Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.

Soft cover: 368 pp.

$17.95 U.S., 2007

Getting There is 99 Percent of the Fun

Cruising books are a genre, like biographies, self-help books or stories about vampires. A few cruising books (Joshua Slocum comes to mind) are so good that they become classics. Many are truly forgettable, and a small number are pretty good. Sailing Away From Winter falls into this last category. As I began reading it I told a friend, “Cameron seems to be an average writer I never heard of with a story that interests me.” So I read on, and after a while I was really hooked: Cameron’s a very good writer, as it turns out, and he has told his tale in a particularly interesting way.

He begins with the important elements of the cruise he has planned: the boat, his wife, his dog, his destination. A newspaperman and columnist for several Canadian papers with at least one earlier book under his belt, Cameron has planned his trip from the Maritimes to the Bahamas, he says, for 20 years. But until he and his crew start out in 2004, circumstances haven’t allowed him to realize his dream.

“A boat is a basket of dreams,” he states at the outset. “When you acquire a boat — or more accurately, when you are captured by a boat — dreams flower as inevitably as dandelions on the lawn.” Cameron’s dreams are of warm waters, coral reefs, a particular place in the Bahamas and the route one might take to reach such a place. He recounts various conversations with his wife, whose role in this story reminds me, at least, of Alice Trillin, the late wife of New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin. Like Alice, Marjorie Cameron is the long-suffering but game co-conspirator in the author’s venture. Both wives indulge their husbands, and in so doing allow the husbands to expose, ever so gently, their crazy inner-man selves. The tolerant but practical traveling companion can become a travel writer’s cliché, of course, but Marjorie remains interesting and individual to the end of the book.

Leo is the Camerons’ dog, an elderly whippet who seems headed for the finish line as the story opens, but who (with considerable help from skipper and wife) rises to the occasion and makes it to the Bahamas. The best tales about Leo have to do with his bladder, which requires trips ashore at regular intervals. Usually we get there, but there are adventures from time to time.

The boat the Camerons select for their adventure is called the Magnus, a Viksund MS-33 center-cockpit, ketch-rigged motor sailer. She is named Pumpkin when Cameron first visits her in Detroit, and after being shipped to Nova Scotia and rebuilt (by Cameron and friends) she’s re-named for seven Norwegian and two Swedish kings whose shared name meant “great” and who variously fostered domestic peace, law and order, cultural flowering, etc. “My kind of man,” Cameron writes.

The style of this narrative is discursive, by which I mean that Cameron stays on topic — his voyage down the coast from point to point — only until he’s compelled to take a detour. And so we learn about Scandinavian kings, the British-French struggle for North America at Louisburg, Civil War battles, boat construction, engine issues, marinas, the 2004 U.S. presidential election, past cruises, food, small town life and dozens of other topics as we move south via the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida and eventually Hope Town, Cameron’s dreamed-of destination in the Bahamas.

OK, I admit it: I’m planning just such a cruise myself for next year, which is why a friend gave me this book for Christmas. Reading it has given me a more realistic (and detailed) picture of what I can expect. That’s the selfish reason to read the book — a pleasurable task that I have now completed. But I recommend it to any armchair traveler, even if he or she has no intention of stepping aboard for 285 days.