Jack London and sailing

by Les

I recently ran across a magazine article written by Jack London about the joy of sailing. It was originally published in the August 1, 1912 issue of Country Life in America magazine, with the title The Joy of Small-Boat Sailing.

As someone who has sailed small boats for nearly half a century I found myself nodding in agreement with the writer as I read this article. “The small-boat sailor is the real sailor,” he writes, and I nod in agreement. “If a man is a born sailor, and has gone to the school of the sea, never in all his life can he get away from the sea again.” And again I murmur, “Yes.”

“There are enough surprises and mishaps in a three-days’ cruise in a small boat to supply a great ship on the ocean for a full year.” I can certainly identify with that. I remember a three day cruise from Brisbane to Gladstone in a thirty foot sloop. It took nine days, including calling in at Caboolture to do something about an oil leak in the transmission, a minor gale, and quite a few hours of dead calm.

“Gasolene engines are becoming fool proof, and while it is unfair to say that any fool can run an engine, it is fair to say that almost any one can. Not so, when it comes to sailing a boat. More skill, more intelligence, and a vast deal more training are necessary. It is the finest training in the world for boy and youth and man.” So London writes. I would add girl and woman to those for whom it is the finest training.

He wrote this when internal combustion engines were only just being adapted for marine use. The engines London had in mind were most likely the Hicks Marine Engines, manufactured in San Francisco from 1910 until the late 1940s, varying from one which developed six horsepower with a single cylinder, to a 45-horsepower three-cylinder engine. The smallest one was the forerunner of the first engine I had in my sloop Merringannee. That engine was a Clae F6 single-cylinder, probably manufactured in about 1950 and very secondhand when I bought it. While marine engines were becoming foolproof in 1912, they have not made it yet. The boat I have sailed most frequently in the last year has a two-cylinder diesel engine manufactured about ten years ago, and it has failed the every time I have gone out in that boat in the last six months.

“The sailor never grows so old that he does not care to go back for one more wrestling bout with wind and wave. I know of it myself.” I’ll close with this quote from the article. I too know it of myself.