CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Although it happened 14 years ago, it takes Finley Martin only a second to return to his favourite sailboat.
“I don’t have to close my eyes. I’m there,” says the P.E.I. teacher/sailor/author.
Martin recalls the billowing waves, the sun on his shoulders and the salt spray on his face on a summer morning in 2004 when he set sail on the Arja D with the dream of circling Eastern North America on a 1930s-style wooden sailboat that he built himself.
“I was surprised by how cold it was on the first leg of the journey. It was five degrees (Celsius) in the morning. And by the time I reached the St. Lawrence River there was endless fog,” recalls Martin, who has launched a new book about his adventures.
Entitled “Sailing in Circles, Goin’ Somewhere: Not Your Typical Boat Story”, it’s published by Nimbus. The 286-page memoir tells how Martin leaves the small fishing port of Beach Point, P.E.I., and tracks up the rugged New Brunswick and Gaspe coast, up through the St. Lawrence River and through the Great Lakes.
Alone, he encounters heavy fog, near-collisions with freighters, mechanical breakdowns, enormous seas, several brushes with disaster and even a hostile reception at one French-speaking port. He meets unusual and nosy people. It all comes to a humbling and an unexpected end less than one third that way through his journey when the author and his boat are stuck in Peoria, Ill.
“With the exception of the engines breaking down it was a positive experience. I made a lot of friends,” says Martin, who spent four years transforming the ship’s log book into a colourful narrative.
He credits his neighbour, author Marion Bruce, for showing her interest in a partially-completed draft.
“It is a fact that even slight encouragement will propel an author forward…. And so, writing the book opened up the journey for me,” says Martin.
“The first wall of water struck head-on. The bow dug into the trough at its foot and lifted neatly. The Arja D lumbered up a mountain of water. I dreaded the crest. What lay beyond it I could not imagine…. For a fraction of a moment I could imagine stalling, falling to the side."
Life aboard the sailboat was always changing.
“It went from the mundane - the motor’s running, you’re on course to any kind of weather we were experiencing.”
Then there were the iconic sailing moments.
“One day we were sailing in Lake Michigan with the wind behind us with both the sails spread in different directions.”
For two hours it felt like an “exhilarating ballet.”
“The sea swelled around us. It seemed it would engulf us. Then it parted like two strong arms, along each quarter of the stern and it held Arja D as powerfully and firmly as Nureyev catching his ballerina’s waist in her great leap above his head,” writes Martin in his book.
There were terrifying moments as well.
“It’s surprising what can happen on the St. Lawrence River,” says Martin, recalling the 20-foot waves he encountered after slipping away from Île aux Basques, Que.
He writes: “The first wall of water struck head-on. The bow dug into the trough at its foot and lifted neatly. The Arja D lumbered up a mountain of water. I dreaded the crest. What lay beyond it I could not imagine…. For a fraction of a moment I could imagine stalling, falling to the side."
All of a sudden, his military training kicked in. “I thought, ‘what do I have to do now?’” says Martin, who leaves it to Guardian readers to imagine how he escaped.
In the end it took him four years, 3,104 miles and numerous setbacks to make it to Peoria.
“We experienced false starts, engine breakdowns and three times we had to lay it up for the season.”
Now, 76 he continues to sail with friends. But his thoughts often turn to his voyage of 1991.
“There were so many wonderful, generous, fascinating people I met along the way. Meeting them was just as much as a reward for me as taking a mechanical trip up (and around eastern North America).”
Getting to know Finley Martin
- A former teacher and PR consultant, Martin is a prolific writer.
- His poetry and short stories have appeared in “Inscape”, “The Oyster in the Ooze”, “Voices Down East”. They also were broadcast over a CBC Radio production, “We Are the Wind and More (Maritime Poets 1973)."
- Martin has given poetry readings in Ottawa, Charlottetown and Sackville, N.B.
- He has ghostwritten pieces that appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines and has produced documentaries for CBC TV.
- He has authored two books, “A View from the Bridge” and “New Atlantic Writing”.