Cruising Club of America honors sailor who spends his summers dodging polar bears and floating ice chunks
From teaching college English to designing yachts to voyaging in the northern latitudes, William E. Cook has been exploring new horizons for years.
Cook, 70, of Hyannis, Mass., was to receive the Cruising Club of America's Far Horizons Award March 4 at the New York Yacht Club for his voyages to Labrador, Baffin Island and Greenland, as well as Europe and the Caribbean.
Recently, the northern lights have been calling him. He cruised Greenland in the summers of 2003 and 2010 aboard Resolution, his 56-foot Bristol sloop. He has cruised the Canadian Maritimes and Canadian Arctic, and in 2007 he visited Leaf Basin on Ungava Bay, west across the Hudson Strait from Baffin Island.
These far-north excursions "have been my forte the past 10 years," he says. "I don't like hot weather," he adds, which only partly explains his affinity for Arctic regions. The thermometer can be pushing 90 in Hyannis in the summer, but in Labrador or Greenland it's a more tolerable 40 degrees for Cook. Add wind and damp, and northern climes can put a chill in you even in the summer, but he dresses for the weather and is happy.
Aside from the cold, north-country voyaging is a unique experience, Cook says. Leaf Basin, for instance, rivals the Bay of Fundy for the world's highest tidal ranges - close to 55 feet. Cook anchored Resolution off an island a mile or so from the Leaf Basin mainland at the bottom of a sloping gravel ramp that was under water at high tide and ran from the island to a point 30 feet below the island's elevation.
"The currents there are quite phenomenal," 10 or 11 knots on an outgoing tide, he says. And even in the summer he has to watch for chunks of floating ice. He carries long wooden poles with nails in the end to ward them off.
Polar bears are constant companions in the Arctic. Sleeping ashore in tents isn't advisable. "Polar bears are described as inquisitive," Cook says. "What they're inquisitive about is food."
When his crew ventures ashore, one of them is designated the rifleman for protection if a bear rushes them. "It's a good thing to do," he says.
Guns, however, are banned in Labrador's Torngat Mountains National Park, the largest along Canada's Atlantic coast, unless you're a native Inuit - a disincentive to kayaking and hiking unless you have a yacht to retreat to.
Cruisers to the far northern latitudes also are advised to keep a weather eye for low-pressure systems. They blow through with regularity, typically by mid-August in Labrador and late August in southern Greenland, Cook says. Ice and bad weather frame a far-north cruising season of June into August. "The weather is better early in summer, especially on the Labrador side," he says.
Cook typically cruises for six weeks to two months with three or four crewmembers - friends who usually swap out midway through the voyage. He says villages that have landing strips small aircraft can use are good places for crew changes.
Although much of the water along Labrador and Greenland is deep, some of the inlets that offer the best anchorages are quite shallow. Cook likes Resolution, a centerboarder, for navigating the shoal waters. He says, too, that it is moderately heavy for comfortable cruising and good seaworthiness, and it holds plenty of food, water, fuel and other supplies.
Cook got a bachelor's degree at Yale and a doctorate at Harvard before teaching college English for five years. "That did not go well for me," he says. "I'm not sure it went well for my students, either."
So in the early summer of 1972 he and his wife, Toni, set off on a cruise on their 60-foot Sparkman & Stephens ketch, Endeavor, and spent the summer sailing through Scotland, England, France, Italy and Spain. That fall and winter, they made their way to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean, returning to New England in the spring of 1973. "It was the best thing I ever did," he says.
Changing career paths, he took courses at the Westlawn School of Yacht Design and the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and went on to found Cook Yacht Design in Hyannis in 1977. His designs run the gamut, from an 11-foot dinghy to an 85-foot maxiyacht for a crew of 25. They include the successful one-tonner Rogue's Roost. That has gone very well for him.
"I like coming to work every day," he says. "It's great." And being self-employed, he likes having the time to cruise and explore.
As for the award, "I feel very humble about it," he says. "Humble but pleased."
The CCA also will present the following awards:
- The Rod Stephens Trophy for Outstanding Seamanship, to Italian Alessandro Di Benedetto, for resourcefulness in jury-rigging Findomestic, a 21-foot monohull, near Cape Horn in 2009. Di Benedetto, known for solo ocean voyaging, has set a number of single-handed records.
- The Richard S. Nye Trophy, to Robert A. Van Blaricom, who is being recognized for his meritorious service to the CCA, outstanding seamanship and outstanding performance in long-distance cruising. He has been a club member since 1964 and has served on many committees. He has been awarded the John Parkinson Memorial Trophy twice for transoceanic passages. He also has received the club's Charles H. Vilas Literary Prize and the Royal Cruising Club Trophy, and has been rear commodore of the club's San Francisco station. He has written and self-published a sailing autobiography, "Time and Tide" (visit www.lulu.com).
- The Blue Water Medal, to Alex Whitworth, for his circumnavigation via the Northwest Passage west to east. Whitworth has spent much of his adult life voyaging. Last year, he completed his second circumnavigation on his Brolga 33, Berrimilla.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.