American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CRUISING LITERATURE. In the long time-span of sea literature, tales of yacht cruising and passage-making over the oceans of the world are relatively recent. Conditions were not ripe for the emergence of this genre until late in the nineteenth century, when the economic decline of sailing ships coincided with shifts in attitude about going to sea for pleasure. Just as commercial billets for those trained in sail became scarce, yachtsmen, who had generally hugged the shore, began to venture on long ocean passages that would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier. Thus, cruising literature began in England as a new form of a much older genre, travel literature.

Since captains’ wives at sea had been writing journals that far surpassed their husbands’ logs in interest for generations, it is not surprising that the best-seller of this new genre was written by Lady Anne Brassey, daughter of Lord Thomas Brassey, a yachtsman and licensed master mariner, editor of the Naval Annual, and the member of Parliament most responsible for significant reforms in the British Merchant Service. Her Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam: Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months (1878) soon became the classic of British cruising literature, with many editions published both in England and in the United States through the next three decades. Their yacht, a 531-ton, three-masted topsail schooner with a steam auxiliary, had a complement of thirty-two crew members and eleven passengers for the circumnavigation in 1876-1877. A few years later, E. F. Knight, a young and adventurous barrister, took up crossing the Atlantic with a much smaller entourage—a sailing friend, two gentlemen greenhorns, and a cabin boy—and sailed to South America in a 28-ton yawl in 1880-1881. The resulting book, The Cruise of the Falcon (1884), was so successful that Knight took up writing about his adventures as a profession.

Two decades later the genre reached America in an improbable way, through the journalistic ventures of an experienced sailing-ship captain down on his luck in a dying trade. During the same decade that Joseph Conrad came ashore to begin his writing career, Joshua Slocum* proposed syndicating travel letters from ports as he sailed around the world alone. He had already written accounts of his remarkable voyages from Brazil to Washington, D.C., in an open boat with his wife and two sons after the wreck of his ship, self-published as The Voyage of the Liberdade (1890), as well as a brief account of another voyage on John Ericsson’s 130-foot torpedo boat, The Voyage of the Destroyer from New York to Brazil (1894). Rebuilding the Spray, a derelict 36-foot oyster sloop, Slocum set out from Boston in 1895 on the first single-handed circumnavigation* of the world, returning to Newport three years later. His venture had attracted worldwide coverage by newspapers, and the resulting book, Sailing Alone around the World (1900), was immediately successful. It became the archetype of cruising literature in America and a required text in many schools; the book has remained in print continuously, in many editions, for nearly a century.

Within a year after its publication, Slocum’s book had inspired the first of many imitations, J. C. Voss’ attempt to circumnavigate the world in a less substantial vessel than Spray, the thirty-eight-foot log canoe Tilikum. Like Slocum’s voyage, this one had publication as a rationale, suggested to Voss by Norman Luxton, a journalist who sailed with him as mate on the first leg of the voyage until they fell out, and Luxton left. Departing across the Pacific from Victoria, British Columbia, Voss managed to sail 40,000 miles in three oceans but abandoned the circumnavigation in London. This voyage, along with two others, was eventually published in The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (1913).

These two tales of ocean adventure in small sailing vessels at the turn of the twentieth century opened the floodgates to cruising literature, which issues in a steady stream from publishers, fills the shelves of maritime book dealers and collectors, and sustains nautical book clubs to this day. Although much of this prolific genre is written by British wanderers, a good part records voyages of all kinds undertaken by Americans. Jack London* entered the stream with The Cruise of the Snark (1911), an account of the misadventures of a voyage from San Francisco to the Solomon Islands in his new, untested fifty-five-foot ketch. One early classic is Harry Pidgeon’s Around the World Single-Handed: The Cruise of the Islander (1933). Pidgeon is often portrayed as an inexperienced landlubber before he undertook this repetition of Slocum’s circumnavigation by sailing the other way from California, but that is a half-truth. He had built a canoe and used it in the white-water rivers of Alaska, and he had also built a flatboat in Minneapolis and floated down the course of the Mississippi to the sea. He adapted the design of the thirty-four-foot Islander from plans published in Rudder, edited by Thomas Fleming Day, who had written an earlier voyage account praising the seaworthiness of the type, Across the Atlantic in Sea Bird (1911). After building the boat on the shore of Los Angeles harbor, he sailed westward across the Pacific in 1921 and returned to the same port in 1925.

