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The Traveling Drakes: 30 years on the road

I’d dreamed of cruising under sail since Irving Johnson’s voyages aboard Yankee captivated me as a child. By 1971 my husband, George Maynard, and I — both Illinois-raised landlubbers — realized the only way we could afford similar exploits was in a sailboat we built ourselves.

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We built an engineless wooden reproduction of Joshua Slocum’s yawl Spray in our Noank, Conn., back yard and sailed Scud around the world with our three children on a five-year voyage.

I loved the freedom from land restraints — voyaging with my family in our “home”; in tune with nature, the wind and waves; making landfall in a new port or culture. And I still do.

My present husband, Bob Drake, who grew up sailing in Connecticut and Gloucester, Mass., cruised the Intracoastal Waterway and the Caribbean through the 1970s with his wife and four sons aboard their wooden 43-foot Atkin ketch, Kismet. Later ashore, boating writer Mary and photographer Bob became known as “The Traveling Drakes,” and Soundings was a natural market. Jim Flannery (now senior writer) accepted my first story, which appeared in June 1983. Since then we’ve covered all kinds of news and feature stories:

• Launchings, from one-off wooden lobster boats in backyard shops to traditional wooden schooners and high tech state-of-the-art yachts by Lyman-Morse, Rockport Marine and others.

• Personalities, among them: sailmaker Nat Wilson, circumnavigator Dodge Morgan, Apprenticeshop founder Lance Lee and WoodenBoat magazine founder Jonathan Wilson, as well as ordinary folks who chucked life ashore and went cruising.

Our specialty was destination features. For a decade, while snowbirding between Maine and the Florida Keys, Bob and I cruised East Coast highways from Pascagoula, Miss., and Key West, Fla., to Nova Scotia and Lake Ontario, exploring ports for these stories. (Driving was essential; sailing would have been too slow to meet our deadlines.)

Many of the 150-plus places we covered had renovated their waterfronts into festive parks with paver walkways and wrought-iron lampposts. Boutiques, trendy restaurants and municipal marinas with clean restrooms proliferated, yet each town retained its individuality. You’d never mistake Beaufort, N.C., for Beaufort, S.C.

Waterfront changes are intensifying, as marinas supersize their slips and add amenities, catering to boaters who expect all the comforts of home. Condos, mega-mansions and resort marinas sprawl along the shorelines, even in Oriental, N.C., and Darien, Ga., squeezing out the rustic camps and mom-and-pop boatyards that Bob and I love to explore.

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In the 1990s, wearing Soundings T-shirts for identification, we passed out copies of the waterfront real estate section to Mid-Atlantic real estate agents who had never heard of the magazine so we could write about their listings. At first, we covered waterfront homes priced around $100,000. Now few exist for less than $500,000.

We worked from home or our car, visiting Soundings’ Essex, Conn., office each spring for a “field report” on the changing staff — Christine Born, Joe Cohen, Denise Kohn, Linda Rancourt, Jan Cronan, Bill Sisson, Michael LaBella, Rich Armstrong, Esther Pope. Only once did I deal with founding publisher Jack Turner, when he wanted all rights to my stories with no extra pay so Soundings could take full advantage of a new medium: the Internet.

Bob and I applauded Soundings changing from a newsprint tabloid to a glossy magazine with color pictures. Equally appreciated: email and the ability to transmit stories and images by high-speed broadband.

In the 1970s, most cruisers we knew were on tight budgets. Frequently, everyone in an anchorage rowed to the largest boat — often our 37-footer — with potluck contributions concocted from cans and imagination. At the 1995 cruisers’ Thanksgiving dinner in St. Marys, Ga., I was amazed when people arrived in outboard-powered inflatables with their china, silver, wine glasses and delicacies fresh from their fully equipped galleys, carefully packed in watertight totes. Of more than 100 diners, only two were children, spending the holiday with their non-custodial father.

Times change, boaters change and so has Soundings, adapting to the tastes of those who still seek the freedom of being on the water.

Mary and Bob Drake are longtime contributors for Soundings whose stories and photos still appear regularly in the magazine.

January 2014 issue