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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

28 October 2011

❖ "CAPI" BLANCHET of the classic book ❖ The Curve of Time ❖

Of the hundreds of books about sailing and cruising along the Pacific Coast of BC--one of the most enduring bestsellers has been The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet (1891-1961). It hovers perpetually on or near the list of the ten best-selling non-fiction books in BC. It's a memoir of the Blanchet family's adventures in the 1930s and 1940s condensed as if they were from one extended voyage. 
      Here is a lovely tribute (abridged) about the author's life from Edith Iglauer Daly, author of Fishing with John, courtesy of Harbour Publishing (see website below.)

"When I came to live on the BC coast I was given as a sort of spiritual introduction, a remarkable little volume entitled The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet. The book was an appropriate choice, my summers were spent on a fishing boat, the MOREKELP, with my husband John Daly, a commercial salmon troller, and the area he regularly traversed partly followed the path traveled by Mrs. Blanchet and her five children on their tiny motor launch, the CAPRICE.
      The five Blanchet youngsters, led by their indomitable parent, spent four summer months for fifteen years––on a 25' boat, traveling around the west coast of Vancouver Island and as far north up the Inside Passage as Cape Caution. They explored the inlets and bays, sometimes following the trail broken by that mariner Captain George Vancouver, with whom they felt a great empathy; their experiences finally written down in a series of sketches that encompassed all the years of their journeys as if they were one. 
      The Curve of Time is M. Wylie Blanchet's only book, originally published in 1961 when she was 70-yrs old. That same year she died of a heart attack, sitting at her desk where she was found slumped over her typewriter. She had lived just long enough to enjoy being a published author. 
      M. Wylie Blanchet. At first, she tried using just 'M. Wylie.' was for Muriel, the author's given name, which she hated; Wylie was borrowed from a grandparent, and Blanchet was acquired by marriage. Altogether it was the impersonal sound that she intended: she hoped the author would not be recognized by the people up the coast about whom she was writing, who knew her simply as "Capi" Blanchet. As to the nickname––wasn't she the Captain of the CAPRICE?
      In the last chapter of the book, entitled 'Little House,' Mrs. Blanchet comes off the CAPRICE to write about the family's land base on 7 secluded acres of Vancouver Island's coast, from which they departed each June and to which they returned in October. The Curve of Time manages to be sentimental, imaginative and often strays into whimsy, but it is reticent about the hard facts; it reads like an impressionist painting. Its characters, whose physical appearances are never really described. We know what they do and how they feel but not what they look like or who they are other than a mother and 5 children.
      Despite the reticence, we do know the important things about this remarkable woman. She comes through as extremely courageous, innovative, and as a kind of mechanical wizard compared to most women. Yet readers close her book with a scratchy feeling of curiosity.
      Her Canadian publisher Gray Campbell was both neighbour and friend, has described her as having 'a delightful shyness, as a serious person with a delicious, dry, sense of humour.' Campbell first became acquainted with her when the CAPRICE was berthed next to his boat at Canoe Cove, a short distance from the Blanchet house, which was 5-miles from Sidney. He too was writing, and Capi used to sit in the cabin of his boat and read the chapters of his uncompleted manuscript. He has said since that it was the lack of success of the first edition of The Curve of Time, whose English publisher never bothered to see that it was stocked in bookstores either in Victoria or Vancouver, that helped to convince him that there was a need for regional publishing.
       Muriel Blanchet was born Muriel Liffiton in 1891 in Lachine, Quebec, into a well-to-do family with High Anglican principles. The Liffitons were English but the Snetsingers, on her mother's side, were pre-Revolution Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley. They crossed the border into Canada during the American Revolution, settling in the St. Lawrence valley with a land grant downstream of the town of Cornwall. Grandfather Snetsinger was a Member of Parliament for the area and left a considerable inheritance whose final distribution was made only a year ago [c.1979]. The ancestral home is now under sixty feet of St. Lawrence River water and all the original land has been sold.
