October 2003
- by Carol Standish

Book Cover Cruising At Last
by Elliott Merrick
(The Lyons Press, 250pp, $22.95)

For twenty-two years at the end of his working life, Elliott Merrick was science editor and publications officer at the Southeastern Forest Experimentation Station of the USDA Forest Service headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina. During those years he and his wife spent weekends and vacations trailering an 11½ foot sailing dinghy to the coast and spent many long days exploring the yet undeveloped coast of Hilton Head and other islands.

“An eleven-and-a-half foot Penguin as a daysailer is ridiculous, of course,” he admits. “But if that’s all you have, and your crew-wife can shift her weight in lively fashion, its surprising how far you can travel. You have to keep an eye out for squalls, be alert, and change your plans according to the weather. But it’s full of adventurous uncertainties, and wasn’t the object to get away from the old humdrum?”

In the four years before he retired, he built a twenty foot, four inch (OA) Carinita on which he intended to cruise overnight. That ambition may also seem a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Merrick and his wife sailed from Georgia to Maine and back three times after he retired. He was in his sixties, she was in her seventies. Which makes the achievement far more remarkable than ridiculous.

The subsequent book, Cruising At Last is also remarkable. Merrick was a literary man, starting out in the newspaper and publicity business in New York City. In the course of a varied career he also wrote both fiction and non-fiction books and articles. Cruising At Last is a compilation of articles he wrote over time about his ocean-going adventures. Merrick’s mastery of lucid, rhythmic and unlabored prose is a pleasure to read, but what makes the book a stand-out is the author’s keen eye, frank opinion and wry humor. Describing a “lordly ketch some ninety...feet long” he says, “She was graceful with that grace that only length can give, like a long-stemmed rose, or a long silken leg.”

About his cruising aspirations, he says, “I didn’t want to do any special gung ho thing like racing around the world backward without touching anywhere or trying to beat the clock like Chichester which seems to me a stunt spoiling the simple joy you went for. I just wanted to sail my own boat from South Carolina to Maine and back, to experience the gladness and see whether I could improve my piloting and gain confidence.” And that’s just what he did and what the book shares. No special short cuts or tricks of the trade, no tips on where to get the cheapest widget. No boat jargon or one upsmanship stories.

Merrick is endearing in his humility not only toward his boat but about his own skills and talents. The ocean world he is immersed in regularly confounds him with awe and appreciation. Being a literary man, he calls on literary references, but only occasionally so they stand out. He calls his boat Sunrise “because she is a dream like ‘The sanguine sunrise, with his meteor eyes’ (from Shelley’s The Cloud) that flames the ocean on summer mornings” and includes light quotes from Stevenson and surprisingly humorous bits from Masefield.

Cruising At Last is the work of a mature, thoughtful, intelligent and unpretentious man which is all by itself a rare and delicious reading experience. The fact that the subject of the book is a series of cruises, up and down the Atlantic coast by two elderly people in a 20-foot sailboat sneaks up on you until toward the end of the book, Merrick and his wife have emerged as unintentional heroes, encouraging by example all would be adventurers to follow suit.

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