In the 1950s, just before the widespread production of fiberglass boats triggered the developments that have made boating accessible to anyone, Patrick and June Ellam delivered yachts along the Atlantic seaboard. In their book, Windsong, the Ellams chronicle the last years of coastal cruising as a truly adventurous, if not dangerous, undertaking. Read this book not only to appreciate the tremendous advances made in seafaring technology but also to mourn the loss of the very recent past when boating required skills and patience now unnecessary.
Today’s coastal cruiser typically sails in a boat not prone to mysterious and unpredictable leaks. The vessel is rarely out of sight of a marina, and its courses are clearly marked. More importantly, it is armed with a GPS that instantly solves eternity’s toughest navigational challenges. Aided by systems and materials that help it overcome the forces of nature, small shorthanded craft routinely round Point Conception, voyage to the Bahamas, or sail Downeast through the fog.
Reading Windsong, we appreciate that prior to modern advances, the weekend sailor would not have undertaken such voyages. The Ellams’ expertise was in their degree of preparation before a cruise, conducting a structural survey of their craft, assessing probable errors in navigation, selecting crew, and religiously maintaining a dead reckoning. These skills, while prudent, may seem quaint to today’s boater. Patrick Ellam’s level of skill was so distinct — he was the only man available who knew how to use a sextant — that he was hired on the spot to captain a tugboat from Bermuda to the mainland and down to South America.
In addition to appreciating the traditional skills of boating past, we catch glimpses of coastal life in the 1950s. After numerous passages along the still-sparse inland waterways, June notes when a house has added a new lamp in the window. We see the Ellams scramble out of Cuba when Castro’s forces come down from the hills. And we realize that the specialized skills of the Ellams were, at one time, valuable enough to enable them to run a sizeable business.
For today’s boater, Windsong reminds us that the sense of adventure is proportionate to the degree of self-reliance of the crew in handling the whims of nature and boat. Most encouraging, though, is how easy it is to recapture that adventure. Don’t start the motor. Do the repair yourself. Turn off the GPS. Anchor out instead of tying up. Maybe even get a smaller boat.