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Dave and Anke
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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Allen and Sharie Farrell: Stars to Steer By

 China Cloud Under Sail
by Allen Farrell

When one has Good Wine,
A Graceful Junk,
And a Maiden's Love...
Why envy the Immortal Gods?

Li Po

Allen and Sharie Farrell: Stars to Steer By

Allen and Sharie Farrell, more than anyone I know of, lived the life to which Anke and I aspire.

I first heard of them via an article in WoodenBoat Magazine featuring their then new vessel, CHINA CLOUD. At seventy (!) Allen, with substantial help from Sharie, launched their 40+th boat, built from local lumber and driftwood, citing his ax as a prime tool.

CHINA CLOUD was engine free - they sculled her with a yuloh - shoal draft, copper clad and unballasted. They lived largely from forage, and managed on a shoe-string.

As one who had not yet set foot on a sailboat, much less built one, I was enthralled.

Over the years, more stories drifted in. More about the Farrells as people. Their love for one another. The warmth they exuded. Folks they mentored. Lives they touched. Their independence balanced with rich and complex social lives.

Anke and I sought out their biography, Salt on the Wind, by Dan Rubin. We read it aloud as we took our baby steps onto the water. We read of their struggles and triumphs. Of the difficult and wonderful times through which they lived. Of their lives lived simply, and full to bursting with doing and not doing.

Later, in Sailing Back in Time (by Maria Coffey and Dag Goering), we vicariously joined them in their poignant, penultimate voyage in CHINA CLOUD. It was heart-breaking to see, through their eyes, the development, privatization and gentrification of waterways once remote and but lightly touched. To read of their final journey - well into their eighties, and having given CHINA CLOUD away - to start anew in Mexico, leaving their beloved coast behind.

Allen and Sharie set before us an example; proof positive that such a life can be lived... made by hand and heart, learning underway. Days stretching to years spent in one another's company, interwoven with the lives of others by skeins of friendship and love, shared in celebrations of the many or the few. In gifts given and received. A love of place.

Our circumstances are different. Our story was picking up as theirs was drawing toward its end. We cruise in a world that much more subdued by the domestication of everything. Local, old growth timber for traditional vessels, if not gone, is endangered. Skills of those who mentored them are dispersed or lost. Free spirited communities from the Age of Aquarius came, and for the most part, went, staid in stead.

Yet wild corners remain. Fish still run and the deer leap. The Forest is diminished but stands, still, verdant with herb, bush and berry. The sea still laps at all the corners of our vast and complex coast.

We never had the good fortune to meet them, yet their example glimmers before us, shining over dark and troubled waters. Paired stars by which we - and many another - may yet set our course.

Allen (1912-2000 ) and Sharie (1907-1996) Farrell


  1. Thanks for the post about the Farrells,they shine as an example of what can,or should,be achieved by those who wish to live a different life.
    I would also put your achievements as a measure as to what can be done,thanks

    1. Thanks, Martin. Life's a work in progress.

      One of the things I so appreciated in the Farrell's example is that it wasn't magical. Especially in SALT ON THE WIND, one sees them, not just as revered elders who lived a charmed life, but as human beings who struggled to create and maintain the beauty of their lives.

      Here are some more links for those who would like to know more about them: - Allen's paintings
      - Video of China Cloud and the Farrells - Sharie spent time with this interesting character before she met Allen.=

  2. Dark and troubled waters indeed..... wonder how the Farells would behave in todays world of a looming economic meltdown? Probably not too differently. The same population density they dealt with around Vancouver island exists up here in SE Alaska today. What is way different is the vast increase in federal and state governmental regulation. History defines a empires declining days as a dangerous period, much akin to a dinosaur dying and thrashing about, hungry and desperate. These remote waters are a good place to avoid that flailing dinosaur tail and gnashing teeth as existing government grows increasingly powerless from bankruptcy. A period of time when the good and bad sides of human nature will be accentuated as the old economic system dies and new one evolves to take its place. And a good place for a fledgling mobile community of sea gypsies and traders (watch the fledgling pirate community though!!). Lots of room for Farrell minded type people. You folks are a fine example as well.... keep on keepin on and keep the faith.

    1. Hi Gomez,

      There's a scene from one of the videos I cited above, where Allen is watching some kids at play, and musing about their prospects, or lack thereof.

      I think they WOULD have done much the same, and found ways to thrive. In many ways, during WWII, they and theirs were mauled by that dinosaur you mention. Yet they persevered, and ol' REX found his feet again for another while.

      Toward the end, Sharie's health and his strength were finally flagging... the efforts to live and keep warm in a diminishing environment became strenuous. I'm not sure how much this influenced their leaving for Mexico, and how much it was Allen's sometimes compelling wanderlust. But it clearly wasn't as easy for them in their later years.

  3. AFarrell really disliked being cold and his continual attampts to sail away to warm places were thwarted by his love of the NW waters, nature, culture, and friends. As has often been said though the cold keeps the vermin population down.

  4. Watched the three part youtube series on the guy who sailed north from San Francisco to find Allen Farrell. Very instructive and beautiful but I was struck by the incongruous interplay between Allen and the interviewer once he found Allen. Like two different worlds: the hard charging capitalist westerner who is slowly decompressing during his sea trip and the old hand who has been living peacefully in nature, with a decidedly independent socialist bent, for decades and who is winding down in life. Two way different energy levels in that interchange. Yes, his comments on the kids future was prescient but he also finishes by saying maybe they will have it like he did and with peak oil he may just be right.

    1. I haven't gotten to see the whole series (slow connect probs). Not surprised by the contrast between the personalities... Farrels were holding down one end of the bell curve.

      The kids won't have it like he did, though... that world Allen and Sharie grew up in won't be back for centuries, if ever, post peak oil or no.

      How long does it take to replace a tree that was seeded in the time of Jesus? Answer: no one knows. They didn't mature in a vacuum. The ecosystems in which those trees took root and grew have been altered in ways we simply don't understand.

      At any rate, they're gone for our lifetimes and theirs.

  5. We might be moving slowly toward getting out there, but we're moving...

    1. Hi Peter,

      Slow but sure wins the race.

      I often think the deliberate pace, while frustrating at times, is the most satisfying once realized. Ideas have time to mature. Skills to accumulate.

      Dave Z

  6. So nice to see the comments here about my friends Allen and Sharie, and the book about them which I authored, SALT ON THE WIND. That book is currently out of print, but I am actively seeking a publisher interested in a new edition with two added chapters about their last years together, and Allen's final years on China Cloud. I am also assembling stories for a book about their impact on others. Would love to hear from anyone who is interested or can help. Dan Rubin (

    1. Hi Dan,

      You book is one of few treasures we posess!

      If there's any way I can help out (e.g., a review, letter of recommendation, a write up of their impact on our lives) please let me know.

      I'll drop you a line.

      Dave Z

  7. Dave: thanks. all support accepted and appreciated. A short letter saying what you found in the book that was important to you, or why the book matters might help convince the publisher I have in mind to take it on. His main concern (he explained to me) was whether the details and terminology would be too mysterious to someone who hadn't lived through those times or wasn't also a sailor. Is my book clear enough for such a reader? Would love to hear from you. My email is secondstage at hotmail dot com.