Henry “Hank” Strauss, still tack-sharp at 97, had to give up sailing solo a few years back but still regularly gets out on San Francisco Bay with friends. His lifetime in sailing spans the evolution of cruising under sail as we know it.
Strauss built his first boat when he was 13 and later designed his first cruiser, based on a Lightning. In 1939 he took his wife, Joan (who passed away last year), on their honeymoon aboard this tidy boat. From there his love of cruising took him on 14 voyages from Connecticut to Grenada in the 1970s and ‘80s, along with countless cruises to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. He took part in many distance races, transatlantic passages and adventure cruises aboard his McCurdy & Rhodes-designed Swiftsure 33 and later in his Whitby 42.
What was it like to navigate offshore without electronics?
We used to sail from Morehead City, North Carolina, to Antigua, a 10- to 12-day trip. About 30 miles before you reach Antigua, you pass Barbuda, which has an elevation of roughly three feet. We always seemed to pass Barbuda at night, and it always felt good when Antigua appeared on the horizon.
There were no navigation aids in the Caribbean back then. We did everything by lining up palm trees with points on land to dodge reefs. This was cruising using techniques that went back to the turn of the century! GPS removed the moments of terror, but it also removed the feeling of accomplishment. My concern about electronic navigation is that it allows people to sail without as much concern for safety.
What do you remember about the evolution from wood to fiberglass hulls?
Fiberglass represented a bigger change than modern electronics. Spring commissioning became much faster, and you didn’t need to know as much to go sailing. It made cruising easier, and it allowed people to learn the important things without the dangers.
What sold me was an early trip up to Grand Manan Island in the Swiftsure 33. We hit a pole going 5 knots. With a wooden boat it would have sprung planks, but with our thick fiberglass hull it just left a scuff.
But people sometimes refused to let us tie up alongside, because they didn’t want the glass to rub off on their topsides!
Have you seen any negative changes in the way people cruise?
E-mail and the ability to talk to the office while you’re offshore: this eliminates the sense of detachment. The inability to get away from your life on land is a great loss. But it’s wonderful for safety.
You’ve sailed your whole life—what’s your secret?
When I was in my 40s, I used to wonder how long I could sail offshore. Then I met Frank Casper, who singlehanded a 35-footer to Grenada when he was 70. I heard that he had sailed there from Florida, and I was impressed. Later, I learned he was completing a singlehanded circumnavigation. We became good friends, and I asked him about sailing when I got older. He explained that you have to slow down so you don’t get into trouble. He taught me skills that allowed me to bring the boat back from Grenada when I was in my 80s, and to cruise to Maine in my 90s.