Sunday, January 31, 2010

Then: Road to the Sea

I sometimes make fun of the yachting writers, especially of yore, for their insistence on describing every single tack, gybe, windshift and sail change. I'd rather hear about the places they saw, the people they met, and particularly in this case, the person they sailed with! But books about sea voyages,the ones by the Hiscocks, Joshua Slocum, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, etc. are what nurtured my interest in the cruising life,

Two books I've read recently illustrate just how times have changed in the last fifty-odd years. They both remind me that I could be blown back to the Stone Age at any moment and should/oughta brush up on my dead reckoning skills. I see that Doug holds an open 'Celestial Navigation' as his nap approaches. Ah, intent is a start, but will we persevere?

The "Then" version is Road to the Sea, published in 1964. S.E.(Blue) Bradfield was an Australian in his 30s who spent 2 1/2 years building a 30' jarrah-wood wishbone ketch in his parents' backyard near Perth. On their shakedown/breakdown cruise in 1958 Blue, with his wife Dot, (who had never left sheltered waters in a yacht), barely missed several reefs, ran into a tropical cyclone on a lee shore, hand-steered and changed sails constantly, climbed the mast after lost halyards, fell on beam ends and flooded the cabin, and generally had quite a time of it, all before leaving Australian waters.

D'Vara's Egyptian cotton sails blew out a year later, but were reckoned to have lived a full life. There was an engine, (several eventually, since each had major problems), a 3 hp air-cooled gasoline engine, with a 5 gallon fuel tank. There was a paraffin (kerosene) stove and fridge. Dot cooked up fish and chips, date tarts, and other dainties, hand-steered, and seems to have done everything else too, except maybe engine work, mast climbing and celestial navigation. Other than the occasional sly remark, though, she's only crew in this book.

Two eighteen gallon water tanks, but the boat was often too salty to catch extra rainwater. Stowage for spare canvas and ropes. Three months' worth of flour and sugar, rice and spaghetti. Greased eggs and painted tin cans. A collapsible dinghy that had to be bolted together. Trade goods, like safety razors, sticks of tobacco, even old toothbrushes, in exchange for fruit, yams, lobsters, chickens on the 'hoof'.

For navigation, there was a sextant (which had to be checked before each outing), pocket watch, lead-line and taffrail log, paper, pencil (and eraser). Half (well, I exaggerate) the book is about climatic conditions disrupting sights and the uncertainties of dead reckoning in inclement weather. Reading the gory navigational details of their passage through the reef- and current- encumbered Torres Straits at the top of Australia made ME anxious and weary! I'm pretty sure it would have been easy to sell Blue, and Dot, a satellite navigator, at pretty much any price, had such an instrument been available then.

While they often had to hand-steer, they eventually worked out a generally satisfactory sail and tiller-lashing self-steering balance.

Blue and Dot stopped to work en route, but pass over these interludes discreetly. No doubt he was thrilled to sell his book, which despite all that discussion of wind direction, is nicely written, gracefully told account. Also, it's a cultural window into its era: believe it or not, bureaucracy in Belize or Mexico, for example, is downright streamlined compared to the colonial bureaucracy of the 1950s. The Bradfields were also forced to stay ashore under armed guard for arriving in Indonesia without the right piece of paper.

When they arrived in England in 1963, via the Red Sea and French canals, they went to work again. I know from Google that they eventually headed back towards Australia via the Caribbean and Panama Canal, and wrote another book.
map Indian Ocean
med map
"Our way of life is best and we can't wait to get back to it", is where this book ends, or should. Blue also announced, via the end notes on the cover, that Dot was a "'fair dinkum' sailor who has proved herself capable of looking after D'Vara under most conditions. She can also cook."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to confess to observing some of the same distinctions among the boaters and cruisers I've met. Something is gained; but something is also lost and I think you're right in saying it is the visceral sense of how to do a certain thing. And I wonder if technology can make us less adventuresome, or more foolish, or something inbetween as technology might lead to a false sense of security, a gloss over the absence of the deeper knowledge gained from first-hand effort.