I don’t know about you, but I still have my tattered, old copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my writing desk — a gem of a writing guide, jam-packed with helpful hints and advice. My high school English teacher insisted upon my having this book, which has helped me so often over the years in my writing, and to which I still refer, even to this day. This little book has been around for quite a while, written by William Strunk, and used in his English classes at Cornell, which is where he taught E. B. White, way back in 1919. At that time, it was known as “the little book,” privately printed by Mr. Strunk for the use of his Cornell students. Eventually, it was published by Harcourt, in 1920, and many years later, in 1957, White was asked to revise it. Ever since the considerably reworked and revised edition was published in 1959, the book has been known, simply, as “Strunk and White.”
For many years, I’ve loved “the little book,” and also an assortment of White’s children’s books: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I hadn’t read any of his essays until relatively recently, at which point I guess you could say that I “binge-read” several books worth of them in a matter of weeks. Did you know that E. B. White was a sailor? I had known this, but certainly hadn’t understood the depth of his passion for sailing until delving into his essays. One of my favorites, found in Essays of E. B. White, is called The Sea and the Wind That Blows. In it, he writes: “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.” As a person similarly obsessed with sailing, and enamored of a certain “perfect little yacht,” I can most definitely relate when he writes this: “Why does the sea attract me in the way it does? Whence comes this compulsion to hoist a sail, actually or in a dream?” Or this: “The sea became my unspoken challenge: the wind, the tide, the fog, the ledge, the bell, the gull that cried help, the never-ending threat and bluff of weather. Once having permitted the wind to enter the belly of my sail, I was not able to quit the helm; it was as though I had seized hold of a high tension wire and could not let go.” Well. How reassuring to know that I’m not the only one with this all-encompassing fixation! And as if there could be any doubt, he tells us this: “With me, I cannot not sail.” Wow. Me, either.
In January, coincidentally while in the throes of my E. B. White essay binge, I came across a Facebook post on the Ballentine’s Boat Shop page, regarding a pretty little boat called “Fern.” Here is what they shared: “In 1956, the author E. B. White contacted naval architect Aage Nielsen to built a small daysailer for use along the coastal water of Maine. Four boats were built to design, No. 136, Fern, being the second. These hulls were slightly larger than an earlier design, a 15′ Double-Ender, and provided a larger cockpit and inboard power. Fern was built by the well known A. Walsted yard in Denmark and shipped to the states for final fittings and commissioning. For those of you who are familiar with Mr. White’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, the name Fern would be recognizable as a main character in the childhood classic. One more little detail was added to her construction that might seem out of place without knowing her past. This is a carved web and black spider hanging from the companionway hatch.” I’ve included a photo of said spider and web here – The Elements of Sailing Style, indeed!
As it happens, E. B. White’s son, the late Joel White, (renowned boat builder and naval architect) started Brooklin Boat Yard in 1960, which is presently operated by his son. The yard is located in Brooklin, Maine, on the Eggemoggin Reach, which, according to their website “lies between Blue Hill and Penobscot Bays and is in the heart of the best cruising grounds on the coast of Maine.” The love of boats clearly runs in the family; in a lovely article she wrote for Sailing Magazine in 2015, The Return of Fern, Joel White’s daughter, Martha White, shared this with her readers: “E. B. White was 63 when he sold Fern. His essay, The Sea and the Wind that Blows, revealed his reasons.”
In the essay, he wonders: “When does a man quit the sea? How dizzy, how bumbling must he be? Does he quit while he’s ahead, or wait until he’s made some major mistake, like falling overboard or being flattened by an accidental jibe?” But in the end, the boat proves irresistible, the sea calls, and despite his misgivings, he recapitulates, returning for another season (maybe his last?) to the theme of his obsession, writing this: “And with the tiller in my hand, I’ll feel again the wind imparting life to a boat, will smell again the old menace, the one that imparts life to me: the cruel beauty of the salt world, the barnacle’s tiny knives, the sharp spine of the urchin, the stinger of the sun jelly, the claw of the crab.“
Happily, though, more than fifty years after White sold her, it’s fitting that Fern has finally returned home to his family, lovingly restored, his granddaughter’s grandchildren now sailing aboard her. Something tells me that E. B. White would have loved to write an essay about that – what a beautiful story!
Tyler Fields’s photographs are used here with permission.