- by Carol Standish
The Sailing Misadventures of two Innocents at Sea by James A. McCracken (Custom Communications, 270pp, $14.95)
Betty and Jim McCracken ventured onto a sailboat for the first time as fully responsible adults, parents even, while they were on a summer vacation in Maine, back in the very early 1950s. Refugees from the corporate world and suburban New York City, the first thing they did when they arrived on the porch of the rental cottage on Casco Bay was admire the expansive bay view. In the middle of that view, bobbing prettily on her mooring was a Snipe, a 15 1/2 foot racing dinghy.
Along with permission to sail her, the owner gave the McCrackens verbal instruction on the rudiments of sailing and a rough diagram of what happens when the wind comes in contact with the sail. “As the summer wore on we became proficient not so much in sailing as in capsizing and righting the Snipe,” writes Jim McCracken.
Over the next 20 years or so, the game couple serially owned four sailboats boats which they sailed out of Orienta Yacht Club in Mamaroneck, New York “at every opportunity.” When Jim, a senior editor at Reader’s Digest retired in 1975, he wrote this sailing memoir. That edition quickly sold out. Earlier this year, McCracken’s daughter, Carol republished the book in paperback. We can all thank her for making the story available to new generations of seasoned sailors and landlocked wannabes alike.
When a change of title was suggested for the new edition, McCracken decided to keep the old one thinking she would more easily attract the book’s original fans. She also must have been sub-consciously aware of how appropriate the title is to the story. The “innocents,” were her parents, Jim and Betty, but the word also describes the time. The 1950s is nostalgically (if mistily) remembered as a time of moral clarity and innocence of character—an era considered from the prospective of the present to have been halcyon days of guilelessness, neighborliness and patriarchal “family values.” They were the days of “father knows best”—even when he didn’t we kept our mouths shut.
Jim mans the helm and Betty handles the sails (and climbs the mast and cooks and cleans and commissions). She is a very stylish woman in the fashion of the day, wearing generous halter tops, shorts and sporting bare feet. Although he often refers to her as his “tulip” or “sweetie” the reader suspects that she is not as innocent and malleable as Jim depicts her. And the seasoned sailor will assume certain sudden thunderclap departures from such harmonious behavior. But they are, nevertheless and for better or worse, a team. They sail together as a couple for over 20 years.
McCracken relates the multitude of “mishaps” (some of them truly death-defying) the couple get themselves into with remarkable matter-of-fact-ness and candor. “Bad nights, like bad times, do end. It’s just a matter of waiting them out and doing the possible.” Gales are weathered. Recalcitrant engines are worked and kicked and re-worked and replaced. ”Wrong boats” (2 of the 4) are endured. Mistakes, misjudgments, and just plain bad luck events are recounted with a soft, self-deprecating humor. Smooth passages are described with heartfelt appreciation and a charming tincture of surprise.
Over the years the McCrackens buy bigger boats and venture further out of the sound. Eventually, they come to Maine for a family reunion where Betty’s cousin is the owner of Handy’s Boatyard. The whole extended family (or most of it) gathers for a clambake on a Maine island and it all goes well. The hard work forgotten in the afterglow of memory, the event was a simple triumph.
Basically, this is both the mood and message of the book, not that McCracken intended to make any kind of personal statement. Fifties men didn’t go in for that self-revelatory stuff. But McCracken was a professional writer, comfortable and accomplished in his craft. His memoir with its gentle humor and unpretentious tone expresses far more than he probably intended—about himself, his family, sailing and the “good old days”. A just plain lovely read.