COFFEY, Maria (1952- )

Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Geography, Kidlit & Young Adult, Maritime, Outdoors, Travel


Using simple hand tools, Allen Farrell designed and built more than 40 boats on the coast, often out of driftwood, with the help of his wife Sharie, whom he met in Pender Harbour in 1945. The bohemian pair built their first sailboat, the 36-foot Wind Song, in 1949, and sailed to the South Pacific in the early 1950s. When they reached their eighties, they sold most of their possessions and flew to Mexico to live on the beach. She was the favourite subject for his many paintings until she died in 1996.

One year earlier, in 1995, in a refitted dory called Luna Moth, powered by sail and sculling oar, Maria Coffey and her photographer husband Dag Goering completed a three-month journey around Georgia Strait with the Farrells, tagging behind the couple’s fourth hand-built cruising boat, the 42-foot China Cloud, designed to resemble a Chinese junk. To complement Goering’s 65 photos, Coffey recorded the Farrells’ memories and observations for Sailing Back in Time: A Nostalgic Voyage on Canada’s West Coast (1996), a visually stunning tribute to two highly original and inspiring characters.

An affectionate biographical tribute by Dan Rubin, Salt on the Wind (1996), also traces the octogenarians’ lives from Allen’s birth in Vancouver in 1912, and Sharie’s birth in Ontario in 1908, including some of the technical details for Farrell’s ingenuity as a boat-builder. Sharie Farrell was introduced to the wayfaring life at sea in the 1930s and early 1940s by the German-born sailor and author George Dibbern, after he arrived in Vancouver aboard his sailboat Te Rapunga, disavowing citizenship to any country.

Allen Farrell’s reputation as a craftsman, painter, scrounge artist, recycler and nomad has made him one of the coast’s most famous characters, on a par with the inventor and entrepreneur Jim Spilsbury. “But it is the Farrells’ humility and humanity that makes them such endearing characters,” Alan Haig-Brown wrote. “After building a dream boat, the Farrells sail it to the South Pacific, grow homesick for the Pacific Coast and then either sell or sail the boat home. It 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.”


Born in Wolverhampton, England in 1952, Maria Coffey fell in love with British mountain climber Joe Tasker in 1979. He and a fellow climber disappeared while climbing the north-east face of Mt. Everest in 1982. She received the news from a mountaineer who arrived on her doorstep just as Coffey was hosting a party to celebrate the completion of some home decorating. To resolve her grief, Coffey retraced Tasker's journey as high as 21,000 feet on the mountain's North East Ridge. Since its original publication in Britain in 1989, her memoir called Fragile Edge (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989) has appeared in new editions in Canada, the U.S. and Italy where in 2002 it won the Premio Letterrario Nazionale "Leggimontagna' prize, and was awarded a Special Jury Prize in the Premio ITAS Mountain Film and Book Award.

She now has triple citizenship - English, Irish and Canadian. She received a degree in Geography from the University of Liverpool and a post-graduate degree in Education. After teaching in England and Peru, she moved to British Columbia in 1985. There she met her husband, Dag Goering, a veterinarian, kayak guide and photographer. As of 1987, their home base was Protection Island, from where they worked and travelled in far-flung corners of the world, from the Solomon Islands to Vietnam to Co. Kerry, Ireland, resulting in a variety of books. They have also worked as professional sea-kayaking and trekking guides, leading trips in Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, Ireland and Canada. In 2006 they sold their home on Protection Island and began to reside on Lasqueti Island and Victoria.

Coffey is the author of a number of internationally published books about their travels, including A Boat in Our Baggage, Three Moons in Vietnam, Sailing Back in Time, plus children's books. Her work has also appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Outdoors Illustrated, Action Asia and Sea Kayaker Magazine. She revisited the emotional terrain of her first book in Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure (St. Martin's Press, 2003), an examination of mountaineering's emotional toll on family members. During the research and interviews for this second book about mountain climbers, she gained a fuller understanding of her own attraction to men who were risk-takers. Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure was awarded the Jon Whyte Award for Mountain Literature at the 2003 Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival. Where the Mountain Cast its Shadow has been published in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Germany and Italy.

[Photo: From Fragile Edge.]

