Lyons Press, 2003

Cruising at Last is an assemblage of shorter pieces written by Elliott Merrick, an accomplished writer and teacher who spent a number of his later years ranging the East Coast in small boats before he died in 1997 at the age of 91. After Merrick’s death, at the request of his daughter, editor Upton Birnie Brady arranged accounts of several trips into what reads like a single voyage from South Carolina to Maine.

Given the author’s magazine-writing credentials, it’s no surprise that the result is coherent, thoughtful and very entertaining. With his wife – actually two different wives who shared different voyages with him – Merrick braves the Intercoastal Waterway, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, Long Island Sound and other places on his way to Maine. About a fifth of the story takes place between the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire and the area around Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Merrick wanted to get as far east as Roque Island, he writes, but fall closed in and he had to start back south.

The book is marred only by some annoying typos and spelling errors, several involving Maine places.

The account I’ll remember describes the collision of two ships in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, mere feet from where Merrick and his wife are anchored for the night. “It sounded like forth freight trains colliding head-on,” he writes. “Searchlights jumped out of the darkness. Foreign voices shouted. They had been going at about eight knots, but the shock stopped them dead…I had hauled in the Danforth and was struggling with the kedge, feeling that life itself depended on getting out of there. But the anchor was stuck under some sunken timbers or ancient iron…one should never anchor in such places…”

Merrick’s boat at this point in his sailing career was very small, 20 feet, based on an Al Mason design that had appeared in Rudder magazine and a book called How to Build 20 Boats. Fin-keeled, she had the most basic accommodations – sleeping bag cruising at best. And yet the Merricks sailed her all the way from the Carolinas to Maine, making friends while avoiding ship collisions and other calamities. The skipper’s determination comes through on every page.

This is a book by a sailor who learns something every day, and who’s never too embarrassed by his mistakes to describe them – and what they’ve taught him – in detail. Few retirement projects I can think of would beat a trip like this one.