By Robert C. Duncan, Roger S. Duncan, Paul W. Fenn and Wallace Fenn

New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company

810 pp., $49.95

Over the years the Duncans, Wares, Blanchards and Fenns have accomplished what a single author couldn’t in his allotted time – several generations of these families have kept the Cruising Guide to the New England Coast in print, showing along the way what a guidebook can be.

The book’s genesis was in 1934, according to a note in the brand-new Twelfth edition, when Fessenden S. Blanchard “planned a cruise from Woods Hole eastward.” Blanchard asked his friend, Robert F. Duncan, “to give him some notes on interesting places to visit.” Blanchard added to the notes, a cruising club circulated a mimeographed edition for comment, and in 1937 a New York publisher, David Kemp, put out the First Edition. Dodd, Mead, another New York publisher, issued eight more editions; G.P. Putnam’s Sons did a Tenth Edition, and W.W. Norton took on the Eleventh and Twelfth Editions. From 1960 until the mid-1990s the principal author was Roger F. Duncan, who also writes a regular column for Working Waterfront.

The character of the Cruising Guide is reminiscent of other great travel stories, from Chaucer to Paul Theroux – enough detail to get you there and back, but much more material to keep you entertained along the way. It’s is filled with history, anecdotes, quotations and other information one doesn’t find in guidebooks published, say, by the Triple-A or the tourist bureaus of the several states it covers.

I’ve always loved the account of crossing Petit Manan Bar in a stiff breeze and a steep chop aboard a boat with the president of Harvard (after a few anxious moments involving a whipping topmast, the president announces he’s heading below for his nap). Or the accounts, from various cruisers’ logs, of adventures in tiny Haycock Harbor east of Cutler. Passages like these are reminders that the Guide is far more than the work of the Duncans and their co-authors: it’s the accumulation of decades’ worth of notes, log entries, letters and other communications from sailors who have “been there” and reported back.

Not that the Guide doesn’t have shortcomings. It covers the vast region that extends from New York City to Grand Manan and the Saint John River in New Brunswick, meaning it can’t provide the level of detail one finds, for example, in the Taft-Rindlaub Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast. Updating a book of this scale and reach is a daunting job and never complete: the entry for the North Cove yacht basin at the south end of Manhattan makes reference to the World Trade Center as if nothing had happened there (even though this book was published a year after the terrorist attacks) and the entry for Rockland, Maine, is somewhat out of date as well.

But the history, the long-standing section on “The Authors’ Prejudices,” the comments on weather, navigation, pollution, conservation, photography and safety, and the wonderful sections on wildlife, fog and geology are all there, along with very good piloting information (including a lot of new aerial photos) for hundreds of difficult-to-navigate places.

The Cruising Guide to the New England Coast is a labor of love, and the Twelfth Edition is a welcome extension of a long tradition.