Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart (1983) 495 p.

A 1980s apocalyptic thriller of nuclear war survival, Long Voyage Back makes a good companion piece to David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea. Both novels – which are very much of the drug store paperback genre – follow a group of survivors in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war who find themselves in a more fortunate starting position than the average joe: Graham’s characters aboard a jumbo jet flying between New York and London, and Rhinehart’s aboard a well-equipped trimaran. This stroke of good luck might at first appear to be the solution to all their problems, and indeed they’re far better off than 99% of Americans; but, of course, their ordeal is only just beginning.

Long Voyage Back‘s protagonist is Neil Loken, a former US Navy officer who now skippers the trimaran Vagabond for an investment banker named Frank Spoor, and has just sailed it up from Florida with Frank’s son Jim for a weekend of sailing in Chesapeake Bay with some family friends. When the war breaks out – the first sign of which is the nuclear obliteration of Washington D.C. just to their north – Neil’s first instinct is to get them out to sea, away from the radioactive dust raining down on the land and the desperate refugees beginning to flock to the seaside towns and harbours, and merely escaping the bay takes up the first quarter of the novel. From there the story develops into a long voyage to reach some safe haven further south, contending with fallout, limited food, conscription orders from the rump of the US military, and power struggles within their own group. Down to a Sunless Sea has an obvious immediacy to its survival situation – a Boeing 747 needs a runway within a matter of hours – but Long Voyage Back is telling a story about the weeks and months that follow the initial war, as the last remnants of landborne civilisation continue to crumble.

Rhinehart manages all this pretty well. He has absolutely no illusions about how the nation-states of Latin America and the Caribbean would react to a flood of refugees pouring out of the nuclear-stricken United States, nor about the kind of situation they themselves would be in: simply surviving the war itself does not mean life in the Global South will blissfully roll on unimpeded when the global economy collapses overnight. When Vagabond docks for a time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there’s an hallucinatory end-of-days atmosphere among the locals; part drug-induced carnival, part purgatory of fear and violence. (It’s also explicitly said that the entire Caribbean – majority black with a population of wealthier native whites joined by the kind of white Americans who owned private boats – is simmering on the brink of a race war; this probably could’ve been handled with a little more sensitively than Rhinehart writes it, but it’s hard to deny that’s probably how things would go down once the food started running out.) As Vagabond continues to sail further south in an increasingly fruitless search for a place where her crew of American refugees might be welcome, it becomes more and more clear that what might seem like an idle prepper fantasy (“if you had a boat and knew how to sail it, you’d be set”) would by no means be a clear ticket to long-term survival.

Long Voyage Back certainly has its flaws. Rhinehart occasionally leans too far into his own sailing knowledge, leaving the unfamiliar reader all at sea; he’s also not particularly good at writing the sort of run-and-gun action scenes which become more common in the novel’s second half. It also has the typical sort of thin characterisation, clunky dialogue and sexism that you’d expect from pop fiction of the 1980s – though less so, it should be said, than many of its contemporaries. But on the whole I really enjoyed it. It’s rare to see an American novel about nuclear war which spares much thought for what might happen to other countries, and Long Voyage Back mixes that with a solid, page-turning adventure of survival.