Guidebook writers have something in common with composers of music: their work, if it’s good enough, is destined to be heard aloud.

Roger F. Duncan, who died May 15, will forever be identified with The Cruising Guide to the New England Coast-and I suspect that generations of cruising sailors will recall hearing Roger’s words read aloud in the cockpits of their boats.  Now it’s true that the Cruising Guide, in all its many editions since the 1930s, is the work of various generations of the Duncan and Ware families, so of course many of the words in these guidebooks were put down by others. Still, Roger himself edited and re-wrote this seminal book through so many years, adding to and improving so many of its pages and chapters, that the voice in there today must be essentially his.

My mother was a reader-aloud of Duncan prose. So was my older brother Bob. I can remember the scene: sitting in the cockpit of some sailboat, we’d be headed for a harbor, usually somewhere east of Rockland.  How would we get in? What might we find there? Was there a good spot to anchor? What was to be avoided? Take Burnt Coat Harbor, Swans Island: “Entrance is not difficult,” Roger told us in The Cruising Guide. “It is a clear course from the bell off Halibut Rocks to the bell outside Burnt Coat. It passes over a 16-foot spot, which should trouble few yachts in protected water. The tide runs through Toothacher Bay with considerable vigor but more or less parallel to the course…” In we’d go, following his directions. Over the years, thanks to Roger’s reassuring introduction to the place, plus Mom’s attentive reading of his directions as we sailed in, I’ve spent more than one pleasant night in Burnt Coat Harbor.

Other entries, of course, are more cautionary. “Three factors make Petit Manan a difficult point to round,” Roger notes. “The tide running east and west along the coast meets tidal currents running in and out of Dyer and Gouldsboro bays on the west, and Pigeon Hill and Narraguagus bays on the east, producing a confused sea and more or less unpredictable tidal set off the light. Secondly, the bottom between the whistle on Southeast Rock and the light is very uneven, rising steeply in some places from far over 100 feet to within a very short distance of the surface.  This makes the depth sounder of somewhat limited value and further disturbs the seas. Finally, when fog shuts down over these waters, all other difficulties are compounded…one should plan to pass outside the bell and in rough weather, outside the whistle….” Joining this warning to an accompanying anecdote concerning a president of Harvard who sailed a boat “with rather long spars for a parson” across rock-strewn Petit Manan Bar in high winds, I’ve always given the whole place a wide berth.  Thanks to Roger, my boat and I are still intact.

The Cruising Guide, of course, is but one of Roger’s books. One short, engaging and useful volume is Sailing in the Fog, a paperback published in 1986 by International Marine as part of its seamanship series. Duncan describes the experience of sailing in zero or limited visibility-something all of us in Maine know too much about-as “an exercise in good judgment, clear thinking, and mental discipline.” He delves into the science of fog itself, why some places are “fog factories,” and how physical forces like the tide and magnetism make it possible to navigate by compass and clock. He tells how, when the skipper and lookouts can’t find a buoy in the fog, to “make a box,” sailing in a square to find the mark. “If you are dreadfully unlucky,” writes our relentlessly realistic (but still confident) author, “you may have to make four boxes before you find the buoy. Don’t ask about what will happen if you don’t find it after four boxes. You will find it.”

On a larger scale, there’s Roger’s Coastal Maine: A Maritime History, a sweeping look at the region from early settlement to the 1990s. The focus, not surprisingly, is on shipping, fishing and other maritime enterprises over the centuries, and there’s an epilogue that begins with characteristic modesty. “History hot off the stove is difficult to write and probably unreliable,” Roger writes. “Just as a good chowder is better the second day when its fish, salt pork, and onions have had a chance to get acquainted with the potatoes, so the events of history need time to settle into proper relation with one another.” He then provides a thoughtful snapshot of the coast in 1992, with its fishermen’s problems, trouble in the boatbuilding industry, hopeful signs of conservation and the always-iffy coastal economy. The perspective may be out of date two decades later, but it’s a valuable window into life on coastal Maine near the end of the 20th century, and Roger’s grasp of trends has proved to be secure.

Roger filled all of his books, newspaper columns and magazine articles with stories. They permeate The Cruising Guide, from President Peabody’s “long spars” to another skipper’s prayer for the sake of his frightened passengers off Seguin: “…I know we’ll get in all right, but if you would like to make these people feel a lot better, you can go ahead and calm the waters. But just remember, Lord, this isn’t the Sea of Galilee. This is the North Atlantic Ocean.”

But I must return to reading aloud. How many times have I read, or listened to, the passage at the beginning of Chapter 12 of the Cruising Guide? I don’t know, and nor am I really certain who wrote it, since the Guide has had so many authors over the years. If Roger didn’t pen it in the first place, he made it his own over more than a dozen editions of the Guide. For me, it’s the Maine coast in a few well-chosen words. “To be headed east by Schoodic bell before a summer sou’wester,” he writes, “with Mt. Desert fading astern and the lonely spike of Petit Manan Light just visible on the port bow is about as close to perfection as a person can expect to come on this imperfect earth.”

Well put, Roger. Farewell and fair winds. Aboard my boat at least, the tradition of reading your words aloud will continue for many years.


Roger F. Duncan, of East Boothbay, died on May 15, 2010. He was 93. Duncan wrote “From the Deck” for The Working Waterfront for 20 years. He and his wife, Mary, were well known for their voyages in their Friendship sloop Eastward. Duncan wrote numerous books, including Eastward: A Maine Cruise in a Friendship Sloop, Dorothy Elizabeth: Building a Traditional Wooden Schooner, and Afloat and Ashore.


David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.