Highlights of an ink-stained wretch's holiday
A friend, poking gentle fun, once told me that my august position at the top of the masthead as publisher just means that I get to drive the magazine bus. If that’s true, then I’ve been going on frequent busman’s holidays. I read magazines obsessively.
Maybe that should be called an ink-stained wretch’s holiday.
I consume magazines with omnivorous taste, on subjects ranging from cars to cooking, but, naturally, sailing magazines get priority. I read every one I can get my hands on, good and bad, domestic and foreign.
“Get my hands on” is meant literally. My enthusiasm for magazines is fed by the tangible variety, objects created from paper and ink that can be held, examined, admired or stacked beside a favorite reading chair. No disrespect intended for versions that have to be read on computer devices, but that electronic experience is more a task than a satisfying appreciation of the art and craft of magazine making.
I won’t go so far as to claim to be an expert on magazines, but given all the time I’ve invested in them, I ought to be able to pass as a somewhat qualified critic. So here’s a sailing magazine critique, with SAILING ruled out of consideration for an obvious reason.
The best sailing periodical of its era was not even a pure sailing magazine; such a thing did not exist until the mid-1960s. Boating magazines were about motorboats and sailboats, and the brightest star among them was Yachting. You could skip the powerboat content and still have hours of good reading about sailing by authors who were not just stellar writers, but some of the best sailors of their generation, the likes of Carlton Mitchell, Bob Bavier, Bus Mosbacher and Bill Robinson.
I was a Yachting reader as a grade school student. Copies of the magazine were always around our house, and they fueled my imagination in a way that set me up for an adult lifetime pretty much consumed by sailing.
Yachting lives on as a shadow of its former self, not having covered sailing for decades. Any imaginations it feeds today involve visions of motoryachts, the more ostentatious the better.
The first American sailing-only magazine appeared in 1963 with the publication of One-Design Yachtsman, a monthly focusing on small-boat racing. SAILING, devoted to the broad spectrum of sailing, sailboats and sailors, arrived in 1966. Fifty-three years later, SAILING is America’s oldest sailing magazine. (The pioneer, One-Design Yachtsman, can’t claim the distinction because it and its offspring ceased publication at various times before reappearing in new iterations with new names and new owners.)
Which of today’s sailing magazines wins my highest rating? Having ruled out the one you’re reading on grounds of fairness, I nominate an unlikely pair as tied for top of the class—unlikely in that they are as different from each other as two magazines on the same subject can be.
Yachting World is one of them. The magazine has been published in London since 1894, but nothing about that pedigree should suggest that this is a staid journal steeped in tradition. Rather, its monthly issues are an invariably stimulating voyage through the watery world of sailing.
It’s no surprise I’m a fan, for, like SAILING, Yachting World has oversize pages that boldly display remarkably good sailing photography. But beyond that, its written content is replete with solid, authoritative information, as would be expected from an editorial staff well equipped with sailing knowledge and experience. The magazine is fun to read, but overall there’s a serious tone, reflective of the challenges faced routinely by its local readers in the cold, rough waters of the British Isles.
Tied with this big, glossy, gorgeously printed international magazine is a regional rag. The term is not meant to be disparaging. In fact, I imagine the publication’s owner and staff are quite proud of it. The magazine is given away free to sailors in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere along the coast of California and exhibits no delusions of grandeur.
Named Latitude 38 after its home latitude, it’s printed on newsprint, to which I can relate. The early issues of SAILING were produced the same way, by a web-offset newspaper press on newsprint.
Richard Spindler, who started Latitude 38 in 1977, had no reason to want it to evolve into a traditional sailing magazine, because the publishing formula he cooked up was a stunning success, attributable in part to the fact that he, in a way, shared the ownership of the magazine with its readers.
Much of the magazine’s content is written by readers, in page after page of letters to the editor and in long-winded narratives from sailors living their cruising dreams.Staff-written stories might be described as unconventional journalism. Writers often use the first person in articles that have no byline, leaving readers to wonder—who wrote this? Stories jump from page to page in such a counterintuitive way that even as a longtime reader I sometimes have trouble following the trail.
Yet packaged within the magazines old-school saddle-stitch binding it all works as a celebration of the California brand of sailing—laid back yet enthused, bold and adventuresome yet never in danger of taking itself too seriously. Keep in mind, Californians think nothing of sailing alone to Hawaii in a dinghylike Moore 24 in the Singlehanded Transpac race or quitting good jobs and sailing away to the South Pacific and beyond on a whim and a boat of uncertain seaworthiness.
You don’t have to be from California to enjoy this magazine. Besides its entertaining insights into the West Coast sailing lifestyle, its detailed and quote-packed reports on the major yacht races on the Pacific and elsewhere are some of the best you’ll find.
In the magazine’s early days, Spindler (who sold Latitude 38 to his ad manager John Arndt several years ago) invited readers to submit photos of their personal sailing experiences. Some that were published got really personal by portraying women and the occasional man sailing naked or close to it. No one made much of a fuss about it at the time. A lot of skin was exposed, but none of the photos were prurient. I thought they fit the magazine’s exuberant spirit.
Naked or near-naked sailing pictures haven’t been published in Lat 38 for years, but a little controversy about them broke out recently on the letters pages. One reader wrote, “It always struck me as sophomoric that Spindler thought it appropriate to include those photos.” That seemed to be a minority view. A number of letters echoed this reader comment: “Sailors au naturel are a thing of beauty, whatever gender or shape. If you don’t want to look, then don’t.”
You will have to take my word for it that I wasn’t influenced in my critique by the fact that Latitude 38 once did a sailing magazine critique of its own, and ranked SAILING the best of all of the national sailing magazines. I didn’t mind a bit that the Latitude 38 issue that reported this honor contained several small, grainy photos of topless women sailors.