If you were to draw all of Jim Schroer’s travels on an atlas of the world, it would look as if an untended toddler had scribbled all over it with great scrawls across two oceans and a tangle of squiggles all over the eastern half of the U.S. But the intricate lines are the tracings of a waterman’s life, shaped by water winding across a continent and wind wandering over oceans.
Jim had never intended to share his stories beyond his family and friends. The notion of publishing anything soured after his first ocean crossing: “After my girlfriend and I sailed a 19 1⁄2′ boat to Hawaii, she talked to a person who was writing an article while I was out trying to earn some money so we could fly back to the mainland. It must’ve been a year later when we were cruising in the Florida Keys and crossed paths with somebody who had read the article. He showed us the magazine it was in and asked, ‘Is this you?’ We said it was. The title of the article was ‘From Yachts to Buckets They Come to Hawaii.’ Of course, the bucket was our boat, which I did not appreciate much. So, I figured people who write articles are more concerned with themselves than the people they’re writing about. And I don’t think that about you, and it’s because I’m comfortable with what you do that I’m doing this. This is very different for me because I’ve never gone for recognition or fame or whatever you might call it. But I’ve been reading your articles and what you’ve done and that convinced me that I could do this.”
Jim passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in December of 2022. His wife Sher and his daughter Zoey were eager to have me publish his story in Small Boats and provided invaluable assistance with finishing this project. In 2022, I recorded two long phone conversations I had with Jim. The last call ended with him laughing and saying, “Okay, this might be the longest I’ve ever been on the phone.” Below, in his words, is what he had to say.
Travels and Boats
The first thing was the Mississippi River in 1968 and that was about three months in a 17′ Grumman from Itasca to New Orleans. I did Itasca to Minnesota alone and then I picked up a girlfriend and did the rest of it with her.
After the Mississippi, my girlfriend, cat, and I hitchhiked back to St. Louis to get my truck. We then went west to California and bought a little blue-hulled 19 1⁄2′ sloop. Apparently, the owners thought they had broken something underneath. When we hauled it out, the plywood form that they had poured the cement keel into was torn off, half torn off, and sticking out. I guess they thought it was the keel itself. We got the boat cheap and just ripped the plywood off. We used a bunch of instant concrete and smoothed it up.
We didn’t know anything, but I read everything in the San Diego library about singlehanded sailing. I then had a lot of theoretical knowledge but no experience. We sailed the sloop to Hawaii. I had rerigged it with two jennies to run downwind, a tradewinds thing, but they overpowered the little boat, so we only used one. That was better than the mainsail, which made it difficult to steer—it wanted to round up when we didn’t want to round up. Our slow trip to Hawaii took 39 days. In Hawaii we sold the boat. That was in 1969.
After that, the big one was to the Atlantic islands in 1975 in the TRESARUS, a 28′ 8″ Atkin cutter. I left Cape May, New Jersey, and sailed to the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde. That was with a girlfriend, a different one, but they were close friends. [Laughs] When one departed, the other one moved right in. I sailed alone after Cape Verde and had the fastest passage over to Barbados. That was just under 15 days. That was not fun, but I always said if I had the chance to do something fast in the boat, I would just grit my teeth and do it just so I could brag about it. It was horrendous. It was noisy plowing through the water all the time, bashing around, and having a hard time staying in the bunk. There were times the boat slowed down to 4 knots and I’d put up the topsail and get it back up to 5 1⁄2. I had back-to-back 265-mile days in that little cutter. Normal sailing would be 100 miles per 24 hours. From Barbados, I went up the island chain to the U.S. Virgins and then I sailed to Panama to go through the canal, but I didn’t get to, so I sailed up to Newport. That was in ’75. I don’t recall how long that took.
My wife Sher, daughters Robin and Zoey, and I did a long canoe trip ’79. That was what I call the Maine Triangle. It’s probably the trip I’m most proud of. That was with a boat we called TSHANNA, which is an Indian name for The Silent One. It was a wooden and canvas 20 footer and it was quiet. We had rebuilt that. We re-canvassed it and patched up all the broken frames. It was a $30 canoe when we bought it—well, my wife, Sher, and the girlfriend bought it—for my birthday and we took it to Florida. We were then living on that cutter. We did that in a little park next to the marina. We re-canvassed it, and got it ready and then we hauled it all the way up Maine. My wife and I and two daughters—I don’t really remember if the cats went or not—went up the Penobscot, and up the West Branch and up the North Branch until we ran out of water. It was a beautiful month, and it didn’t rain on us hardly at all, so we didn’t have any water when we got to the North Branch. So we backed down and went over, what’s that called, the Mud Pond Carry. And then we got into the Allagash, and went down the Allagash to the St. John, and down the St. John to the coast and down the coast to Penobscot Bay and up to where we started the trip and left our vehicle. That was about two-and-a-half, almost three months. Great trip, a great trip. The girls don’t want anything to do with boating anymore. I lost my crew after that trip.
