By Kaci Cronkhite
Wind Spur Books, 2016
This is a love story. I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about obsessive love; a woman’s love, indeed adoration, for an inanimate object — in this case a wooden boat.
In 2007, long-distance sailor and onetime circumnavigator Kaci Cronkhite, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., was scrolling through online ads when she found an item that piqued her curiosity: “Special boat for sale.”
What she was peering at, she says in this exuberant, fast-paced and, at times, moving narrative of fulfillment and discovery “was the most eye-popping, heart-stopping boat I had ever seen.” Her computer screen had lit up with images of a bright white hull rising dramatically at bow and stern, of a voluminous underbody balanced on a long, full keel, and of a mahogany cabin with oval portholes.
The vessel was a classic Danish spidsgatter, or sloop-rigged double-ender. “I had seen two of these boats in person over the years,” Cronkhite writes, “and I knew they were rare. Owners adored them. Of all the boat designs that had ever tempted me, this was the one.”
Happily for Cronkhite, the yacht lay just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Victoria, British Columbia, not much more than a day’s sail from her own home port. And so begins a tale in which this particular author-cum-sailor stumbles on a boat, falls in love with said boat, impulsively decides to buy the vessel and, in the process, unburden herself of a small (or large) fortune — dollar figure unspecified — on a restoration and refit. And finally, consumed by an inner imperative to unearth even the smallest biographic detail of her newly acquired maritime artifact, she spends the next 10 years journeying either to Europe or up and down the American and Canadian West Coasts, piecing together an account of the boat’s origins and history.
The sloop is called Pax. Built in 1936 in Kalundborg, Denmark, the yacht came from the drawing board of the famed wooden boat designer M.S.J. Hansen, a Danish incarnation of such American masters as Starling Burgess or Nathanael Herreshoff. With a hull of oak and pine, Pax has an overall length of 28 feet, a 9-foot beam and a 6-foot draft. Gross displacement is 7 tons. The auxiliary is a 25-hp Klassen Isuzu diesel.
In Cronkhite’s search of marinas, boatyards and registration files in this country and overseas, she uncovers records of at least eight previous owners, who voyaged in the Baltic or in Canadian and California waters. The boat, she notes, was initially called Tonica. Somewhere along the ownership chain, and presumably in honor of the celebrated flush-deck cutter sailed in the 1920s by the French circumnavigator Alain Gerbault, it was renamed Firecrest.
She has reason to believe that the boat, probably as Firecrest, was shipped to California by a yet-to-be-identified owner in 1961. From that date until 1974, however, Cronkhite’s history shuts down. She draws a blank. What she does know is that in the mid- to late 1970s, the sloop reemerged under named ownership, but now as Pax. And it is as Pax — with Cronkhite the ninth owner — that the spidsgatter sails today.
In the summer of 2013 she is invited to sail on a Hansen-designed twin of Pax. Her account evokes the beauty of where her yacht was born. Cronkhite ends her delightful book with an appeal. “At this writing, May 2016, 13 years of Pax’s history, from 1961 to 1974 … probably in the Los Angeles area, are still to be found.”
Somewhere, she thinks, there is a sailor or shipwright who, decades ago, may well have known her little ship and who has the historical information she so eagerly seeks. If Cronkhite can trace that missing link, the story she tells in Finding Pax will then be complete.