I read a lot of cruising narratives, many of which I plan to review here in time. I find many of these books both entertaining and informative, even if the writer has a different style of travel than I'm interested in or sails a type of vessel I'll probably never own. Most of the books of this type that I read were written in recent years, as cruising has become much more popular due to the availability of fiberglass boats, both new and used, and new equipment such as GPS receivers to take the hard work out of navigation.
Before this new wave of modern cruisers appeared, the pioneers of modern singlehanded or family-style voyaging under sail had to either build their boats themselves or convert existing vessels, mostly built of wood, to their needs. Most sailors these days would stay ashore if this was still the case, but thanks to those who did it the hard way and wrote about it, the way has been made much easier for those of us with an abundance of boat choices at our disposal. Their successes and failures, described in the great books many of them wrote, have saved many of us from coming to grief through lack of knowledge. Most people who sail today and even think just a little about long-distance voyaging and cruising are familiar with the works of at least some of these writers like: Joshua Slocum, Hal Roth, Bernard Moitessier, the Smeetens, and John Guzzwell. But there are other, lesser known sailors from this era as well, and some of the best writings are easy to overlook.The Saga of Cimba: A Journey from Nova Scotia to the South Seas
by Richard Maury is one such sailing classic that I myself passed up for years, even though I had noticed it from time to time among the more contemporary narratives in the sailing section of various bookstores. It was only a few months ago, when I was lacking something inspiring to read, that I decided to pick up this book that was first published in 1939 and remains in print. Upon reading the first chapter, I found myself immediately hooked. This is one of those rare narratives that not only recounts a fascinating adventure, but does so with a captivating writing style that takes you right along and makes you want to find an old fishing schooner and follow in the author's footsteps.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the voyage recounted in this book is the time period in which it took place - in the 1930s - before World War II brought the remote South Pacific islands into mainstream consciousness and when practically no one set out to voyage half way around the world for pleasure on a small, short-handed sailing vessel. This was a time of almost limitless freedom for those few who could pull off such a voyage. The world was wide open to them and the rules and regulations and fees that we have to pay for docking and even anchoring in many places were unheard of then.
One of the most difficult hurdles in the 1930s was simply finding an affordable vessel of suitable size and adequate seaworthiness for such a voyage. Maury and his partner in the adventure at last found their ship among a fishing fleet on the Nova Scotia coast. "We first saw her from the top of the cliff. She turned at her chains to every attack of wind, swaying, airy, buoyant, as though cut of fragile porcelain on the sea below. She was a two-masted schooner, almost as small as they go, almost as stalwart...."
The schooner, which they subsequently purchased and christened Cimba, was 35-feet overall with a 26-foot waterline and 9 1/2-foot beam. She carried a fisherman's working rig - gaff mainsail and foresail, and one jib. Maury and Carrol Huddleston sailed her down the coast to Stamford Harbor where they planned to fit out and equip the vessel for the voyage ahead.
From this point on, two ocean passages lay ahead: New York to Bermuda, and Bermuda to the Caribbean Islands. To prepare they made some modifications to the schooner, such as adding a deck hatch to ventilate the cabin, painting the hull and cabin and rebuilding the engine. The also took on the necessary stores and supplies, including everything needed to maintain the hull, rigging and sails. In light of the time period and the remoteness of their ultimate destination, it's not surprising that ship's equipment included a 30.30 Winchester rifle with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and a .38 revolver and 12-gauge shotgun. Despite the preparations and large equipment list, the schooner "retained an air of almost puritanical simplicity on deck and down below" according to Maury.
Maury's first setback occurred when his friend Carrol was swept overboard and lost his life in the harbor while tending the schooner in a storm. This event is mentioned only in a short paragraph. Maury sailed for Bermuda shortly after with a new crew - "Dombey" Dickinson. The schooner proved her seaworthiness in a winter storm en route that caused a rollover and set fire to the cabin with coals scattered throughout the interior. From Bermuda, the pair sailed Cimba on to Grand Turk and then through the Windward Passage past Haiti to Kingston, Jamaica. From Jamaica they ran down to Panama's San Blas Archipelago and explored some of the jungle rivers of the coast. On the Pacific side of the Canal, they explored the Perlas Islands and then set sail for the Galapagos.
Among the remote Galapagos, so little visited at the time, they came upon a wrecked boat on a deserted beach, with two skeletons in the sand nearby. They also found fresh footprints and heard a rifle shot from somewhere in the interior. Maury's account of the unraveling of these mysteries again illustrates how different the world was back in 1935 for a couple of adventurers willing to sail to such far-flung islands.
Onward into the Pacific, on the 3,000-mile downhill run to the South Seas, Cimba, working west and south averaged 6.4 knots or 150 miles per day. Maury writes: "The testing of a craft goes on forever - but a point is reached where finally the spirits of ship and men to some degree reflect each other, where often the weakness of one becomes the weakness of the other, the strength of one the other's strength."
Cimba made landfall off Ua Hiva in the Marquesas 19 days out from the Galapagos. Beginning in the Marquesas, Maury and his partner found the South Pacific they were looking for, and their adventures continued through the French territories and then westward to Fiji, where the voyage sadly ended on a reef. Although the schooner was with great difficulty salvaged and rebuilt on the beach, Maury never managed to sail on to New Guinea as planned due to various complications, and ended up leaving her in Fiji.
If you've every dreamed of sailing to the South Seas, or if you simply like good adventure narratives, you will love The Saga of Cimba. If you have an ounce of interest in boats or sailing this book will make you long for a sturdy old fishing schooner that you can fix up and point south. The book is still in print and you can buy it in bookstores or at the link below, or probably find it your local library. Richard Maury may have written only one book, but the The Saga of Simba deserves to be an enduring classic in the literature of the sea. It's definitely worth checking out, but watch out, or you may find it inflicts a bad case of sea fever.