DATE OF BIRTH: 26/02/1952



AWARDS: The 2003 Jon Whyte Mountain Literature Prize, awarded at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, for Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow.

Nominations: The Roderick Haig-Brown Award for Visions of the Wild
The Publishers Choice Award for Sailing Back in Time


Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, (St.Martin's Press and Fenn, Canada 2003)
Visions of the Wild: A Voyage by Kayak around Vancouver Island (Harbour, 2001)
A Lambing Season in Ireland: Tales of a Vet's Wife (McArthur and Co, 2000)
Sailing Back in Time: A Nostalgic Journey on Canada's West Coast (Whitecap 1996)
Three Moons in Vietnam: A Haphazard Journey by Boat and Bicycle (Abacus 1996)
A Boat in our Baggage: Around the World with a Kayak (Abacus 1994)
Fragile Edge: Loss on Everest, (Chatto and Windus 1989, Harbour 1999)

For children:

A Cat in a Kayak (Annick Press 1998)
A Seal in the Family (Annick Press, 1999)
A Cat Adrift (Annick Press 2002)
Jungle Islands (Annick Press 2001)

[For other authors of maritime titles, see abcbookworld entries for Andersen, Doris; Anderson, Hugo; Anderson, Suzanne; Armitage, Doreen; Ashenfelter, Pete; Barnes, Gordon; Barr, James; Beavis, Lancelot; Belyk, Robert; Bendall, Pamela; Bown, Stephen R.; Brevig, Anne E.; Burrows, James; Burtinshaw, Julie; Calhoun, Bruce; Cameron, June; Campbell, John; Carey, Wendy; Chettleburgh, Peter; Converse, Cathy; Copeland, Andy; Cran, George A.; Cummings, Al; Dalton, Anthony; Davidson, George; Dawson, Will; Delgado, James; Dibbern, George; Dook, Catherine; Douglass, Don; Downie, William; Duggan, Barbara; Dyson, George; Eardley, Wilmot; Evans, Clayton; Favelle, Peter; Foster, John; Fukawa, Masako; Gibson, John Frederic; Gleeson, Paul; Goddard, Joan; Golby, Humphrey; Gough, Barry; Graham, Donald; Greene, Ruth; Grundle, Jack; Grundmann, Erika; Hacking, Norman; Hadley, Michael; Hagelund, William A.; Haigh, Val; Harbo, Rick M.; Harvey, Robert; Heal, S.C.; Hewett, Shirley; Hick, W.B.M.; Hill, Beth; Holloway, Godfrey; Howay, F.W.; Hulsizer, Elsie; Imray, James; Innes, Hammond; Irving, William; Jackman, S.W.; James, Rick; Jane, Cecil; Jensen, Vickie; Jupp, Ursula; Keating, Bern; Kelly, William; Koch, Tom; Lamb, W.K.; Lange, Owen; Lawrence, Iain; Leighton, Kenneth Macrae; Levy, Paul; Longstaff, F.V.; Lower, Arthur; Lundy, Derek; Luxton, Norman; MacCrostie, M. Watson; Manby, Thomas; Mansbridge, Francis; Marc, Jacques; Mayne, Richard Charles; McCann, Leonard G.; McCulloch, Tom; McKee, William; McKinney, Sam; McLaren, Keith; Meares, John; Millar, Will; Mofras, Eugene Duflot (de); Morris, Robert; Morris, Wilfred H.; Murray, Peter; Nash, Ronald J.; Neitzel, Michael; Newell, Gordon; Newsome, Eric; Nicolls, Nan; Norris, Pat Wastell; Palmer, Ron; Paterson, T.W.; Portlock, Nathaniel; Proctor, Bill; Ricketts, Ed; Roberts, Harry; Roberts, John E. (Ted); Robson, Peter; Rogers, Fred; Rothery, Agnes; Sager, Eric W.; Sauer, Martin; Schade, Marv; Scott, Robert; Sharcott, Margaret; Skogan, Joan; Smeeton, Miles; Sparham, Adrian; Stone, David Leigh; Struthers, Andrew; Tamm, Eric Enno; Taylor, G.W.; Taylor, Jeanette; Teece, Philip; Theriault, Walter; Tovell, Freeman M.; Twigg, Arthur M.; Van der Ree, Freda; Vancouver, George; Varzeliotis, Tom; Vassilopoulos, Peter; Vipond, Anne; Voss, John; Wahl, Ryan; Wallace, Scott; Watmough, Don; Wells, Martin; Wells, R.E.; Westergaard, Ross; White, Bill; Wilson, James Ted; Winters, Barbara; Witt, Eugene; Wolferstan, Bill; Wright, E.W.; Yeadon-Jones, Anne.] @2010.

