In the wakes of mariners past

How can one be excited about the future without first thrilling to the past? I can’t. I really can’t. This personal eccentricity began with my discovery of a barely legible 2½- by 4 ½-inch embossing – blue set into blue – on the cover of Carl D. Lane’s “Boatowner’s Sheet Anchor” (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1969).

Carl Lane’s line art depicts what appears to be an 18th-century brigantine, a 16th-century caraval, and a 19th-century coasting schooner – all flying serpentine streamers – fading from view, and in memory, into a tropical haze. In their wakes, a small 20th-century, marconi-rigged, Atkin-type cutter, flying a yacht club burgee, follows, toward that same old horizon, her skipper imagining in his mind’s eye the vintage vessels ahead.

When I spied the embossing, the revelation had me grabbing for the overhead rails. Thereafter, boating assumed unfamiliar dimensions that transcended geography and vessel sophistication.

“Gentle wavelets chuckled in lands of my clinker sailing vessel as she reached across Newport Harbor in a dying northwest wind,” I wrote years ago in another periodical . . . “Gulls cried as they fought over a dead skate, seaducks flew low up the bay in undulating strings, and a skein of Canada geese, betrayed by their far-off cry, forged southward, high in the sky in long-distance migratory mode.

“I shivered, partly from the cold as the sun dipped below Jamestown and an incomprehensibly large orange moon rose in the east, but also because I’d recaptured, if only for a few seconds, an age-old, elemental thrill and sense of adventure that, for me, comes only from following in the wakes of mariners of millennia past.

“I was Eric the Red, easing his longship into a wild Greenland fjord. No, better yet, I was the Great Essex Marsh lighthouse dweller in Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose,’ bound cross-Channel for France in his winkle brig during the evacuation of Dunkirk. This simple sloop of workboat lines transported me back to the childhood joys of capturing the wind and the indefinable emotions that can overwhelm the romantic when sailing on an ageless sea.”

The past is our foundation, and it can be a gift. If given a chance, it can impose a background of imagery and texture on which to superimpose, one by one, the translucent overlays of a day, a life, an era – even a recreation. This backdrop, if you’ll let it, will also color and enrich the laminates of the present and the future. In a basic way, it’s like seeing a good movie before reading the great book upon which it is based: Some imagery is already in place.

This issue is my last as editor. To the Points East crew: That you can operate so efficiently, and pleasantly, while working out of different offices, is miraculous. To the readers and writers – often from the same cadre of zealots – you are the brightest, most diligent, enthusiastic, honest (we share our lapses in judgment so we all can learn from them), fun-loving, sharp-eyed and constructive folks I have ever worked with. To longtime friend and colleague Bob Muggleston, who will take over with the March/April issue: Savor your time at the helm of this special magazine. It’s a rewarding gig.

Me? The past 13 years at Points East have offered this lucky man instant access to the New England waters I grew up in, and to the recreational mariners who treasure them. The sensory thrust from all this ensures that my future will be bright indeed.

I am proprietor of three small boats, all with workboat origins, with some design attributes dating back to the heyday of the River Acheron, where old Charon laid up a chine-boat for his grisly ferry trade. Every trip aboard them is an adventure in mind and spirit, as well as in unmeasured units of seatime.

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam,” wrote Annie Dillard in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” “It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.”

Anything’s possible with a little dose of history in your duffel.

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