Other circumnavigators chose larger vessels and fuller crews. Donald C. Starr’s The Schooner Pilgrim k Progress: A Voyage around the World, 19321934 (pub. posthumously, 1996) recounts the westward voyage of his eighty-five-foot Alden schooner, beginning and ending in Boston. During the same era Warwick Tompkins and his wife began crossing and recrossing the Atlantic in an old pilot schooner of the same size with young people as crew, including renowned future circumnavigators Electa and Irving Johnson.* One voyage rounded Cape Horn* on the path of the California clippers, as recounted in Fifty South to Fifty South: The Story of a Voyage West around Cape Horn in the Schooner Wander Bird (1938). Continuing the Tompkins tradition of sailing with a crew of young amateurs who would share the expense of the voyages, the Johnsons began the first of their seven circumnavigations in Yankee,* a North Sea pilot schooner, and Electa wrote its account in Westward Bound in the Schooner Yankee (1936). After the war they continued these voyages in another ninety-six-foot North Sea pilot schooner, renamed Yankee and rerigged as a brigantine, and continued to write more books about their world cruises.

Restlessness and dissatisfaction with shore life took many others to sea on long voyages in smaller vessels. Among these was William A. Robinson, a young engineer who set out from New York in 1928 on a westward circumnavigation in the thirty-two-foot ketch Svaap and returned in 1932, recounting his voyage in 10,000 Leagues over the Sea (1932). A year later Rockwell Kent* sailed on board Arthur Allen’s thirty-three-foot cutter Direction to the coast of Greenland, where the adventure he sought turned into a disaster as the vessel was blown ashore and wrecked. The resulting book, N by E (1930), is a classic of cruising literature, both for its finely wrought text and for Kent’s dramatic woodcuts; Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924) chronicles several boat voyages and land journeys that Kent took.

Yet others sought to escape problems ashore by putting to sea, as Sterling Hayden* did when he abandoned Hollywood and a broken marriage, loaded his children on board his old pilot schooner, and took off for Tahiti, a tale he told in Wanderer (1963). After a divorce, Webb Chiles determined to be the first to circumnavigate the world in an open boat; the story of his successes and failures at sea and ashore is told in two volumes, Open Boat: Across the Pacific (1982) and The Ocean Waits (1984).

As the world put itself together again after World War II, a new urge for breaking records brought circumnavigators into the limelight. The impulse struck first in Britain, where Sir Francis Chichester succeeded in making the fastest solo passage around the world in his fifty-three-foot yawl by heading for the justly feared roaring forties of the Southern Ocean and making only one stop in Sydney; he was rewarded with a knighthood and told his tale in a best-seller, Gipsy Moth Circles the World (1968). This feat enticed other British sailors to undertake their own circumnavigations and write books: Sir Alec Rose, also knighted, My Lively Lady (1969); Robin Knox-Johnston, winner of the first Golden Globe Race, A World of My Own: The Single Handed, Non-Stop Circumnavigation of the World in Suhaili (1969).

By this time the quest for speed in circumnavigations had become institutionalized in races like the Golden Globe for single-handers and the Whitbread for full racing crews, with many Americans participating but fewer writing about the experience. Among those who did is Skip Novak in One Watch at a Time: Around the World with Drum on the Whitbread Race (1988). More characteristically, American circumnavigators set out to break records in their own way. Dodge Morgan wanted to make the fastest nonstop, single-handed passage around the world and succeeded, recording the experience in The Voyage of American Promise (1989), while Robin Lee Graham set out at age sixteen to become the youngest circumnavigator; his story, ghosted by Derek Gill, is told in Dove (1972). Equally ambitious on the smaller scale of crossing a single ocean is Robert Manry’s transatlantic voyage in the smallest boat, a 13 1/2-foot, rebuilt Old Town dinghy, described in Tinkerbelle (1966). One of the few chronicles to focus on a circumnavigation by an American woman is Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage (1989), ghostwritten by Bernadette Brennan.

Those less interested in breaking records than in enjoying the cruising life continued to write good books. Among them are volumes by couples who have made cruising and writing about it a way of life, notably the Smeetons, a British couple who emigrated to Canada before they took to the sea for good in their forty-foot double-ended ketch; the Pardeys, who left California to cruise worldwide in their twenty-four-foot cutter; and the Roths, who have circumnavigated the Pacific Basin and rounded Cape Horn in their thirty-five-foot sloop. The Herron family voyaged from Florida to Africa and produced Voyage of the Aquarius (1974). The profusion of American cruising literature, which began with journalistic schemes, continues to marry the pleasures of sailing with the writing life. [See also WOMEN AT SEA]

FURTHER READING: Anderson, J. R. L. The Ulysses Factor: The Exploring Instinct in Man. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970; Barton, Humphrey. Atlantic Adventures: Voyages in Small Craft. 2d ed. New York: de Graff, 1962; Borden, Charles A. Sea Quest: Global Blue-Water Adventuring in Small Craft. Camden, ME: International Marine, 1975; Holm, Don. The Circumnavigators: Small Boat Voyagers of Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974; Lloyd, Harvey, and Jay Clarke. Voyages: The Romance of Cruising. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1999; Toy, Ernest W., Jr. Adventures Afloat: A Nautical Bibliography. 2 vols. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988.

Robert C. Foulke