[BCBW 2010]

A Seal in the Family (Annick $7.95)

Teelo, the sensitive and curious cat from A Cat in a Kayak, is back for another adventure in A Seal in the Family (Annick $7.95), both illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. The cautionary tale by Maria Coffey is based on a real-life harbor seal discovered on a west coast beach and wrongly presumed to be abandoned.

Coffey, who lives on Protection Island, has simultaneously released a revised paperback version of Fragile Edge, her memoir of loss and reconciliation. It recounts her love affair with elite British mountaineer Joe Tasker who perished while climbing Mt. Everest’s ‘unclimbable’ Northeast Ridge in 1982.

Seal 1-55037-580-6
Fragile 1-55017-218-2


A Cat in a Kayak (Annick $6.95)

Teelo the cat endures a kayak ride to Victor's island home. Everything is perfect. Peace and quiet and a cozy wood stove to curl up under. Then Victor, who's a veterinarian, brings home a rooster and three hens. Soon he adds a terrier, a snake, a parrot. It's too much. Teelo stows away on the kayak for a little solitude and ends up having the adventure of his life in A Cat in a Kayak (Annick $6.95), a first children's book for Nanaimo's Maria Coffey, a kayaking travel writer.

[BCBW 1998]

Sailing Back In Time

from BCBW, Autumn 1996
I WAS REMINDED OF WHY I SOLD THE ONLY sail boat I ever owned after reading Maria Coffey's Sailing Back In Time (Whitecap $39.95), 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 $18.95).

Rubin, who has been a disciple of the Farrells for several years, has put together a chronology of the octogenarians' remarkable lives. With the cozy 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 1908, 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 Farrells' 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 Farrells sail it to the South Pacific, grow homesick for the Pacific Coast and then either sell or sail the boat home. It 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 some 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 living a warm and rich life well into their 80s is beautifully chronicled in Coffey's Sailing Back In Time. Richly 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 Georgia 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 Coffey shares her delight in the scenery, as we visited the Farrell's 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 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 bays. Coffey and Goering sailed their own small boat on the trip and rafted up with the Farrells each evening.

[Alan Haig-Brown}

Sailing Back In Time – A Nostalgic Voyage on Canada’s West Coast
Promotional Copy

"The islands stretch away as far as the eye can see, fading to a translucent grey-green against the horizon... In the dimming light, China Cloud is like a fairy-tale craft with her big moth wings, smoke curling from her stove pipe, and a white-haired couple at the tiller, singing old songs."

In May 1995, renowned travel writer Maria Coffey and her husband, photographer Dag Goering, began a three-month journey by wooden boat along Canada's spectacular western shores. Leading the way were legendary boat builders and sailors Allen and Sharie Farrell, on their last voyage aboard China Cloud. Powered only by sail and sculling oar, they took Coffey and Goering to their old haunts along the coast, places where they homesteaded, fished and built boats. And they shared with them their remarkably simple lifestyle, closely connected to the sea and the land.

Years rolled away during this nostalgic voyage, as the Farrells recounted decades of memories with passion, insight and humor. Sailing Back In Time weaves the fascinating account of a unique voyage with an intimate look at eighty years of coastal history, as seen through the eyes of these two remarkable people.

From the quiet waters of the Gulf Islands to the snowcapped mountains of Desolation Sound, the majestic scenery of the coast provides the backdrop for an unforgettable adventure. This panoramic trip comes to life with Dag Goering's lush photographs, while Allen Farrell's boat sketches and beautifully textured oil paintings reveal a bygone era.

-- Whitecap Books

"...a highly readable and enjoyable story of two genuine BC coast enthusiasts who not only tell a good tale, but have lived it!"
- Jim Spilsbury, author and West Coast legend.