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’s Progress: A Voyage around the World, 1932–
1934 (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 SingleHanded, 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.