- by Carol Standish
Roger Duncan concludes the introduction to Eastward (Blackberry Press; 210pp; $10.95) with this explanation: This book is the celebration of a cruise. From its table of contents and track charts, it appears to be the account of cruise from East Boothbay Maine to St. John, New Brunswick, and back; but it is more than an account of ports visited and weather encountered. It tells how we feel about what happened to us, for these feelings are what make a cruise memorable long after the snapshots are dog-eared and faded...May this book add a dimension to your next adventure on salt water.
As a modest and matter-of-fact description of this wonderful book the paragraph is accurate. It even suggests the tone of the prose to come. Duncan was a career secondary school English teacher and he wants his reader to take something away with him that will be useful or improve his life. He needn't worry. The book is teeming with practical details and an abiding "can do" attitude that would serve us all well. And, like any good adventure yarn, the story is told at lively pace. In the first pages, on the first night of the cruise, the Eastward is caught in the middle of the Bay of Fundy in a big sea and an impenetrable fog with a broken bilge pump. There is virtually never a dull moment—several contemplative ones but never a dull one.
The most compelling aspects of Eastward, however, are left unacknowledged in Duncan's introduction. They are not simply action and incident, but the keenness of observation, the depth of appreciation, and the quality of expression with which the book is written. Because of the way the tale is told, the book is a page turner. Whether he is calculating the threat of weather on the horizon, describing the decaying wharves of a cannery town, or a down-east character, the author's sly wit and sharp intelligence (refreshingly devoid of romanticism) weave allegory and action, memory and observation into a text that is crisp and graceful and a pleasure to read...a book you want to read out loud.
Underway for several days in less than perfect weather Duncan begins a new chapter, The next morning dawned wet and windy so we let it dawn by itself. Commenting on a particularly difficult passage, he writes, When you contemplate the run from Passamaquoddy to Saint John by your fireside at home, you don't see yourself standing on the bowsprit holding on by the jibstay, bounced and whirled about in a choking thick fog by a cresting chop, listening with one ear for the whistle and with the other for the foghorn on the light, all the time getting set by the tide in a direction and at a speed which at best you can only guess. Conversing with the "Mayor of McGlathery Island" while waiting for a fair wind Duncan's well-tuned ear captures a fine example of downeast humor, 'It's clear overhead, Naamon.' 'I know, Roger, but the hell of it is we ain't bound that way.'
Perhaps the strongest impression left on the reader is the serene competence of the author/captain, not only as a writer but as a mariner. Duncan learned to sail at his father's knee. He hovered over both the designer (Murray Peterson) and the builder (Jimmy Chadwick) of his 32' wooden Friendship sloop as Eastward was coming to life in the 1950s. He has rebuilt and replaced parts of both her engine and her rigging more than once. During the cruise he mends sail. He intimately knows her strengths and her limits—is a true "friend" to his boat.
Inseparable from this almost overwhelming impression of competence are the almost extinct characteristics of civility and modesty. When Duncan starts the cruise he observes of himself and his crew, we are not intrepid mariners of outstanding courage and endurance…we are summer sailors…accustomed to fog, to hard and puffy northwesters, to smoky southwesters, to squall and calm. Recounting an undistinguished finish to a race Eastward entered during a Friendship Sloop Day celebration he likens the experience to a whaling captain who, in the last days of the whale trade sailed for four years without rendering one barrel of oil. To neighbors offering sympathy, the captain replied, 'but, by God we had one hell of a fine sail'.
At the end of the cruise, Duncan reflects in his characteristic matter-of-fact style that we just came ashore in the way we always did, and walked up the bank into the life we had left four weeks ago…but is was richer life than it had been before.
Eastward was originally published in 1976. Thanks to Blackberry Books, in Nobleboro, Maine, publisher of this 1995 edition, a new generation of reading-sailors and sailing-readers can enjoy this classic.