Easy lessons in mastering the essence of cruising

Penelope Down East



By W.R. Cheney, Breakaway Books 2015, 218 pp., $14.

By Sandy Marsters
For Points East

Bless the boating purists.

And thanks for not making me one of them.

Once I picked up a couple of hitchhikers in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. They were cruisers who were headed to the Laundromat with bags of boat laundry. Their engineless boat was in the harbor. They were Tom and Nancy Zydler, and they had sailed that boat everywhere and become quite famous in cruising circles.

I wasn’t the least bit envious. My Yanmars have kept me out of trouble far more often than they have dragged me into it. I love full instrumentation, even if only half of the instruments work at any given time. I love my autopilot. My hot and cold water. My refrigeration. My chartplotter. The 15-horsepower outboard on my inflatable.

I could do without them, I suppose – but I wouldn’t.

So it was with a deep sense of inadequacy and guilt and admiration that I recently read a new book by an old friend of, and contributor to, Points East, W. R. “Bill” Cheney. I’d love to be as happy as Bill is, singlehanding his engineless Marshall 22 catboat Penelope along the Downeast coast, in thin water and water thick with lobster pots, through calms and storms, in dense fog and under brilliant August skies, all at the speed of nature.

“Penelope Down East” is a how-to book that reads like anything but a how-to book. There is no lecturing, no condescension, no purist dogma. But reading it will give you a complete lesson in how to master the essence of what it means to cruise, and how to cruise Maine so that you will never tire of it.

Over six decades, Cheney found a cruising style that worked for him and stuck with it. As Roland Sawyer Barth said in the Forward, “…the central question asked – and fully answered – here is: So how does one sail and cruise the Maine coast, alone, aboard an engineless catboat…and live to tell and write about it? Very prudently, serenely … and joyfully.”

Serenity and joy aboard a boat know no itinerary. “If I had a particular destination in mind,” Cheney writes, “I might not get there, but along Maine’s island-and-harbor-dotted coast, I invariably got somewhere just as good.”

Cheney is a talented essayist, with a sense for detail that brings clarity to his writing. He loves galvanized buckets – and always has three aboard – for the clanking sounds that bring him back to the childhood boat, Hasty Heart, which always had a bucket rolling about the bilge. This is a clever trick that helps to consolidate decades of experience in a specific image and sound.

Likewise, a humorous digression into the rescue of a clumsy praying mantis offers us insight into the author’s character: patient, curious, determined, and, ultimately, given the limitations of a male praying mantis’ love life, philosophical.

Like me, some may find the idea of sailing around and camping in a small, engineless, over-canvased sailboat not our cup of tea. But there’s no denying that the kind of approach Cheney has taken has led him straight to the heart of what it means to live a life devoted – not solely, but largely – to sailing and cruising. Connecting back to the summers of his youth aboard Hasty Heart, when he “virtually lived on her,” Cheney concludes that “there isn’t anything better.”

He goes on: “Now in my mid-seventies, I can still manage to have those days and wave-tossed nights if I get up early enough, and sail long and hard enough, and there is still nothing I would rather do.”

God bless him for a boating life so fully lived. Recalling a last-fall sail before hauling the boat, Cheney doesn’t hide his sentimental side when boat and ocean and coast and nature and man become one. “To the west over Marshall Island massive clouds are forming in a sunshot cathedral-like effect. It is a morning of surpassing beauty and Penelope is charging along in fine fashion, doing her part to make it even better. It is a memorable, an awesome moment on the water. Tears come to my eyes because, for this year at least, it will be one of the last.”

OK, I’m jealous, not just with Cheney’s ease with words and images, but with the satisfaction he has found while navigating a simple, engineless boat into a sea of serenity. May we all be so lucky.

Sandy Marsters, along with Bernie Wideman, started Points East in Portland, Maine back in the late 1990s. He is the magazine’s regular book and media critic.

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