Lit Bits

SOUTH TO SENEGAL: Non Merci Non Merci

Raft of the Medusa

THE SKY TO THE SOUTH as we sailed away from the island of Gomera looked bruised and hazy, as though the blue had been sucked out of it by some meteorological vampire. By this time, November of 1996, I had been cruising full-time and living aboard Crazy Horse, my Pearson Alberg 35 yawl, for almost a year and a half. I had sailed three times across the North Atlantic--twice as crew on other people's boats four years earlier, and once again as master of Crazy Horse after I left New England and headed east for Europe the year before. For several months I had felt competent, confident even, as we cruised Portugal, Spain, Madeira, and the Canary Islands at our leisure. But now, heading south from the Canaries toward our next destination, I felt a cold stone of uncertainty growing within me.

Africa! The very name conjured thoughts of the unknown and the unknowable. In the two years since I had acquired my boat I had sailed in familiar waters, voyaging to places I had been before, or places close to places I had been before, where I knew what to expect, what might go wrong, and how to set things right again. Now, at last, I was wandering on to charts that were alien to me, and I felt as though I was stepping off a cliff into a void.

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PASSAGE EAST: Racing Transatlantic With Carleton Mitchell

1952 Transat Race

Big confession here: I have read little of Carleton Mitchell's writing. I was always familiar, of course, with his enormous reputation--three consecutive Bermuda Race wins, etc.--but I never bothered to study any of his seven books until he died at the ripe old age of 96 in the summer of 2007. On learning of his demise, I ordered a copy of Islands to Windward, his first book, published in 1948, which documents an extended cruise of the Caribbean he made aboard Carib, a 46-foot Alden ketch, shortly after World War II. The photos were nice, but I wasn't very impressed with the writing, much of which seemed like dated travelogue stuff. Vaguely interesting, perhaps, if you had visited some of the same places and were curious to see how much they had changed, but not very compelling in itself.

This summer I spotted a copy of Passage East, Mitchell's account of the 1952 Transatlantic Race, in a used-book store and picked it up on a whim. It has been a while since I was so immediately enthralled by a book about sailing. Though its format is shopworn and predictable--a present-tense logbook-style narrative of a long ocean passage--Mitchell's prose is so engaging and evocative I got sucked right into it.

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BOAT GIRL: New Book by Melanie Neale

Boat Girl book

I first met the Neale family--Tom, his wife Mel, and their two young daughters, Melanie and Carolyn--in November 1993 on the Virginia shore in Chesapeake Bay. I was sailing south with Nim Marsh, then a once-and-future editor at Cruising World magazine, aboard his boat Breakaway, a Bristol 29, and he was anxious to visit the Neales, who were aboard their Gulfstar 47 Chez Nous, preparing to embark on their annual pilgrimage from the Chesapeake to the Bahamas. I remember pulling into an anchorage past the marina where Chez Nous was docked and running aground in a tricky channel. Nim was frantic and declared we had to get off before Tom had a chance to come over in his dinghy to help us out.

"If he has to pull us off, I'll never hear the end of it," he insisted.

You never saw two guys set an anchor and kedge a boat off a shoal so fast in your life.

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LEARNING TO SAIL: First Boats

Kids on duck boat

YOU HEAR LOTS OF COMPLAINTS these days about how there aren't enough young people coming into, and staying involved in, the sport of sailing. Modern sailors, with much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, love to debate the reasons for this. Many heap blame upon the venerable Optimist, the default training dinghy for the last half-century or more, and deride it as being too slow and boring to hold the interest of today's hyperactive media-addled youth. Even at the highest levels, in the exalted realm of the America's Cup, the working assumption seems to be that we must somehow make our sport more exciting and telegenic if it is to survive.

My own experience teaches me this probably isn't the best way to get kids interested in sailing. For children, or anyone, to learn to love sailing, and to get good at it, I think they need, first and foremost, a sense of adventure and/or a desire to connect with nature. Given this, there are then two other important ingredients: access to the water and a boat they can think of as their own. It need not be a fast boat, or a fancy one, or even a pretty one. It just needs to belong to them, figuratively or actually.

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