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A Literary Journey on Small Boat Sailing

By Max Lent

My reason for buying a Freedom 21 sailboat was to sail her long distances. Although I never got the chance, I read some amazing books on the topic of small boats taking long voyages that should be an inspiration to all small boat sailors.

My introduction to this genre of sailing literature started by buying a copy of “The Biggest Boat I Could Afford” at an Ithaca, NY bookstore. (Note that all of the books mentioned here are listed in detail at http://www.freedom21.info/books.htm) “’The Biggest Boat I Could Afford’ is the true story of one man's determination to pursue his dream, sailing solo 2500 miles along the east coast of the United States in a 16-foot dinghy. With a simple 3.3. HP engine and a pair of sails, but lacking a cabin, galley, bunk, head or electricity, this little boat - named the Wanderer - would take him on an unforgettable adventure that compensated in character what it lacked in comfort. An enthralling true story of becoming a sailor and conquering one's fears - the hard way.” I was hooked from page one. Hughes was having lots of fun sailing with a minimal rig. I thought that if he could make such a journey in such a small boat, so could I. The book is a great story.

What I discovered from reading the Hughes book was that his boat had been previously owned by a legendary open boat sailor and author, Frank Dye. That discovery led me to read all of Dye’s books. His books are written for sailors of small boats. The average reader probably would not enjoy his explorations of the minutiae of sailing small boats in big waters. I hung on every word.

Wanting more stories about small boat sailing, I returned to Amazon.com and reread some of the reviews of the Hughes book and discovered this recommendation. “This account of the author's dinghy voyage from Key West to NJ is breezy, engaging, and quite funny at times. It has the usual elements of all such books: episodes of beautiful sailing, near disasters, lovely scenery, folks back home recalled wistfully, helpful and open-hearted people met along the way together with the occasional jerk. At the end, however, I found this tale a bit of a let-down. The author offers two motivations for his voyage: to conquer fear of the sea, and to achieve a certain distance (Key West, Florida to Eastport, Maine). The first is, frankly, hard to accept; as the book recounts, the author has been soldier, bungee jump instructor, parachutist, among numerous other scary occupations. The idea that author Lee Hughes would be scared of capsizing, or paralyzed by fear of drowning just isn't credible. That being true, it's a let down, when, in NJ, the author simply decides: "I'm not scared of the sea anymore, the weather sucks, this is all getting rather boring, why don't I go home, marry my girl friend, the hell with getting to Maine". The voyage ends abruptly, but neither dramatically, nor satisfyingly. My favorite book in this genre remains MacKinnon's THE UNLIKELY VOYAGE OF JACK DE CROW: another Southern Cross sailor, on an even longer voyage, in an even smaller dinghy, but a funnier, more dramatic, better told, and more satisfying story.” I also felt this reviewer’s frustration, but it is an excellent read if you focus on the small boat travel aspect.

How could I resist. I immediately ordered A. J. Mackinnon’s book and was again captured by the romance of small boat sailing. Here’s what one reviewer said. “"Sandy" Mackinnon tells a tale of nautical adventure with a style that reads like a delightful mix of Jerome K. Jerome, Jean Shephard, and Monty Python. This book is so very English, though Mackinnon is Australian- it is told with love, warmth, wisdom, humanity, and with prose as crisp as Beaujolais and warm as old port. This is a very FUNNY book, but also life affirming without being pretentious. Once you start this book you will want to keep rowing through the pages as the author travels along the great rivers of Europe from Wales to Romania. This book is definitely a new classic, and ranks up there with The Saga of Cimba and Alone in the Caribbean as one of the three most evocative nautical travelogues ever written. A genuine treasure-and pleasure.” I agree completely. What this book pointed out to me was my lack of a good education. Mackinnon constantly refers to the classic books that not many American school children ever read. I felt under educated, but still enjoyed the story. The way that I read the book was to keep my WiFi PDA at my bedside and ready to access. Whenever I came across a reference I didn’t understand, I searched Google for the term. Whenever Mackinnon passed under a bridge or by people on shore, they would shout “Swallows and amazons forever.” What in the world could that mean? With a little effort, I discovered that they phrase was the title of a book by Arthur Ransome about, guess what, small boat sailing.

What came next was an exposure to some of the best stories about small boat sailing I have ever read. Not only did I read all of the “Swallows and Amazon” series of eleven books, but I also read “In Search of Swallows and Amazons” by Roger Wardale and “In the Footsteps of Swallows and Amazons” by Claire Kendall. Digging a little deeper, I read a book that was the inspiration for one of the Ransome books, “The Cruise of the Alert” by E.F. Knight.

Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons Forever” series is a British equivalent of our Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series. It seems that almost every Brit that I have met is at least aware of Ransome’s books. Most have read at least a few of them. The myth around Swallows and Amazons is so great that there are now tourist attractions and trips associated with the locations described in the books. You may want to visit the Arthur Ransome Society online at

Currently, I’m reading Marlin Bree’s books starting with the “Wake of the Green Storm.” Bree is a good storyteller and should be read by more small boat sailors.

What did I learn from this journey? I learned that small boat sailing is so much more than trying sail slightly faster or win races. Small boat sailing can lead you to far destinations and wild adventures. Too often we invest too much time in the minutiae of the process of sailing rather than the adventure. Take your boat out of your safety range and sail it to somewhere you have never been. Concern yourself with the romance of sailing rather than the mechanics. If you have lost touch of the romance, retracing my journey through the literature of small boat sailing will restore all that was lost.



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