TIME, May 31, 1987


By William F. Buckley Jr. Photographs by Christopher Little.
344 pp. New York: Random House. $25.

''THERE are two words that explain why the general public thinks of boat owners as the idle, indolent, insolent rich,'' the editor of a sailing journal once wrote. ''One word is William, the other is Buckley.''

Since the subject of these remarks is clearly some kind of human dynamo, with a manner better described as unabashed than insolent, he might well have let it pass. But, like the deserving poor, the deserving rich are always with us. Perhaps still smarting from the dastardly attacks on his famous stretch limo, featured in his book ''Overdrive,'' Mr. Buckley sees fit in ''Racing Through Paradise'' to quote this churl in full, then slyly ask why folks are so outraged when three couples charter a big sailboat and crew for a week's cruise in the Caribbean (estimated cost $9,000), but would cast no aspersions on the same three couples should they put up for a week at a fancy Caribbean resort (estimated total cost $9,000).

He may have a point. These days conspicuous waste is largely in the eye of the beholder. Even so, it is probably just as well that Mr. Buckley does not dwell on the cost of chartering Sealestial for the month it took to sail 4,000 miles from Honolulu to New Guinea. A 71-foot ketch, she came with captain, mate, cook and stewardess. And though Mr. Buckley clearly feels that blue-water cruising can provide that ''mortification of the flesh'' requisite to generate a sense of earned pleasure, he stuffed her with eats and amenities: underwater cameras, the prototype model of a brilliant new computer-navigator called the Tremble Global Positioning System, a movie screen for nightly films, $2,525.74 worth of wine, legions of Goo Goo candy bars, jars of Red Wing peanut butter, a miniature Ping-Pong table (later donated to some bemused Pacific islanders) and recordings of David Niven reading his two gossipy memoirs aloud.

Mr. Buckley's long-suffering crew of sailing companions are mostly familiar to readers of his earlier sailing books: Christo (Mr. Buckley's writer son Christopher), Van Galbraith (then the United States Ambassador to France), Reggie Stoops (a plastics engineer and consultant), Christo's friend Danny Merritt and the photographer Christopher Little. We know them by now, their styles and verbal sparrings, as well as readers of boys' books ever knew the Rover Boys. So, for friendship's sake and perhaps a little with a view to comic relief, Mr. Buckley brought along Richard Clurman, genial former chief of Time-Life correspondents, a klutz of klutzes at sea, who indulgently serves as a source of innocent merriment. As usual, much of their time seems to have been spent keeping the personal journals urged by Skipper Buckley so that Author Buckley will later be able to stitch together a narrative and put it, lavishly illustrated, between hard covers.

This form of literary exploitation often produces glum results when applied by professors to grad students. But readers of Mr. Buckley's ''Airborne'' and ''Atlantic High'' know how well it can work. ''Racing Through Paradise'' has its moments, too. Mr. Buckley has all his wit about him still. He writes about navigation, in this case his magical new navigation devices, with unparalleled excitement and clarity. And what other nautical writer casually lets drop words like velleity (which most yachtsmen haven't run across since first looking into T. S. Eliot at age 20), or contemplates the possibility that a crew member may be afflicted with ''creeping acedia?'' Who else, totally unabashed, would describe the sea as ''lively without being boisterous?''

But on this trip there is little time for island hopping, and the sea is hardly boisterous enough to provide the requisite mortification of the flesh. Heading toward the Marshalls and the Carolines, Sealestial mostly runs wing-and-wing before the trade winds. Poor Christo -whose journal entries, especially some mock-Elizabethan assaults on Mr. Clurman, can be truly comic -has to strain hard for a strenuous epiphany. After riding the boom to muscle a split mainsail down he recalls: ''This is it, the voice said, ''this is the point of it.'' RELYING more and more on Christo's quotes (one thinks of a joint byline), Mr. Buckley less and less gets hold of his own story, which he managed to do in earlier books, and just when he seems about to do so he is distracted by name-dropping - those phone calls from Nancy Reagan, or a note from Walter Cronkite. To the author's credit this was meant to be a book as much about comradeship, ''the enduring satisfaction of shared pleasure,'' as about sailing. As usual, there are affectionate, prickly, touching exchanges between Mr. Buckley and Christo. But in introducing journal excerpts Mr. Buckley too often comes on more like some sort of M.C. than the devoted father and passionate sailor he so clearly is. As for the others, everybody seems to be proofreading or scribbling madly away, not merely at the journals but on books of memoirs (Mr. Galbraith), other nonfiction (Mr. Clurman) or fiction (the two Buckleys).

Sealestial is more like Santa's Workshop than it ought to be. One begins to wonder uneasily what the hired captain, cook and stewardess are confiding to their journals.