Years ago, at the end of a long day's sail that began off Montauk, Long Island, in a gusty spring northeaster featuring rain, snow, and hail, a modest cruising yawl came to anchor in Hadley Harbor, as snug a retreat as a sailor could want after a cold turbulent passage. It was the end of an April trip north that had begun at Norfolk. It is at just such a sheltered moment as this that the simple virtues of small boat cruising become apparent.
One of these delightful virtues is the natural impulse, in such comfortable but close surroundings, toward conversation. In a yacht race, circumstances discourage conversation. The mood is tense. If your boat is in close quarters with one or more of your competitors, the blood is up and single-minded concentration is the thing, or it should be. Instructions, sometimes delivered peremptorily and at a shout, pass for conversation. If the horizon is vacant, the competitors nowhere to be found, anxiety quickly grows to conviction that your rival is unseen but ahead or unseen but overtaking you rapidly.
In a motorboat, conversation among shipmates is impossible. Too much bouncing, too much noise. Once, in a windy, early morning trip to Woods Hole from Vineyard Haven in a 23-foot outboard, an Italian visitor who was among the passengers found himself flung high enough from his seat in the bow that his only contribution to the sporadic conversation was a high pitched but fading shriek and a painful-sounding thud as he resumed his seat.
Fishing defeats conversation. For one thing, you've got to avoid the hooks as they fly past your ears. For another, the fish lines are always in danger of getting crossed, so it's, "Excuse me, I think I need to get under you. No, wait, the other way." - which doesn't exactly measure up to normal conversational standards. As for jet skis, well, no need to say anything at all about them.
Aboard Garland, the yawl safely at anchor in Hadley Harbor after that harrowing long ago day's sail, dinner was over, the coal fired galley stove was glowing red, and all hands sat around the table in the small cabin while the wind howled and the yacht strained at her anchor rode.
"The passage of time and sequence of happenings for that evening now come to an end for me. I only know that as the hard squalls buffeted the Garland, causing her to shift her head and quiver as her masts and rigging vibrated, I had a sense of security never experienced on shore; and that the bronze green of the floor planking, the Chinese red of the sheathing, the white of the deck planking overhead, and the occasional roar of the burnished copper stovepipe all combined to make of that little cabin a palace of contentment and delights - where I could lie full stretch on the transom cushion listening to the low-pitched conversation of the three old men and watching the blue smoke of their cigars drifting and eddying about, to soften all angles and to perfume as with incense." This description is from Sou'West and By West of Cape Cod, by Llewellyn Howland, published in 1947 by Harvard University Press. The first edition I am looking at was a Christmas gift in 1971, from two shipmates with whom I have shared many sailing conversations, on deck and below. Howland's book is in print and available, a treasure that is not history, geography, biography, or autobiography, although there's something of each in the collection of stories. It's a flavorful, idiosyncratic reflection of the place where we live, as it was before we knew it. Plus recipes. Newcomers to the environs of Buzzards Bay-Vineyard Sound ought to make the acquaintance of Howland's Skipper and his shipmates and enjoy their good conversation.