      Muriel was the middle one of three sisters and something of a tomboy.  The results of her 4-yr scholastic campaign are still evident in a row of small red leather Temple Volumes of Shakespeare. Each volume was given her as a prize for top honours in a different subject, and she never stopped until she had the whole set, inscribed to Muriel Liffiton in the heavy black script of R. Newton, Rector of St. Paul's, and bearing the motto Non Sans Droit with the school's coat of arms. Between 1905 and 1908 Muriel Liffiton repeatedly captured first prizes in Latin, French, spelling, astronomy, history, geography, geometry (Euclid), algebra and English, beginning with a modest two her first year and winding up with six at graduation. 
      Muriel Liffiton was expected to go on to university but instead at 18, she married Geoffrey Blanchet, the brother of a school friend––a decision she is said to have regretted later. 
      Geoffrey and Muriel Blanchet started married life in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The family grew to include four children, they packed them all into a Willys-Knight touring car which, according to one of the children, 'had flapping curtains and a great top that folded like an elephant sitting down,' and started driving across the country looking for an island to live on.
     The Blanchets were able to buy 7-acres at Curteis Point, overlooking the Gulf of Georgia, and they kept it until Mrs. B. died in 1961, although Little House was torn down in 1948. It was an unusual house, a strangely mystical English cottage covered with ivy, with a big fireplace and a billiard table on the first floor and four bedrooms up a rickety flight of stairs on the 2nd floor. 'It was designed by a celebrated architect, Sam McLure, and built by a crook,' said David Blanchet, who was born there.
     Their boat the CAPRICE was purchased in 1923 for $600. It had been built the year before, a cold year, and the Brentwood Ferry, near which it was anchored, managed to shove a cake of ice into the side of the boat, sinking it. She was hauled out on a nearby dock and the Blanchets bought it on the spot, with water still dribbling out of it. 'This was probably when my mother learned to deal with engines,' David has commented. 'It had to be cleaned out immediately, once it had been in salt water. We had that same engine for 20-years until it was changed in 1942.'
      Peter B. remembers the first time his mother took the CAPRICE out on her own. It was in March, on his sixth birthday, and she had promised to take him to Shell Island, a favourite spot where she liked to say she would spend her 100th-birthday. She and Peter got in the boat, which they kept at Canoe Cove, and 'she cranked and cranked that darned engine, and still it wouldn't start,' Peter recalled. 'She could see my father sitting on the Point watching to see if we would get off and she had to go and get him, which really irked her. Then she and I went fishing for the day off Sidney Spit. We caught a couple of fish which we cooked over a fire on the beach at Shell Island.'
      The second summer after the death of Geoffrey, Mrs. B rented Little House and took the children off on the boat for the first of the venturesome trips that as a composite memory became the substance of The Curve of Time. With the money she received from renting Clovelly in summer and her own small income, she was able to manage. 
      The three younger children, Joan, Peter, and David, were educated almost entirely at home, by correspondence, by their mother, and by a Scottish engineer who was a mechanic at the Canoe Cove boat works, who taught them math, chemistry, and physics. Joan, known as the rebellious member of the family, went to art school in Vancouver and then continued her art studies in New York. When she left Vancouver, she bought an old Indian dugout canoe for five dollars and paddled home. It took her five days, and she crossed the Gulf of Georgia at night, to avoid traffic and heavy seas, a remarkable feat since it required at least nine hours of steady paddling. Frances King vividly recalled hearing about her sister's arrival. 'When she rounded the point in her dugout, wearing an old red sweater, Capi and the boys were sitting on the bluff, wondering who the Indian was! Joan had expected some commendation and was amazed at Capi's anger. 'Just because I'm a fool doesn't mean you children have to be!' Capi said.
      In appearance, Capi Blanchet was of medium height, with very fine blonde hair brushed upwards so that it formed a kind of haze around her head. Her normal attire was a pair of khaki shirts, an Indian sweater, and sneakers that sometimes had holes in the toes. She had begun wearing shorts in the 1920s, long before they were fashionable, and her daughter Elisabeth has recalled that a journalist writing about people he had met on the BC coast in The Saturday Evening Post 'commented on her shorts and how suitable they seemed for what she was doing-- running a boat.'
      Mrs. B's children and friends were enormously fond of her, somewhat in awe of her all-around competence, and thought her fair-minded but domineering. She could do almost anything that men did and still be feminine.
