Cruising the B.C. Coast with the Farrells on China Cloud by P.M.
In a literary market awash with regional memoirs and local biographies, Maria Coffey has produced a work so unique it overflows these categories. Ostensibly, it is about “yachting,” a subject which is thoroughly over-subscribed. But this book rises far beyond the typical formula of “a man and his boat,” with photography worthy of any coffee table, a narrative of personal and nautical exploration, and a distinct, historical perspective.
The entire volume is written as a journal, beginning May 17 and ending on September 29th, 1995. During that time, the author and her husband sailed at a leisurely pace around the Gulf of Georgia recording the memories and observations of their friends Allen and Sharie Farrell and reflecting on all the changes that progress has bought to the B.C. coast.
The Farrells sailed in their fourth, hand-built cruising boat, the 42′ China Cloud, designed and built by Allen in the style of a Chinese junk. The author and her husband, Dag Goering, who took the stunning photographs, followed in the Luna Moth, an old dory they had re-fitted as a “camping cruiser.” To be fully accepted by Allen, and to have the privilege of voyaging “back in time” with him, Maria and Dag had to accept and participate in the journey according to his standards: notably this meant they would have no engine, just like the Farrells.
Thus their schedule was totally dependant on wind and tide. They sat in secluded bays for days waiting for the wind to change, were almost run down by a huge BC ferry, but also seemed to arrive, as if by magic, at the right place at the right time. Under Allen’s experienced eye, they learned to pilot their boat around the islands and shoals of the Georgia Strait in all weathers.
Over a period of 60 years, the Farrells have lived a rich and fulfilling life in a series of boats and land-borne cabins built singlehandedly – and singlemindedly – by Allen, a pacifist, a socialist, and a man with a prodigious aptitude for manual labor and a vast talent for woodworking. It’s easy to lose count of the places where he set up a temporary shop and built a cabin, an ocean-going boat, or sometimes both.
Working alone, and without power tools, he could give shape to his vision within a year or two. The boats always took precedence over the cabins, however. If the finished craft proved adequate to his needs, he would sail it for a few years. If not, he would be back at work within a year. All these structures were as much art as craft, inspired by his passion to combine beauty and function, often using found materials, or working from raw logs.
The Farrells had met and influenced many people, as they wound their way up and down the straits and across the Pacific. On almost every island or bay we are introduced to past or present friends who have opted to forego the wonders of modern civilization for a life of voluntary simplicity. Maria and Dag hear values and opinions that originated during the Depression years, leavened with some of the inquiring spirit of the Sixties.
“They taught us the wisdom of simplicity. They showed us the beauty of living with grace and elegance, and without waste,” writes Coffey in the preface. “This life of homesteading, gardening and fishing has all but disappeared from the NW coast. The Farrells have watched history unfold and become a part of it,” she continues.
Departing Nanaimo, the two boats make a circuit of the nearby Gulf Islands. Every place holds a memory for Allen of a time before Vancouver became a magnet for the whole of Canada. They visit a solitary, 70-year old homesteader on Ruxton Island, then arrive on Pender Island just as Allen’s relatives are about to scatter his brother-in-law’s ashes. The entire Farrell family appears to be a cast of characters, living long and unusual lives.
On June 4th, the two boats are met by a young friend of the Farrells, who had bought their previous boat. He is greeted with the news that they are giving him their junk because they think he will be a good owner. This is just one more reflection of Allen Farrell’s rejection of the money economy. He has enough to live on, and would rather see his final creation in the hands of someone who will care for it.
Twice, Luna Moth‘s mast cracks. With practised ease, Allen shows Dag how to find a tree, fell and trim it. A few days later they are back under way. Every evening they take a row around the anchorage, only the sound of their oars disturbing the silence. When they encounter the noise and bustle of modern sailors, we understand Allen’s disgust at those who are trying to leave the city behind and instead bring it with them.
There’s no shortage of nostalgia throughout these pages, and barely a dry eye at the end as the Farrells step off the China Cloud for the last time and press ahead to a life ashore. They have planned a trip to Mexico to celebrate this change of direction. Allen intends to do more painting. He is also an accomplished artist, and his watercolors and old black and white pictures of the boats provide a counterpoint to the superb, color photos. “Sailing Back In Time” is in a class of its own – in its subject matter and its format.