops along their journey north and a personal view of his innermost fears while charged with the responsibility of delivering his family safely across the ocean in a 31-foot sailboat. He also compares the voyages made by other seafaring authors who traveled the same route. They include Bernard Moitessier, Eric and Susan Hiscock, Joshua Slocum, Jean Gau, and the Polynesian navigators of long ago.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly even though John has told me his story briefly (Good Old Boat profile March 2003) and I have read an abbreviated version he wrote for Cruising World (January and February 1992).

Typically John’s sailing books offer nautical facts and technical advice for mariners. This book, showcasing his British sense of humor and wry self-deprecating approach to life, makes the reader appreciate John Vigor, the sailing journalist and author, in a new light: as just another sailor down the dock. Indeed, that is exactly what John Vigor is to the sailors in Bellingham, Washington, where he keeps Sangoma his current boat, a Cape Dory 27. The name is Zulu for natural healer, which is exactly what a sailboat should be.

Freelance, the Angelo Lavranos-designed Performance 31, which delivered John, June, and son, Kevin, to the U.S., was sold once they arrived in Florida, much to John’s eternal regret. He was saddened to learn that she had not been well cared for. But since the printing of the book, John has discovered that one more chapter has been written for the boat that he bonded with on his voyage. She is in good hands once more . . . a good old boat which will receive the good care she deserves.

Small Boat to Freedom: A Journey of Conscience to a New Life in America by John Vigor (The Lyons Press, 2004; 288 pages)