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Following the Dragon

Doug Sanderson
Self Published

Doug, someday I'll tell you about Dan and I nursing the old Atomic 4 in Marian Claire up the ICW from Southport to the Neuse River.

There is a sailing genre that has become popular in recent years. The writer, who came up through the school of hard knocks, finally started a successful business and now is a multi-millionaire. He has a perfect wife and perfect kids, and pals around with noted racers, but something is missing. He's not famous for anything. So he hires a well-known naval architect to build his dream boat and looks around for a record to set. There are lots of color pictures of people high-fiving and fist-pumping, and finishing the voyage among a welcoming flotilla of admiring followers.

This book isn't like that. Doug Sanderson is not out to achieve his personal best or cross something off his bucket list. He's just out for a fun sail in the Bahamas and up the East Coast. His book is more like a long, extended conversation with a good friend over a bottle of something, as he looks back through his log books and relates the story of a trip on a boat. This is a comparatively recent book, the voyaging taking place in the early 2000s, so it is probably a good description of cruising in the Bahamas and up the East Coast to Newfoundland today. The story starts in Seattle, aboard Doug's Westsail 28 home, with a desire to take a long voyage, somewhere, anywhere. He knows the little Westsail is not the boat he needs, so he starts looking for something a bit more spacious. He finds his boat in Florida - a Formosa 46, 6.5 foot draft - and decides to tour the Bahamas. Now I ask you, fellow Neuse River sailor, denizen of shallow waters and winding creeks, would you choose a 46 foot boat with a 6.5 foot draft and 33,000 pound displacement to single-hand to the Islands? All I can say is, he'd been in Seattle for a long time.

Refitting at the charmingly-named "Marina del Wrong" on the (wrong side of) the Manatee River was completed in record time, as the lure of the Islands was getting stronger. Doug has a little series of letters that is worth remembering - NRLA. That stands for "not ready, leave anyway". So maybe refitting wasn't actually completed, but Doug set off for the Islands anyway, with a few items still to do, and no real shake-down cruise. Spirit, Formosa 46 of the 6.5 foot draft, promptly ran aground. This was the first bar of a recurring motif.

Doug made it to the Bahamas, despite groundings, engine problems, steering problems, autopilot problems, leaking stuffing boxes, groundings, low wind, no wind, too much wind, broken windlass, boat that wouldn't tack inside 150 degrees with the genoa set, and groundings. For all that, he seemed to enjoy every day, and the beauty of the Islands caused occasional burst of Quixotic floridity like describing a Bahamian dawn as the sun "releasing its legions of color on the eastern flank of the night's black defenses."

Doug has an interesting conceit that we all have a few "luck tickets" allocated to us from time to time, and as long as we are not profligate with them, they will be there to help us out of jams. Cruising the Islands, Doug was careful with his. He religiously watched the weather, and he planned his courses with care. He always approached the manual anchor windlass on Spirit's bow with a healthy respect, and thus had a spare luck ticket to use at a stormy anchorage when the chain ran uncontrollably out the hawser. Good and careful sailing, along with a few luck tickets, let him make a single-handed journey through the Bahamas and come home with no major injuries.

Still, the boat was worn and in need of a refit, and Doug almost decided to make that a job for the next owner. Some wonderful cruising in the Chesapeake Bay convinced him to hang on to Spirit, at least for one more cruise, up the coast to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He set to work fixing the engine, electrical and rigging problems that had been a constant irritant during the Bahamian cruise.

A marina near Annapolis was home for a year, as Doug worked on the refit and underwent a discouraging job hunt during the brutal IT recession that followed Y2K. NRLA came into play, but at least this time there was crew. Fred had dreams of doing some cruising on his own boat, and was looking for experience. With Fred aboard, Captain Doug could look forward to standing watches, rather than 24 hour call duty, and it meant the captain could hunt down gremlins while the crew took the helm. Plus, crew was an experienced electrical engineer who helped troubleshoot some of the persistent wiring problems.

