Penelope is a 22-foot Marshall catboat; Down East is the Maine coast for which W.R. Cheney has a passion and Penelope Down East is an engaging collection of their adventures together. It is not a ship’s log, nor a cruising guide. It is more like a love story with Penelope and a love story with sailing, if the author (and Kendra) will excuse that sort of description.
The book is well crafted and accented with numerous photographs and bits of charts. Various chapters were composed, Cheney explains in the introduction, over a number of years. Though the short chapters would make it easy to savor just one a day, when this reader curled up with Cheney and Penelope on a cozy fall evening, the pages kept turning.
There is a reference to NOAA-nothing and another to Waste-Marine. There is Cheney’s “dual capacity as captain and crew,” which provides him opportunity to unanimously pass motions on where to head each day. Then there is the story of Thumper, an evil reincarnation of a recalcitrant motor of his youth, and the reason he sails engineless.
The engineless part referred to in the subtitle allows for the “pure sailing” the author speaks to in his essays. He is a patient and flexible man, genuinely at ease going where the wind blows — and sitting about on the water when it doesn’t blow at all. He finds himself the “resident minimalist” in pretty much any anchorage where he and Penelope drop their hooks. “We won’t even talk about marina slips,” he writes. “My attitude in that regard is amply illustrated by the fact that in over sixty years of cruising, I have never used one.”
Many years as a photojournalist in Europe, a war in Vietnam, and work in New York City came after Cheney’s childhood excursions in Uncle Lee’s clamming skiff and teen years owning a cat-rigged sailing dinghy. During that time he was able to own a couple cruising sloops and do “some fairly serious voyaging,” but it wasn’t until much later in life he was able to have a true cruising catboat of his own. “It’s a hard life,” the author writes of an evening aboard filled with lobster, chilled wine, and a radio station featuring good jazz, “but somebody has to do it.” Cheney, in his mid-70s, does it well.
Penelope Down East: Cruising Adventures In An Engineless Catboat Along The World’s Most Beautiful Coast by W.R. Cheney (Breakaway Books, 2015, 240 pages)