Yvonne Jeffery, Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, February 02, 2008
If you've ever had a hankering to find a boat, hoist its sails and point the bow south, Silver Donald Cameron has some advice for you.
"Go," says the author, who's well known to folks from the Maritimes. Based in Cape Breton, Cameron -- who gained the "Silver" moniker years ago from his shock of white hair -- has written warmly and well about the sea and the coast for much of his career, notably the bestselling book Wind, Whales, and Whisky.
In Sailing Away from Winter, just released in trade paperback, he makes a journey that he's dreamed about for three decades, sailing from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas.
"It's one of those things -- there's always a reason not to go," he says on the phone from a blustery Nova Scotia. "But life is really uncertain and it's short. Here it is, the wind is howling and the snow is flying horizontally. Three years ago, I was somewhere around Florida waiting for a wind to get across to the Bahamas."
He pauses long enough to laugh. "Where did I make a wrong turn?"
Indeed, the siren calls of conch shells and tropical breezes linger long in the imagination, sending the sun's warmth through icy Prairie winds and snow-covered roads. The idea of following Cameron's lead to the south is more than tempting.
"When you get a boat, you get a licence to dream," Cameron says. "I got my first boat in 1973, and started reading voyaging books and thinking about long-distance cruising. In a sense, the dream started there."
It didn't move from a "back-of-the-mind" idea to something more urgent, however, until he realized that if he didn't make the trip a priority, time would take it from him. So he bought a 10-metre, 1973 Viksund motor sailer, fixed it up and convinced wife Marjorie Simmins that this really was a good idea.
On July 21, 2004, with Cameron in his late 60s, he and Simmins set off on the great adventure with their BFD (Brave and Faithful Dog), Leo the wonder whippet, himself an elderly 13. With Leo in mind, they opted primarily for short, close-to-shore hops between overnight ports, plotting a route down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), the coast-hugging, canal-kissing way to avoid the open Atlantic.
The result is an honest, often wry account of what goes wrong and what goes right when you depend entirely on wind, weather and a troll-plagued engine. (That's how Cameron explains problems that grumble along despite time and expertise being lavished on them -- trolls from the boat's Norwegian origins, hitchhiking to warmer climes.)
As a reader along for the ride, you find yourself sailing past the Statue of Liberty, willing the engine not to choke in the middle of one of the coast's busiest, trickiest stretches of maritime traffic. You misjudge a channel and ground the boat in Norwalk, Conn., and get way too intimate with the quirky fuel system and the cranky electrics.
But you also meet Norwegian ponies on the banks of the Sassafras River in Maryland, find friends and kindred spirits in almost every port, fall in love with Savannah, Ga., make the dodgy and exhilarating dash from Florida to the Bahamas and finally discover "champagne" cruising in the Abaco Islands where sun, sand and snorkelling wait.
As a travelling companion, Cameron offers a witty, unpretentious and particularly Canadian perspective, calling it as he sees it, whether it's weed-choked canals and wake-producing steamships or flying fish and a warm Bahamian welcome.
Would he do it again?
"I probably would do the ICW again, if the circumstance arose," he says. "We enjoyed it much more on the way back than on the way down -- it was a much more relaxed trip. On the way down, every single day you're going into new territory, and you're kind of apprehensive all the time."
Of course, the solution he's really leaning toward is simply being there again -- buying a boat down south and living on it for the winter.
"It's very pleasant . . . you're always on the waterfront, you're part of a little community that moves and changes all the time. I like the fussing around with the boat -- I'm not somebody who easily lies idle, and that doesn't change when I go on vacation," he adds.
That's definitely to the advantage of readers.
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