More crew joined for a few days, but Fred stayed all the way to Halifax in Nova Scotia, and Doug was sorry to see him go. Fortunately he rounded up another good able-bodied seaman in Pete, and after Pete had to return home, yet more good crew. After reading about crewing issues in other books, I think Doug Sanderson was a man of great good fortune in choosing crew. Or else he used a few luck tickets. Either way, the addition of crew made Spirit a more manageable beast. A 46-footer is a heck of a thing to single-hand.

I liked the first part of the book because it was about places I have never been, and I liked the second part because it is about places that I have been. The Canadian Maritimes are spectacularly beautiful, and the people there are admirable in their self-reliance and traditional lifestyle. They are also friendly and welcoming to strangers – in a lot of ways, similar to the Southerners I have lived my life among. I spent a couple of weeks in the Maritimes a few years back, not on my boat but in my truck, and many of the places Spirit sailed are familiar to me – Halifax, Sydney, Channel Port aux Basque. Doug aboard Spirit in early summer encountered much fog and found the gps and radar to be vital for safe navigation. When I was there in September, I found mostly clear blue skies, and only a couple of days of fog, but after reading Following the Dragon, I wouldn’t dream of sailing up there without an advanced set of navigational electronics. One thing the book makes clear is that sailing high latitudes is, frankly, just more dangerous than sailing coastal Florida or the Caribbean. I’d recommend reading this book for anyone with pretensions to sail the Maritimes, not that it will put you off (if anything it will make you want to go more) but because it would be a good first step toward outfitting a boat for this kind of rigorous sailing. Then go over to John and Phyllis’s site, Morgan's Cloud to get the full nitty-gritty about high-latitude sailing.

There were still old fishermen in Newfoundland who could remember working sail. A man in Rose Blanch talked about how they used to navigate before radar and gps. For one thing, they carried dogs on board. Doug “was amused to hear that dogs on fishing boats had a surprisingly good idea where land was, despite the fog. I suppose that might be called dps (dog positioning system)”. He didn’t say how the dogs communicated that knowledge to the fishermen, but I would not be surprised if Newfie sailors could interpret barks.

Eventually Doug meandered back through the Bras d'Or, across to Maine and down the coast to Portland, where he finally found a resting place for Spirit and ended the book.

So there you have it, and if it sounds like a pleasant tour guide but unexceptional read, that is just because of my lack of ability as a reviewer. In truth, Doug Sanderson is a gifted writer who was able to turn his copious notes,logs and life experiences into one of the best sailing books I have read in a long time. There are many memorable passages in his book, but one early on best sums up Doug's philosophy that infuses every page. Way back at Marina del Wrong, there was another man preparing for his cruise - George:

"As I was finishing up my walk-jog back at Marina del Wrong, I noticed a boat motoring out through the channel. It was George, bound for the Bahamas. George had finally made it. He made it through the process of putting his life ashore on hold. He had been able to come to grips with living without society's safety net of fire departments and hospital emergency rooms and telephone yellow pages. He made it through all the planning and dreaming and fears. He made it through the frustrating installation of new equipment on his boat. He made it through the to-do lists and buying months of food and integrating it all inside a boat that was probably packed to the gills before he started. He had made it through the planning of living a life where income stops but bills don't.

"For every boat like George's that heads out into the morning on a great adventure, there are a hundred more that never get more than a few miles from the marina, and a thousand more dreamers that never even step aboard their own boat. I guess George was lucky. He was born in the right century. He was not raised amongst disease and poverty and war. He was not told a few years ago that the doctors had discovered a tumor in his body that they could not remove. He did not happen to be passing through the intersection at the same time that the other driver ran the red light. George was headed out into the Manatee River because he had worked hard, because he had made the tough choices, and because he had been lucky."

I think that's a pretty good description of not just George, but of Doug as well. And when I think about it, of Dan, and Dale and Cori, Buck and Vicki, Gigi and Vic, and all the others who are out there cruising today. Me too, someday, I hope. I just have to remember, NRLA.

Reviewed by Paul M. Clayton

Following the Dragon is available as a digital edition at Smashwords and Amazon.