Sunday, March 11, 2007

Globe and Mail review by Derek Lundy

Here is Derek Lundy's Globe and Mail review, published March 11, 2007. Lundy is a fine nautical writer, and I'm pleased he enjoyed the book. -- SDC

Over and around the bounding main

Sailing Away From Winter: A Cruise from Nova Scotia to Florida and Beyond

By Silver Donald Cameron

McClelland & Stewart/Douglas Gibson, 367 pages, $34.99

Once upon a time, not long ago, the sea held profound meaning for us. It was a pre-eminently masculine realm, and men dreamed of the sea as a place of adventure, heroic struggle and redemption; like the battlefield, it was a proving ground of manhood. For women, the sea was something to cross to get somewhere else, or it was a malign and terrible power that snatched their men away from them. The sea was a common source of metaphor, and of vocabulary. Covering three-quarters of the Earth's surface -- planet ocean -- the sea made the world seem large, unpredictable, wild and dangerous.

That's all gone now. For most of us, the sea is a mere thing: We fly over it, dump in it, strip-mine it for protein or cruise its picturesque fringes in floating hotels with pointy ends. There are exceptions. Expendable men still work at sea -- fishermen and freighter crews -- mostly from countries of the "developing world." They still struggle and die there, although far fewer of them than in the past; they are not prone to romanticize their workplace.

And some inhabitants of the rich "developed world," who have time and money, and therefore choices, go to sea because it pleases them to do so. For those people, the sea retains some of its ancient meaning. They are bound to find there many of the things absent on land: simplicity, honour, adventure and the chance for ordinary men and women to find out who they are and what they're made of.

This seagoing impulse may be extreme: a non-stop circumnavigation through the great Southern Ocean, for example, or a round-the-world or single-handed transoceanic race. But there are many gentler, more homely versions of hunger for the sea. In Sailing Away From Winter, Nova Scotia writer Silver Donald Cameron describes one of them: a cruise from home on Cape Breton, down the east coast of the United States to Florida, and "beyond" -- as the subtitle has it -- to the nearby Bahamas, and to the revelations they disclose.

Cameron, his wife Marjorie and their dog, Leo the Wonder Whippet, a.k.a. the BFD ("brave and faithful dog"), buy an old, tubby Norwegian motor sailer, which they rename Magnus. They do what always has to be done with an older boat: fix or replace just about every damn thing aboard, usually more than once. In mid-summer, 2004, they head south, harbour-hopping along the coasts of Nova Scotia, New England, New York and New Jersey.

They can't stay out for more than 12 hours at a time because that marks the limit of the elderly Leo's bladder control -- he, like many dogs, refuses to pee while aboard, in spite of his owners' sweet inducements. The multi-species crew makes a hard right into Delaware Bay and on into the eight-river estuary of the Chesapeake. At Norfolk, Va., they enter the Intra Coastal Waterway.

Known as "the Ditch," the waterway is a labyrinthine network of sounds, rivers, creeks, cuts, swamps and canals that stretches all the way to the tip of Florida. The route is sheltered from the rowdy North Atlantic by the barrier islands of the coast. Boats can make their way south in safety and relative comfort, dodging late-season hurricanes and avoiding autumn gales. The crew can never relax, though. There are tides, currents, many lift bridges and, most daunting, shoals and shallow water everywhere. A good day is when a boat runs aground only a couple of times.

The helmsman must concentrate without let-up as long as the boat's in motion. Cameron learns the hard way, as do all sailors, how not to bash into docks or hit bottom, and how to follow narrow dredged channels in cross-winds, or cozy up to snarky or sullen lift-bridge operators. In many ways, it's easier on the open ocean, even in bad weather: You just point the boat in the right direction and try not to be too afraid.

Magnus and his human-doggy crew make it all the way to Fort Lauderdale. From there, they must cross the 50-mile-wide Strait of Florida to get to the idyllic Abacos, in the northern Bahamas. The strait can be a bad stretch of water if strong winds blow against the fast, north-setting Gulf Stream, but the voyagers wait for a good weather window, and they make the dash across. The islands fulfill their promise of slow peace and gentle weather.

Cameron, a sailor in his local waters for 30 years, has always dreamed of making such a voyage. In his late sixties, he thinks: Better do it now. It's seductive and stirring for weekend sailors when, finally, they have the chance to just keep going, and not turn back and head home after a few hours or a couple of weeks. The sense of freedom, of possibility, rejuvenates all three souls aboard Magnus. "South, south, south" is Cameron's mantra as winter fills in behind them.

This is a well-written, plain-told, day-by-day account of getting a small boat from one place to another. Cameron is a veteran writer and knows how to lace his story with a little history, interesting characters, with whimsy and a dose of good old self-deprecating Canadian humour. A reader might wish for more drama, or for some sea-going crises surmounted or trials endured. But for a sailor, to make a voyage without mishap or trauma is the whole idea. Cameron's book about the mellow completion of his long-delayed dream of the sea is a quiet pleasure to read.

Derek Lundy is the author of Godforsaken Sea. His latest book, The Bloody Red Hand: A Journey Through Truth, Myth, and Terror in Northern Ireland, has just been published in paperback.

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