The Joy of Books


West Lemmon Cays
Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), Panama

The skies are heavy, clouds metal grey, the wind is howling, it’s raining off and on. A rare phenomenon in these parts, but it does happen. And who cares? Not us. Our anchor is secure and we’ve got books, glorious books. Is there anything more enjoyable than curling up with a good book on a gloomy day no matter where you are in the world?

The Voyage of the Northern Magic (McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2002) by Diane Stuemer is one of those books to curl up with. It appeals not only to people who mess about with boats but also, landlubbers. When Tom’s sister Jane, who isn’t exactly what you’d call a book worm, or a boatie, visited us recently, she quickly realized there are certain times of the day aboard Feel Free that are sacred to us; for example, early morning quiet time featuring coffee and reading. It’s like a religion. Jane didn’t go for the coffee but she seamlessly slid into the reading thing.

When handed the Stuemer story, Jane became enthralled. She couldn’t put it down, as I couldn’t when I read it. Every spare moment Jane was grabbing for that book.

Not only is it a spellbinding saga of the 40,625 mile circumnavigation of a 42 foot sailing vessel over four years (1,445 days, 1997- 2001) through 34 countries, it’s also the remarkable odyssey of a family of five- parents Diane and Herbert Stuemer and three young sons, Michael, Jonathan and Christopher. The family set out from Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, with very little sailing experience but huge amounts of anticipation, determination, energy, and spirit, as well as a healthy dose of apprehension. They had a dream and they were going to fulfill it come hell or high water.

As is often the case with sailing couples and families, the dream originated with the male. Over a twenty year period Herbert spoke about his lifetime dream while his wife Diane humoured him, trusting he would eventually give up the crazy idea. “That’s a great dream, honey, and everybody should have big dreams” was her refrain over and over.

A near fatal accident for him and a serious cancer scare for her dramatically changed their outlook and the very fabric of their lives. They were mired in despair and feared for their future. Life goals and priorities were re-evaluated, material success suddenly appeared hollow. The idea of a sailing trip around the world took shape and Herbert and Diane both became passionate that they were meant to do it as a family. An initial ten year strategy evolved into a one year plan which included buying a boat, selling their thriving business, renting out their house, taking courses and all the associated preparations for such a monumental journey.

As impossible and even foolish as it may sound, this tenacious and determined couple managed to pull it off and after a harried, frantic year were heading off into the sunset to see the world. The story of their voyage is filled with incredible highs and lows, written in a captivating style that grabs your heart and fills you with admiration. You get to know the whole family and the people they meet intimately through Diane’s vivid descriptions. Everything that you can imagine could go wrong did go wrong from hellacious storms at sea to mechanical failures to being arrested in a remote archipelago to being hit by lightning. Often you wonder how they could possibly manage to carry on, but carry on they did, making significant contributions in places like the jungles of Borneo and remote African villages, arriving back in their home port four years later with a crowd of 2,500 people cheering them on and welcoming them back.

Diane’s weekly reports to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper meant that thousands of people were completely familiar with their everyday existence aboard their small floating home and the joys and dramas experienced during their epic journey. Little did the Stuemers know that they had made so many new friends back home!

At the other end of the scale is another book for your reading pleasure, especially if you are considering setting off on a long or short term cruise on your own boat one day. Around the World in WandererIII (Adlard Coles Ltd., 1956) by Eric Hiscock is a classic. In fact, Eric and Susan Hiscock should perhaps be considered the grandfather and grandmother of modern day cruisers. They were among the first to hatch the idea of sailing around the world in their own boat, and accomplish it, setting out from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, England in 1952, returning in 1955.

Theirs is believed to be the first circumnavigation ever made by so small a vessel (30 feet) with a crew of only two. They gained an international reputation as popular cruisers through Eric’s many photographs, magazine articles and books about their adventures.

This is one of the many books I devoured before Tom and I set off in 1985. It’s a keepsake, having been given to us by Lou, one of my sisters one Xmas a long time ago. It remains in Feel Free’s permanent collection and is definitely not for trade in any of the yachtie book swaps.

The book is brought out of our library from time to time to review passages they made that we might be considering, to see how they made out and what kind of conditions they encountered or simply to recall their refreshing attitude toward handling situations and experiences.

Unlike Herbert and Diane Stuemer, both Eric and Susan had a lifetime of sailing experience on small boats before heading off on their great journey of discovery. A sail to the Azores from England aboard their previous boat Wanderer II, a 24 footer, whet their appetites for a bigger adventure. They realized however that their beloved 24 foot boat was too small to live in for a period of three years, and that it didn’t have the space needed for the stowage of the mountain of provisions and gear they’d require, which included a full stock of photographic materials and darkroom equipment “so that we could develop our films on board and enlarge to whole plate size”. Wouldn’t they be dumbstruck to see the way pictures are developed on board boats these days! They obviously needed a bigger boat and so, managed to save sufficient funds to have a 30 foot yacht designed and built especially for their voyage.

Being eminently practical people, the Hiscocks took many trial cruises after launching Wanderer III and actually looked for gales in order to test the boat’s seaworthiness and learn how to handle her in rough conditions. Here they are being greeted by the Harbour Master in Yarmouth England at the end of their voyage.

Their small yacht was equipped with a small engine and as Eric put it “But her auxiliary is only a 4 horse power motor, the chief function of which is to charge the 12 volt battery.” When in the island of Dominica in the Caribbean where the British fleet used to lay, he remarked that “the more we learn of the remarkable feats of British seamen in the lusty days of sail, the more do we admire their skill and hardihood.” Well, that’s exactly the way you could describe feelings for this plucky pair as you work your way through the story, marvelling at their grit and daring as they circled the globe, seen through Eric’s self effacing, often humorous writing style.

I laughed when I read the story of their visit to La Palma in the Canary Islands where “the climate is hot but the women are stuffily dressed in black so Susan wore a skirt ashore.” They were low on fresh water and so, had to collect it in jugs and needed to do a dinghy surf landing to accomplish this task, so Susan wore “her most demure shorts.” Passengers and driver in a passing bus were so fascinated by the “amazing sight of a woman with legs” that the vehicle was nearly capsized as the “human freight” moved bodily to one side for a better view. How times have changed! Short shorts and low cut tops with push up bras are the order of the day in the Canaries these days. And the simplest of water makers could provide them with a couple of gallons of water per hour.

Despite the absence of modern technology on board the Wanderer though, we present day cruisers have so much to learn from and owe a tremendous debt to Eric and Susan Hiscock. Heavy weather management, navigation techniques, sail trim and self steering, celestial bodies, even such practical matters as how to keep cockroaches off your boat, and so much more, all are described in such a pleasing and charming style. The Hiscocks are like the elders of the yachting community, their advice, age old and their books well worth having on board.



“What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power and genius in it.”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe