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1970 -Boat Who Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat

The Note that Made Me Float

Once while riding dark waves at night, Farley Mowat confesses to being “fog-chilled, unutterably lonely, and scared to death” and then says that “Since rum is a known and accepted antidote for all three conditions,” he turned to it in quantity.[i]   Although these words come as close as he ever gets to an admission, Mowat was, when he lived the experience of his 1970 Leacock Medal book, going through a rough patch, chugging along aimlessly with holes on all sides.  His boat wasn’t doing so well either.

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float recounts a genuine adventure, and it’s funny.[ii]  It’s also a porthole into Farley Mowat’s life. 

If the story as told is sound, he and the publisher Jack McClelland reached their alcohol-soaked agreement to buy a boat late one night in a Toronto bar. That summer, in the mid-1960s, Mowat went out to Newfoundland, bought The Happy Adventurer,[iii] a two-masted schooner, and plotted a summer away from personal strains. 

It seemed like a plan. Mowat had been a sailor since his youth, and McClelland served as the skipper on torpedo boats during World War II.  But the two men were not prepared for what lay ahead in the fog around Newfoundland. Engine problems, leaks, and a malfunctioning compass plagued the boat.  Bad decisions, booze smugglers, and a magnetic attraction to poor weather added to the trials. 

The book can amuse many audiences: anyone who loves seaborne adventure, those who love Canada’s Atlantic coast, and anyone who admires Mowat.

Though he doesn’t expose his dissolving first marriage in the book, he intertwines his personal life with the leaky Boat story through his other relationships.  One was the great friendship with McLelland. While the publisher was only on the vessel for a small part of the time, he always floated around in the background making sure that Farley was supported with supplies and a crew.     

Mowat recruited one crew member himself: a “golden-haired young fugitive from Toronto by the name of Claire (Wheeler)” who was on the French island of Saint-Pierre to study languages and who would eventually become the second and surely final Mrs. Farley Mowat.  Claire won his heart when she fell overboard into a slimy harbour using the boat’s over-the-railing head, and came up laughing.

The other relationships were those between boat and man, man and sea, and Farley and Newfoundland.[iv]   Some critics accused Mowat of painting cartoonish Newfoundland people, with characters like Enos, the man charged with boat repair, who eats bacon by removing  “his badly fitting dentures,” holding them between his thumb and forefinger, and making them open, shut, and chew “with a dexterity that argued long practice.”  But, even in these passages, Mowat’s words convey a genuine love for the place and admiration for its people whom he once described as epitomizing “all the qualities that make the human species viable ... worthwhile ... durable.”

The metaphorical leaky Boat and floundering Farley mixed with humour, heart-pumping adventure, and a sense of place sticks in my mind most because of a passage featuring the short sentence “We pumped.”  Mowat used it seven times in just two pages. The first time, it is repeated with a few words in between, then slowly fading into long intervals of thundering engines, jammed equipment, and flotsam-filled bilge, and finally paragraphs of dimming anxiety are poured out then suddenly the “We pumped” spurts out a reminder of the circumstance.

Just as I wondered if the shtick would be carried too far, it came to an end.  That I might sense when to stop the spiel gave me hope that I could develop that kind of rhythm and the skill to merge character with circumstance if I work at it and if I can find the time.

Maybe I do have enough time.  Earlier this year, Farley Mowat and his wife Claire sent me a post card that they both signed.[v]  Their note began: "Dear Dick - Many thanks for ... the good things you said about our writing and The Boat Who Wouldn't Float ..." 
That was nice.  But the real gift came at the end of their message.  The octogenarian Claire and ninety-plus Farley said  - “We are still writing."[vi]

[i] Booze, whether in the form of rum, brandy, or screech, flows freely.  I counted almost 100 references to alcohol over the book’s 260 pages.  Mowat seemed to be trying to float himself. 
[ii] Farley Mowat produced dozens of books, numerous magazine articles, and short stories in many formats over his sixty-plus-year career as a writer.
[iii] The boat had many names from the Black Joke to “Itchy-Ass-Sally,” which was an easier to pronounce alteration of Itchatchozale Aid, the name proposed that the Basque descendants on Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.  The name that stuck, the Happy Adventurer, was taken from the flagship of the 17th century pirate Peter Easton, who made Newfoundland his base for raiding Spanish ships. 
[iv] Mowat knew the island well and had written about life there in an earlier book, This Rock within the Sea.

[v] When I first held their post card in my hands and realized it had been inscribed by an old manual typewriter, I immediately imagined Claire opening a drawer, reaching into a cardboard box of cards, and rolling it into the writing machine to respond, for perhaps the thousandth time, to one of Farley's fans. Judging by its appearance, I guessed that the card could be many decades old.  It had a caption quote from Never Cry Wolf, and a trademark reference citing a group named "Canadian and American Wolf Defenders" in Carmel Valley, California as the producer of the postcard.  The California Archives Online records  the group's existence as being limited to one year -- 1972.

[vi]  Mowat, born May 12, 1921, produced 43 books over his career; some were children’s novels, some were autobiographical, others were essay collections typically advocating for environmental protection, recounting the plight of aboriginal people, or championing other causes.  At the age of 87, he published Otherwise about his early life through his years on the frontlines of World War II. It was presumed by reviewers to be his last book.  Two years later he wrote and published Eastern Passage, continuing the story of his life where Otherwise left off.