The Drifters: Allen and Sharie Farrell
August 07th, 2012
I was reminded of why I sold the only sail boat I ever owned after reading Maria Coffey’s Sailing Back in Time (Whitecap), about the adventures of legendary coastal couple Sharie and Allen Farrell. After a particularly harrowing white knuckle sailing experience, Allen tells Coffey, “Now you know all about sailing. You’re either bored stiff or terrified.”
Sailing Back in Time is one of two new books on the Farrells, who met in Pender Harbour in 1945. He was married at the time; she wasn’t. She said, “Build me a boat.”
They lived on the beach and built their first sailboat, the 36-foot Windsong, launched in 1947. They sailed together to the South Pacific in the early 1950s.
The Farrells have maintained an adventuresome non-materialistic lifestyle, building boats out of driftwood – and drifting through the waters of the Pacific Coast.
Even in their 80s, the Farrells recently gave away their possessions and flew down to Mexico to live on the beach.
First off the mark was Dan Rubin’s warm tribute to the boat-building sailors, Salt on the Wind (Horsdal & Schubart).
Rubin, who has been a disciple of the Farrells for several years, has put together a chronology of the octogenarians’ remarkable lives. With the cosy feel of the family albums and personal journals that served as a resource, Rubin traces these maritime lives, from Allen’s birth in Vancouver in 1912 to the present day. Sharie, born in Ontario in 19088, moved to Vancouver with her parents in 1918.
For lovers of boat design, building and handling, Rubin’s text is rich in technical detail, but more importantly he has worked with the Farrells to give the reader the rationale behind their designs. Boats designed, built and sailed by the same person bring that person very close to godliness as the boat is humankind’s greatest metaphor for earth.
But it is the Farrell’s humility and humanity that makes them such endearing characters. Windsong began a pattern that has been repeated several times over the course of the couple’s life. After building a dream boat, the Farrell’s sail it to the South Pacific, grow homesick for the Pacific Coast and then either sell or sail the boat home. If they still have the boat when they return, they will sell it shortly after. With complete freedom from materialism, the boat is sold to the “right person” rather than the highest bidder.
In between sailing trips, the Farrells lived on land, in houses they built themselves, occasionally squatting. People like Ralph Payne who still appreciate the squatter’s life, prompted Allen to comment, “it used to be easy to be a squatter. You found a nice spot, collected from wood, built a shack… These days people make you feel uncomfortable if all you’re doing is picking bark off the beach in front of their place.”
Rubin takes us to several of the Farrell’s past and present homes along the coast and gives a glimpse of an idyllic life that was possible before population pressures brought No Trespassing signs and destruction by development.
The Farrell’s obvious success in loving a warm and rich life well into their 80s is beautifully chronicled in Coffey’s Sailing Back in Tim. Tichly illustrated with 65 colour and black and white photos, by Dag Goering, Coffey’s partner, the book takes the reader on an extended summer cruise along the Strait of Georgie with the Farrells on their most recent boat, the three-masted China Cloud. Built from driftwood, the boat is propelled solely by junk sail and sculling oar.
I read the Coffey book after having read the Rubin book and delighted in the way the two complimented each other. With my knowledge of the Farrells’ life, I was anxious to spend time onboard with them and that is exactly what Coffey’s book did for me.
In a series of trips, we wandered from the Gulf Islands north through Nanaimo and over to Lasqueti, around Pender Harbour, and north to Lund and Galley Bay.
It was much more than a scenic tour, although Coffee shares her delight in the scenery, as we visited the Farrells’ many old haunts and friends. If anyone has any doubt that island life no longer attracts interesting people this collection of characters will correct that.
Much of the reminiscing is in a similar vein, as this couple look back at fine lives lived in a very giving land. At the same time they see the crop of brand new houses with “Private Property” signs sprouting near every shoreline. The Farrells’ commitment to not become tied to material possessions is illustrated when they give their boat to a friend who wants to go sailing.
In Sailing Back in Time, many of the stories that I read in Salt on the Wind were repeated. The effect was of hearing once again an oft told family history. The familiarity was an added pleasure. While I am not a sailor, I have sat around many fish boat and tow boat galley tables listening to well told stories, this book gave me that experience in a dozen comfortable bay. Coffey and Goering sailed their own small boat on the trip and rafter up with the Farrell’s each evening.
Looking beyond clichéd images of BC’s pioneer past, Terry Glavin’s This Ragged Place: Travels Across the Landscape (New Star) is a collection of essays about the rugged landscape of British Columbia.
Several of the featured pieces have previously been published in magazines and won awards such as “Finn Slough”, “Gustafsen Lake” and “Tangled Nets”.
Galvin, a freelance journalist, lives on Mayne Island. His previous books include A Ghost in the Water, A Death Feast in Dimlahimid, Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, and Dead Reckoning: The Crisis in the West Coat Fishery.
Also exploring connections between landscape and history, Theresa Kishkan’s Red Laredo Boots (New Star) explores the Nicola Valley, the Yellowhead Highway, the Blackwater Road, Barkerville, and Bella Coola.
“I wanted to say something about the deep history of the place,” says Kishkan, “how it is composed of layers of plants, animal dropping, anecdotes, relationships and version of events that differ from voice to voice.”
Essay Date: 1996