Of Boats and Books

maine. | August 2014

By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Peter Ralston

How the most essential piece of nautical literature made it to print

Ask anyone who has been lucky enough to spend time poking around in one of the world’s great cruising grounds and they will tell you must, must bring your vessel to Maine and explore its endlessly intricate, endlessly challenging coastline. Many cruisers spend 50 weeks a year in demanding, sometimes dispiriting, jobs simply to be able to spend two weeks on a cruising boat in Maine.

The Maine coast draws sailors and cruisers alike to its deeply indented coastline, dissected with saltwater rivers that reach far inland and punctuated by lonely offshore outposts, where artists seclude themselves with seabirds and seals. In between, hundreds—quite literally hundreds—of harbors welcome mariners with moorings, anchorages, groceries, and ice. Five thousand islands—an archipelago!—whisper of mystery, adventure, and history. Thousands more lobstermen await to observe and comment on your progress and pitfalls—or to sell you the freshest lobster you ever tasted.

To plan any voyage, one needs a map. To cruise the coast of Maine, the most indispensible nautical accouterment is A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast. Originally published in 1988 by Hank and Jan Taft, this essential text has been updated every five years since 1996 by Curtis Rindlaub.

When Hank Taft, a descendant of a United States president, moved to Camden, Maine with his wife, Jan, in 1981, he had two goals in mind: first, to start a small business and second, to write a cruising guide to the Maine coast. After starting a company, Good Wooden Boats (which sold, as you might expect, good wooden boats), the couple decided to focus on their other, more romantic goal: exploring every nook, cranny, guzzle, thoroughfare and cove of the Maine coast. They drafted a prospectus for a cruising guide, the only one that would focus exclusively on the Maine coast, and met with Roger Taylor, the head of International Marine, the specialty publisher based in Camden. Taylor liked the idea and offered a modest advance. The Tafts negotiated an publishing agreement that included an escalating royalty rate—the more volumes that sold, the higher the royalty—and immediately started getting their boat ready for a season of serious cruising. Their success was almost immediate and the entire printing sold out quickly. “To be so immediately rewarded—you don’t get that often in life,” said Jan Taft, recalling the thrilling early days of the book’s success.

In 1991, after ten years of researching, writing, and updating two editions of A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast, Hank Taft died of cancer at age 64.  Jan Taft knew that she had to find someone to take over this project, because the heroic effort involved in spending six months on the water and six months writing to keep the guide fresh and accurate was not something she could do alone.
Curtis Rindlaub’s father was not a born sailor; he learned to sail “by reading books,” according to his son. His first boat was a small daysailer, known as a Bullseye, a forgiving boat on which to learn. Even so, Rindlaub recalls that as a child he dreaded sailing with his father. “I used to get a sinking feeling seeing him come down the stairs with the sail bag. There was no end to adventure or misadventure. The whole boat was chaos.” At one point, out in Long Island Sound, not far offshore, his father hit a rock. He yelled to his wife, “Laurette, get out and push!” As Rindlaub watched in disbelief, the sails filled with wind as the boat moved off and picked up speed, while his mother, seeming to defy the laws of physics, was left standing in the water.

Rindlaub’s father, a businessman, was transferred overseas to Stockholm, Sweden, where the family chartered a sailboat to explore the Stockholm archipelago, another grand cruising ground. On the water, they couldn’t help but admire the Vindo sailing yachts, known as the “Hinckleys of Sweden” for their combination of elegance and superior sailing qualities. Although Vindos have fiberglass hulls, they have mahogany cabins and are finished off as beautiful wooden boats below decks. When the family was later living in Norway, they bought a Vindo 32 to sail the Oslo fjord. But alas, his father had only owned the boat for a month before he was transferred back to the United States and forced to sell the boat.

Years later, Curtis Rindlaub and his wife, Carol, moved to Peaks Island, where she was an artist and he a freelance writer. Rindlaub took on carpentry jobs to survive. When Rindlaub saw an ad for a storm-damaged 35-foot Vindo, he called his father to rib him about his brief ownership of such a vessel. His father encouraged him at least to go take a look at the boat. So Rindlaub drove up to East Boothbay “on a lark.” There he found the Vindo.  Its cabin was smashed and its hull chewed away by a plow anchor on the bow of a neighboring vessel that had broken loose from its mooring during a storm. On the drive home, Rindlaub mused that he was a good enough carpenter to redo the cabin, but knew nothing about fiberglass repair. Fortunately, he had a friend who was an expert who offered to teach him. When all was said and done, he was the high bidder by $200. Three years later, Indigo went into the water.