      'She had a lot of courage or self-confidence, but she did not overestimate her mechanical ability,' a writer friend, Hubert Evans, has said. "On a run from Sidney to Vancouver, the CAPRICE was overtaken in the Gulf by a late-season southeaster, and the little boat took quite a dusting,' he related. 'Capi had several children aboard. 'I told the Lord I could take care of the boat but would he please keep the engine running,' she said to me afterward.'
      Capi Blanchet does not seem to have been particularly light-hearted or spontaneous, and she was somewhat arrogant about anyone she considered her inferior. She had a slightly Church-of-England attitude, even talking to fishermen, who were never sure how to take her. She had a good sense of humour but a rather studied laugh.
      A description from her daughter Frances exemplifies the quality of character her children and friends remember best: 'she was capable of handling any situation. If she was worried she didn't let us know.'
      On the boat Mrs. B was even-tempered under what must often have been trying conditions at such close quarters; her method of discipline was to separate her children, not argue. David remembered his mother losing her temper with him only once when he was about twelve. 'It was some silly mistake, something about an anchor, that I did my way instead of what she wanted,' he said. 'Normally her eyes were brown, but suddenly they were a turquoise colour and blazing. It was unbelievable!'
     She was one of those rare women who are mechanically inclined and enjoyed tinkering with engines and working with tools. Every so often she took apart the CAPRICE engine, a 4-cylinder Kermath, cleaned and painted it and put it back together again, grinding the valves herself. 
      An intimate friend of Mrs. Blanchet's, Kathleen Caldwell, has described her as 'not excessively domestic, but interested in people and politics, which she loved to discuss. Her house was comfortable and pleasant, and Capi could produce a beautiful meal with what looked like no effort.' In their close circle, Capi was renowned for her roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and mouth-watering pastry. Oddly enough, although she liked to eat fish, she never cooked it except outdoors on a beach because she couldn't stand the smell.
      Mrs. B liked to draw sea creatures in pen and ink, and once illustrated a fairy story she wrote with drawings in the margin. She was also a fair pianist, and in later life enjoyed playing a violin that her grandfather gave her when she was 12. It now hangs on the wall of David's living room, but his mother used it often; she had joined a small orchestra at Deep Cove, playing second violin, reputedly a quarter-tone flat.
      David fell ill before the interior of Mrs. B's new house was completed and it never seemed to advance beyond that half-built stage. She lined the whole interior with vertical cedar planks herself, but doors were a late addition to the bathroom and kitchen and knobs usually came off in hand. Her firewood was never quite dry; Kathleen Caldwell once delighted her by bringing a gift of Presto logs. When Capi's doctor prescribed a drier climate for a cough that later developed into emphysema she ignored him and instead sat with her head as far into her oil stove as she could get it for 20-minutes a day. 'That's my high, dry climate,' she said.
      As for the CAPRICE, it was never meant to have any other owner than Capi B. After the war she planned to build a new boat and sold the CAPRICE for $700––a hundred more than she had paid for it––to the owner of a boat works in Victoria, who hauled it up for repairs. While it was on the ways the entire boat works burned down, including the CAPRICE. Mrs. Blanchet did have another boat after that, the SCYLLA, but she never really used it.
      'I loved the summer journeys but I doubt if any of us appreciated quite how unique our childhood was. We just knew Capi was doing something unusual,' daughter Elisabeth writes from England. 'She used to get a bit tense if we were taking green water over the bow, wallowing about in a following sea, or running the Yaculta Rapids. Otherwise, she took everything in her stride––whether crossing the Straits at 4 am to beat the sou'wester or exploring new territory.'
      'Only fools seek adventures,' David has remembered his mother as saying at one time or another. However foolish Mrs. B's adventures may have seemed to her (which is doubtful), they have a dreamlike charm for an increasing number of readers. The Curve of Time has had a separate and ongoing life of its own, achieving its own small immortality."
Thank you to author Edith Iglauer Daly who celebrated her 100th birthday on 10 March 2017 in Madeira Park, B.C.
Raincoast Chronicles Six/Ten, 1983
Courtesy of Harbour Publishing

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