Sailing to the Edge of Time
by John Kretschmer
Sailing to the Edge of Time is a splendid book of nautical lore and, in its way, a profound book — a philosophical inquiry into the seductive enticement of seafaring.
John Kretschmer is a professional mariner. A former delivery skipper and now, at 59, owner and master of a Kaufman 47 cutter, Quetzal, he makes his living conducting deepwater training passages on trans-Atlantic runs and in the Caribbean and eastern Med.
“Yes, people pay for the torment I promise to dispense,” he tells us, “which strikes land people as a particularly devilish deal. They will never understand the promise of respite from shoreside madness and the rare turn of freedom that a small sailboat on an unfettered ocean offers.”
In Kretschmer’s latest book, there are unmistakable echoes of Adlard Coles’ Heavy Weather Sailing, Eric Hiscock’s Voyaging Under Sail and that Uffa Fox classic, Sailing, Seamanship and Yacht Construction. Yet unlike his predecessors in the maritime book trade, he is comfortably at home with the arcana of such gadgetry as ENCs (electronic navigation charts) and the smartphones and tablets that go with them. With tongue probably embedded in cheek, he calls his overview of 21st-century navigation “JET” — “Just Enough Technology.”
In literate, fluent, seamless prose, Kretschmer covers the art and science of sailing, Atlantic storms, emergency rigging, engine failures and Gulf Stream strategies. He leads us through the intricacies of chartplotting, waypoint navigation and high-latitude cruising. He also touches on hull shapes and sail plans, safety harnesses and jacklines.
And in case we had any doubt about his interests beyond sea-savvy, he throws in what he calls the celebration of humanism and the “cathedral of nature” that historians cite as transcendentalism, a school of thought that flourished in New England a century and a half ago.
There is, at times, a breathless and endearing quality to the book as author and crew of paying guests sail, drive, roll and lurch through calm, breeze, sirocco and storm from one adventure to the next. Kretschmer was — and is — a man besotted by the sea. And early in his text, he lays down the rhumb line for everything he would later do in life. “From a very young age,” he writes, “I was thoroughly smitten with the romantic notion of sailing a small boat into the farthest reaches of the ocean.”
Permit a personal comment: Many years ago I worked in merchant ships. I came to the sea as starry-eyed as the young John Kretschmer had. But my introduction at age 19 to a knockdown winter gale on a North Atlantic run to Liverpool quickly confirmed for me the astuteness of Joseph Conrad’s much-quoted dictum: “In no other life is the illusion more wide of reality — in no other is the beginning all illusion, the disenchantment more swift.”
Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge Kretschmer his obsession, or his romanticism. His view of seafaring is every bit as valid as my own.
“I am just happy at sea,” he writes. “I love the community we create aboard Quetzal, and I have a strong desire to share what I have learned with other sailors.”