Voyage of the Stella


248 pages
ISBN 0-00-217276-3





Reviewed by Elsie de Bruijn

Elsie de Bruijn was Associate Head, Woodward Biomedical Library, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.


Years as a naturalist and wildlife writer did little to prepare R.D. Lawrence for death when it struck close to home. In 1972, three years after losing his young wife, he had sold his Ontario farm and drifted by stages to the B.C. coast. Still depressed and restless, he bought a 24-foot cabin cruiser. Aboard Stella Maris he could embark on a singlehanded cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska, study the sea creatures of the north Pacific coast, and perhaps also revive his own enthusiasm for life.

On both the physical and spiritual levels, the Stella’s voyage was a success. Between relearning basic sea skills, exploring the remote and beautiful upper coast, and recording his encounters with land and sea life, Lawrence found his spirits gradually restored.

As a piece of writing, readers will find the book less satisfying. To begin with, Lawrence’s claims to know his subject do not always stand up to scrutiny. It is hard to read a sea story uncritically when its author speaks of “knots per hour” and considers “a blow of 9 knots” reason to seek shelter. Lawrence also presents himself as a diver of some experience, yet he confuses nitrogen narcosis with the bends. Although he has read and reread Ricketts’ Between Pacific Tides, he is still unable to spell the author’s name.

Errors of fact are compounded by an uneven prose style. Lawrence is at his best when simply telling a story. His encounters with an intelligent bull killer whale, a tense underwater confrontation with a shark, and Stella’s heady ride among a boiling school of porpoises all make a vivid impression on the reader. Too often, however, the writing is laboured and heavy-handed. Portions of the text read like extracts from the ship’s log:

gliding at 1,200 RPM’s on a flat-calm sea, the Stella and I headed away from land on a magnetic compass bearing of 35 degrees.... After two miles, with Cadboro Point abeam to port, I altered course, now steering on a bearing of 52 degrees in order to clear Chatham Islands and Fulford Reef, beyond which we would head southward for two and a half miles....

At other times the style seems borrowed from Roget’s Thesaurus:

The cessation of elemental succussions does not occur suddenly, but rather it develops progressively, stage by stage, a hardly detectable metamorphosis that often takes an observer by surprise and may cause one to believe that some beneficent, all-powerful influence has arrived without preamble....

In passage after passage the author “cerebrates,” the ocean “sussurates,” and the reader finds it increasingly difficult to remain in sympathy.

In many ways, Voyage of the Stella resembles Muriel Wylie Blanchet’s classic The Curve of Time (Sidney, B.C.: Gray’s Publishing, 1968). In both books the death of a spouse leads the writer to cruise the B.C. coast in a small powerboat, and several of Lawrence’s experiences are paralleled in Blanchet. However, the differences are all in Blanchet’s favour. Her spare, evocative, unforced style is precisely what Lawrence’s book needs to come alive. Lacking that, Voyage of the Stella never reaches its full potential.


Lawrence, R.D., “Voyage of the Stella,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,