Shortly afterwards, Rindlaub and his wife recognized that they “could do better renting our Peaks house than staying on the island pounding nails,” which is how they became summertime cruisers of the Maine coast. Cruising with the Rindlaubs was a family affair, with their two young children, who first went to sea “with their swings tied to the grab rails down below.” Looking back, Rindlaub muses on how different every sailing expedition ultimately is: “The whole concept of time and distance changes. Walking from the Port Clyde General Store to the swing set around the corner when the kids were young was a big expedition. Now without the kids, we can get up later, have coffee in bed, explore a harbor or anchorage, have a late lunch, and when the wind is up, sail to the next harbor.” Every place they go has a reference or a memory for them, but “each time you go back, it’s different. The people, the weather, the crowd all change. Some harbors you did not like the first time turn out to be great the next time.”

In 1993, a mutual friend mentioned Rinbdlaub’s interests to Jan Taft. Taft contacted Rindlaub about the guide and “the first thing she said is ‘I want someone to take it over.’” Although it seemed like a perfect fit to Rindlaub, his wife was more circumspect. Cruising, she told him, “is the one time I see you relaxed. Do you really want to turn it into work?” But he took the plunge.

There was, however, an immediate problem. According to the publisher, the cruising guide had become too successful, with the royalty rate at a level where they wanted to renegotiate the agreement. For advice, Rindlaub turned to Jon Wilson, the founder of Wooden Boat, who had published many of his freelance pieces. When Wilson reviewed the publisher’s account of all the fees required to publish the guide, he told Rindlaub, “I don’t think there is a better roadmap to self-publishing.” A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast became, in the words of Rindlaub, “one of the first self-published books at the time.”

“Without self publishing, I am not sure the book would have survived, even with a high royalty rate,” says Rindlaub, looking back. The market for boating is not big to begin with and boating books about Maine is an even smaller part of the market, and the cruising guide market is smaller yet. But at the time, Rindlaub knew none of that. What he did know was that the Taft and Taft cruising guide had good name recognition, and a good list of bookstores, chandleries, and outlets that sold it.

To be self-published in the early to mid-1990s meant you had to be your own graphic designer and layout expert. Macintosh computers had just begun to make desktop publishing a reality; Rindlaub borrowed a friend’s home computer during the workday. It was a two-year slog before he joyfully sent the new edition off to the printer. Then, disaster struck.

Rindlaub had reckoned on how the maps, laid out on a computer, would appear on the printed page, but had not compensated for the amount of extra ink that gets absorbed by the paper when printed, so the maps wouldn’t appear too dark. There was “staggering dot gain” on each of several hundred maps Rindlaub had painstakingly rendered on the computer, and he now owned “17,000 pounds” of a map-based guide with unreadable maps and charts. Rindlaub went to his first boat show sales event in 1995 “with a book that looked like a Rorschach test.” But “people were very supportive, and signed up until we got it right. That was major.” The goodwill of the boating community helped the guide survive through two subsequent editions.

When it is time for a new edition, Rindlaub goes to every single harbor described in the book. He has also added the St. John River to the original list of harbors that Taft and Taft first described. “There is definitely a point where it does not make financial sense to continue,” he says. “But I really love it and could make a modest living if I did two cruising guides.” He thought about adding southern New England to his efforts and did a small book for cruising in Casco Bay, “but it’s hard to think about doubling down when the market is shrinking.”

The Cruising Guide has weathered some tough times in recent years. Rindlaub recalls that when chart plotters, which show a boat’s position accurately on an electronic display, first came out, “there was a boost in sales;” the devices may have given people more confidence to come to the Maine coast. More recently, however, there might be a negative effect. “The chart plotters are so accurate, some cruisers figure they don’t need a cruising guide.” Then, West Marine, the premier nautical direct mail catalog, began requiring each of their vendors to carry liability insurance. In the case of authors, this means professional insurance against slander. This insurance proved to be prohibitively expensive; A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast is no longer in the West Marine catalog or stores. The economic slump, too, took a toll on boat builders and sailors. “There are definitely a lot fewer people on the water,” Rindlaub says.

But the real problem is that cruising for two weeks “just does not fit into most people’s lives.”  There are not enough young couples getting into cruising, which is a shame, because as Rindlaub says, “cruising is one of the best bargains there is—boats are incredibly cheap right now. But life is getting in the way of cruising.” He fears it may become “a thing of the past.”

Rindlaub recalls that Jan Taft told him at the time he took over the guide in 1993 that “it would change our lives and it has.” It has even changed his kids’ lives. Rindlaub’s two children cruised on Indigo so much it did not seem that special to them at the time, “but all it takes is their going away to college and have their friends listen to how they’ve grown up, and now they really appreciate it.” Recently Rindlaub says his daughter has been “mumbling about taking the boat out herself.”

Cruising the Maine coast is at once a great privilege and a great adventure. Perhaps a new generation is discovering that it can fit into their lives—and that it can prepare us for all kinds of challenges, on land or on sea.

This article was originally published by maine. magazine. Maine Media Collective © 2016