Lit Bits

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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JUST ADD WATER: Human Evolution and the Sea

Swimming baby/Nirvana cover

IN THE SUMMER OF 2008 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Wharram and Hanneke Boon in Mystic, Connecticut, where, during the course of a free-ranging discussion on boat design, neurotheology, and bluewater sailing (among other things), they recommended I read a book entitled The Aquatic Ape, by Elaine Morgan. I couldn't help but be intrigued, for I have long marveled at the human affinity for seafaring and have always felt there must be some deep connection between our species and the ocean. In spite of being terrestrial creatures, it seems we do have a very primal desire to get down to the shore and, if possible, to travel over the distant horizon we find there.

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BILL McCOY: The King of Rum Row

William McCoy

I GOT INTO THE SUBJECT of Prohibition a couple of years ago on reading Daniel Okrent's excellent popular history, Last Call. I'd always understood, of course, that Prohibition was the product of the unique power of highly motivated single-issue minorities in American politics. But prior to reading Okrent's book I'd never grasped what a perfect storm of political trends (the suffrage movement, allowing women to vote, plus the advent of income taxes, to replace revenue from liquor taxes) was required to make it possible for temperance fanatics to highjack the U.S. Constitution. What I also never realized was that there was ever such a thing as Rum Row, a floating city of oddball sailing and motor vessels that lay perpetually anchored in international waters just a few miles off the U.S. coast peddling booze to all comers day and night.

Since then I've also discovered Flat Hammock Press, a small independent publisher based in Mystic, Connecticut, that has reissued a series of non-fiction books first published during Prohibition that all tell the story of Rum Row from the smuggler's perspective. The most important of these is The Real McCoy, by Frederic F. Van de Water, which recounts the career of a rather personable and flamboyant Rum Row pioneer, William McCoy, from a first-person autobiographical point-of-view.

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CRUISING MEMORIES: Island of the Tripping Squirrels

doorway in forest

On returning from a solo cruise to Mt. Desert Island in Maine some years ago, I stopped and anchored for the evening next to an uninhabited islet off the northwest corner of Swans Island.

At least I thought it was uninhabited...

The sun was already low in the western sky, but I thought perhaps there was just enough daylight left for an expedition ashore. The tiny island beckoned to me. I hurried through my chores--rigged a snubber line on the anchor rode, snugged the sails down for the night--and then jumped in my tender and pulled for a thin stone strand I could see at the foot of a low cliff that ringed the island's shore.

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