Lit Bits

DESPERATE VOYAGE: John Caldwell's Catastrophic Introduction to Bluewater Sailing

Desperate Voyage cover

I have met several comically unprepared bluewater sailors over the years, both in person and in the pages of classic cruising accounts like this one, but there are none can top John Caldwell. It is tempting to dismiss the title of this book of his as provocative hyperbole, like some Interweb click-bait headline, but really it is not. If anything it is understatement, and a more accurate title might run something like Insanely Desperate and Foolish Voyage.

Unlike most of us Caldwell did not come to ocean sailing through romantic aspiration, but through rank expediency. Having served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, he found himself stranded in Panama at war’s end with no obvious way to get back to his new wife Mary in Australia, whom he had met and hastily married during his wartime wanderings. And in fact it wasn’t originally his idea to sail across the Pacific in a small boat. He got that from his cell mate after he was arrested for trying to stowaway on a ship bound for Indonesia.

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BERNARD MOITESSIER: Sailing Mysticism and The Long Way

Long Way cover

It is interesting that our three major monotheistic “revealed” religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are all the fruit of mystic transmissions received by prophets who isolated themselves in the desert. And in Buddhism, of course, though it is not really theistic, we have a belief system based on the enlightenment of a man who isolated himself beneath a tree. But curiously, though humans (as we have discussed before) have long wandered across the watery part of our world, an inherently isolating experience, from the very beginning of our existence, we have in our history no real prophet of the sea.

I think most would agree now that the man who most closely fits the description is Bernard Moitessier, the iconoclastic French singlehander who became notorious in 1969 after he abandoned the Golden Globe, the first non-stop solo round-the-world race, so as to “save his soul.” Most sailors probably would also agree that the book Moitessier wrote about his experience, The Long Way (La longue route in the original French, 1971), though it obviously has never spawned any sort of religion, is the closest thing we have to a spiritual text.

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HOOLIGAN NAVY: Sailing Yachts On Sub Patrol During WWII

Corsair bow image

When I was boy during summers spent on the Maine coast at the mouth of Kennebec River my mother used to tell us a story from when she was a girl growing up on the river, of how once during the war a Nazi submarine was spotted near the river's entrance. To me this always sounded crazy, until I got older and read more about the war and learned how badly German U-boats had ravaged shipping all along the East Coast right after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. My mom's story might well have been apocryphal, but it was not at all improbable, for in those days U-boats did indeed operate with impunity quite close to our shores.

Those of us who sail along the East Coast can take some pride in the fact that the initial response to this threat was mustered by amateur sailors and yachtsmen, ex-rumrunners, and other ne'er-do-wells who volunteered for service in what was known officially as the Coastal Picket Patrol, or more colloquially as the Corsair Fleet, or more derogatively as the Hooligan Navy. This eclectic branch of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve was the brainchild of Alfred Stanford, commodore of the Cruising Club of America, and was ultimately run by Rufus Smith, who was then the editor of Yachting magazine.

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SOUTH SEA VAGABONDS: The Ultimate Dumpster-Diving Boat Bum Tale

South Sea Vagabonds cover

I had always understood this book was a cult classic in New Zealand and several people over the years have urged me to read it. I never really understood how strong the cult was, however, until I finally set out several months ago to buy a copy. Scanning my favorite used-book websites, I was shocked to discover that old paperback copies were going for over $70 a pop. Clearly this was a book that people coveted. So when I eventually learned that a special new "75th Anniversary" hardcover edition from HarperCollins New Zealand had also just become available, for only $45, I snarfed one up with the quickness.

Damn, I thought as I pressed the "Buy" button on my computer screen, this better be worth it! And it was. It has been a long time since I was so engrossed in a sailing narrative, and I don't know if I have ever laughed out loud so much while reading one.

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