Lit Bits

THE BOY, ME AND THE CAT: Cruising South Down the ICW (Before There Was an ICW)

Plummer illo

These days voyaging south down the U.S. East Coast via the Intracoastal Waterway is so commonplace as to be cliché. Literally thousands of cruisers now make the pilgrimage annually. Calling themselves "snowbirds," they ply the murky waters of the ICW in all manner of vessels, both power and sail, and pride themselves on the tobacco-colored bow stains that denote multiple annual transits.
But back in the early 20th century, when long-distance cruising was still in its infancy, taking a boat all the way from New England to Florida was a challenging proposition. One of the first to take up the challenge--and perhaps the very first to do so under sail--was an unassuming insurance salesman from New Bedford, Massachusetts, named Henry Plummer. An avid amateur sportsman who enjoyed hiking, hunting, and sailing, Plummer had long dreamed of embarking on an extended cruise and at last got his chance after retiring early in 1912 at age 47.

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C. Doane on Kuntaur Hill

IT IS AN UNWRITTEN RULE that every cruise up an African river must have a Greater Purpose--some guy named Kurtz to chase after, a lost explorer to rescue, a legendary city of gold to loot, some palpable goal to lure you ever onward into regions where you might not otherwise venture. My partner Carie and I by now had spent nearly two weeks cruising up the Gambia in my old Alberg 35 yawl and decided finally we had two of these: we wanted to see a hippopotamus and we wanted to attend a dance.

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AMERICA'S CUP CONUNDRUM: Need We Worship Larry Ellison?

Larry Ellison with Americas Cup

Another America's Cup summer looms on the horizon, raising again that perennial insuperable question that so tortures racing sailors: how the heck do we get laypeople interested in our sport? These days the default answer is super-fast boats and TV-friendly race formats, which certainly are attractive to sailors, even slowpoke cruisers like myself. But this sort of excitement, I fear, flies over the heads of most people who are not inherently interested in sailing. A much more successful formula is to focus instead on personalities. Look back at those moments in America's Cup history that have truly bubbled up into the mass consciousness, and you'll note they have all revolved around interesting people--Dennis Conner fighting to redeem himself after losing the Cup in 1983; Ted Turner talking trash back in the 1970s; Sir Thomas Lipton playing the lovable loser throughout the early 20th century.

Sailors may have trouble comprehending this, but writers certainly don't. Which, I assume, is why Julian Guthrie, in her soon-to-be-released book on the most recent history of the Auld Mug, The Billionaire And The Mechanic, tries her darnedest to make a hero out of Larry Ellison. It says something of her ability as a writer that she almost succeeds in doing so.

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James Island, Gambia River

WHEN IT CAME TIME to leave Dakar, I found we were, almost literally, hanging by a thread. I had anchored Crazy Horse, my Alberg 35 yawl, on about 100 feet of three-strand nylon rope, plus there was a 30-foot chain leader. On hauling back all the rope, which I had to do by hand, as we had no windlass, I discovered the rode, just a few feet back from the chain, had almost chafed right through. Two strands were severed entirely; the third was cut in half.

On making this discovery I was, of course, both shocked and relieved. Something down there clearly liked to chew on rope, and I reckoned in only a few more hours it would have been done chewing on mine. At best we would have lost the anchor; at worst we might have lost the boat. I also couldn't help laughing: it seemed appropriate that we should escape the city by the skin of our teeth.

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