As we paddled the dinghy out from the beach, I glanced around Long Harbour, eyeing the anchored boats with interest – a couple of gleaming white sailboats with trim sail-covers, and a dilapidated wooden boat draped in fraying tarps. I crossed my fingers, hoping we were heading for the sailboat with the dashing blue graphics on its hull. Not so. My heart sank as the dinghy swung towards the shabby wooden boat and we came alongside. A peeling wooden sign fixed to the stern displayed the name of the boat – South Islander. Tomas went aboard, unstrung the tarps and my dog and I climbed over the side. I was unsuccessfully looking for something complimentary to say when Tomas slid back the hatch and I looked below. It was love at first sight – and I’m not talking about Tomas!
During an unhappy childhood largely spent locked up in an English boarding school, I had escaped into the world of Arthur Ransome, an English writer who wrote a series of books published in the 1930s and 40s. The first book in the series is titled Swallows and Amazons and features a group of children who camp, sail and have adventures with the gentle guidance of perfect parents. In subsequent books their adventures take them around the world on a number of vessels, described in detail. And here was a composite version of those boats. Not a piece of plastic or fibreglass in sight, rather a hooped cabin roof resembling a gypsy caravan, cozy stove, shelves, bunks and cabinets all handcrafted in various woods. Slightly shabby, definitely in need of a good clean, but nonetheless a boat with sufficient character to speak to all those childhood dreams.
In fact, sometimes I have to pinch myself that I ended up here at all, realizing those dreams and living a life that, as a child, I could not even have imagined. I was always a bit of a misfit, buried in the world of Arthur Ransome and fantasizing about camping and sailing adventures I never had the chance to experience, but at the age of thirteen I managed to persuade my father to enrol me in sailing lessons. This he did, by signing me up for a week-long course at a place called Raven’s Ait, an island in the Thames near to Kew, the suburb of London where we lived. Raven’s Ait was a centre for teaching sailing to naval cadets, and they occasionally offered courses to civilian kids. I remember being interviewed by the Commander, who asked me why I wanted to learn to sail. I hesitantly mentioned Swallows and Amazons, and he immediately understood the fascination those books had for me. So I went to naval school for a week, slept in a dormitory and moved from dorm, to meals, to classroom lessons, to actual sailing all at the blast of a whistle. I loved it – except for the bit where I had to capsize a dinghy in the frigid and murky waters of the Thames in order to get my certificate. I put that one off until the last minute, but did it eventually. The water was very cold, and as far as I can remember we weren’t even wearing lifejackets. None of Arthur Ransome’s characters are ever shown wearing lifejackets, so I didn’t find that odd. Can you imagine nowadays sending a child out into the middle of a river and dumping them overboard with no PFD?
In the chapters to follow you will read about Tomas, the man who, coming from a landlocked country as a penniless refugee, dreamed of and built a boat that is a marvel of craftsmanship and the sturdiest and safest boat on the water. It could, and did, survive a hurricane. You will read about the incredible beauty and history of our coast and the characters, past and present, who have inhabited it. And you will read about the boating mishaps that can catch even the most experienced boaters unawares.
That day when I first set foot on South Islander was the start of more than a decade of cruising up and down the B.C. coast on our beloved boat, whose permanent moorage is at our home on Long Harbour, Salt Spring Island. There have been many improvements and upgrades over the years, but the spirit of the boat remains the same – not too smart, definitely low-tech, but sturdy and safe with all the fairly basic comforts one could wish for. I think Arthur Ransome would have thoroughly approved of South Islander.
This book is for those of you, with or without dogs, who know the coast as well as we do, but perhaps have yet to discover some of the walks we have explored. It’s for those of you boaters who may never set a foot ashore but who will enjoy the stories of our cruising triumphs and mishaps and it’s for those who have never cruised the waters of British Columbia but who may be inspired to do so after reading this book.
Since I have never cruised without dogs, they are a central theme to the book. Our two Jack Russell Terriers have added immeasurably to our experiences and given us endless entertainment, not to mention exercise along the way. We would never have “discovered” many of the places I write about if we had not had the dogs on board, and they are the inspiration for this book.
Read more after you purchase the book…