Did I tell you about the problems in the Florida Keys, getting raided because we were camping hidden in the woods? Well, let me see, that was TEATIME TURTLE, the 22′ lapstrake. It was 1981 and we got a delivery car to drive to Miami, Florida, and we put this great big canoe on top of it, which you’re not supposed to do on a delivery car. This was with the two girls, twin daughters Zoey and Robin, who were 9 at the time. We never got to pick the car and just got what they had available, but I couldn’t complain about the Mercedes. It was very nice. I dropped the canoe and the family on the beach in Miami and delivered the car and got back somehow. Off we went in the canoe. There were lots of little islands, so we didn’t have to go very far to make our first camp. I remember the island was full of flip-flops. We had a contest to see who could get a pair of flip-flops that fit. That was great fun. We paddled along the Florida Keys and got down to Marathon. There we went into the harbor, way up into the top of it, found some woods, and hauled out. We put up a tent and made a barricade to hide the canoe and covered it with a tarp. We were there for days while I went to work at a marina. It was almost Christmas. We didn’t have any money, so I had to make some. I varnished a boat and did this and that. One day I came back and Sher was real upset because the police had shown up and told her it was illegal to camp there. They took her and the girls down to the station, hassled them, and then told them that if we continued camping, they would confiscate the girls. While they said they would take the girls away, they couldn’t actually do much to us because we were from out of town and not Florida residents. They couldn’t get us for the girls not being in school.
Sher didn’t want to continue after that. We paddled out and stopped to talk to a guy on a boat. He had two more boats in the harbor, and he let us spend the night on one of them. But then his wife didn’t like the idea of him letting weirdos stay on the boat, so we went over to where the fishing fleet was. They were cleaning out the area with a bulldozer making a pile of junk, a great big hill of junk. On top of it was this old plywood motorboat, an open boat, and kind of big but with a hole in it. I found a guy with a pickup truck and told him I’d give him a couple of six packs if he would pull the boat down and to the water. He did, happily, and I patched the hole and we put it into a little creek area of the harbor. We moved aboard it, and the police never bothered us again. We put the canoe on top and then the tarp over it and we had it enclosed that way. We spent the rest of the winter in that junk boat meeting all sorts of interesting people including Cubans who were arriving about that time. They loved the girls and would bring them food. They thought we were destitute, I guess, but we weren’t really.
I bought an Oldsmobile from a fisherman and I guess he used to throw fish in the trunk because it was really rusted out. To get it ready to haul us back to Rhode Island I took it to a mechanic and said, “I’d like it looked at to see if it would get us back to Rhode Island. Could you put it on the lift?” He took a quick look under it and said, “No, we can’t lift it because it’ll probably break in half.” We decided to forgo that and drove it to Rhode Island anyway. It was a great comfortable car, but I couldn’t get out of the driver’s door because it was smashed. I had to get out the passenger door, but otherwise it did really well. It was just difficult to pay tolls.
Our north Florida trip was in ’87 with TEATIME TURTLE, the varnished 22′ lapstrake canoe. I had a boat shop in St. Petersburg, Bayside Boatworks, for a couple of years. The Atkin cutter was in a little bitty harbor behind the Salvador Dalí Museum and the shop was about a block away from the water, so we could go down to look at the boat. We were living in a school bus at the time.
Anyway, that canoe trip was up the St. Marys River, down the Suwanee, and then along the Gulf coast, up the Withlacoochee, down the Hillsborough, and into Tampa.
The friends who took us to the St. Marys lived in Tampa, so we called them up and went back home with them to where the truck was. You know, I haven’t found any sort of notes or log on that trip so I really don’t know how long that was. It was a winter trip and cold a couple of times because we had frost on the canoe. It looked like snow.
And then, let’s see, the nine-month canoe trip in Maine was in ’95–’96. It was an open-ended trip without a destination. The girls were much older so Sher and I went without them but with our four cats. We were going to paddle forever—that’s what we had in mind. We started at Popham Beach, just below Bath, and went up the Kennebec River and all the way up the Androscoggin to Errol, New Hampshire. There we portaged by vehicle—that’s where you go talk somebody into taking you over in a pickup truck or stick your thumb out—over to the Connecticut River. It’s not very far actually, just one highway, and that was to Colebrook. Then we paddled down the Connecticut River, through Massachusetts and Connecticut all the way down to the coast. A great trip. A great river.
There we got picked up by friends from Rhode Island and taken back home so Sher could visit with our daughters. It was September and I knew that we were going to get caught by weather, so I bought a junker and we loaded up and, instead of taking the canoe west to the Genesee River, which dumps into Lake Ontario, we drove to Pennsylvania and started on the upper Allegheny River.
And, of course, the police caught us there. Well, I wanted to sell the car and the guy I tried to sell it to called the police and said, “This guy is trying to sell me a stolen car.” They didn’t catch us driving but as we were unloading the canoe from the roof racks and getting ready to go down the river. Somehow, they just decided to forget it. Maybe because we weren’t driving. Anyway, they did all the stuff they had to and left. I gave the car to somebody.
Sher and I paddled down the Allegheny to the Ohio River then up the Kanawha. At the New River, Sher’s sister from Boone, North Carolina, came up with a little Coleman canoe, and Sher went to North Carolina with her in the big canoe. I went up to the New River, which was a fantastic, very interesting trip. When I got into North Carolina it was freezing. My tennis shoes would be frozen outside the tent every morning.
Once I got to North Carolina, I thought that’s good enough. Sher and her sister picked me up and we did Thanksgiving in Boone. We bought a motor for the canoe because I thought we could still maybe beat winter if we had a motor. That was stupid, because we didn’t beat it, and Sher’s sister and husband gave us a portage over the height of land over to the French Broad River. We descended the Tennessee River, and then the Tombigbee River down to the Gulf coast. We did a little along the coast, but I knew that if we went too far we’d wind up back at Cedar Key where we had already been on our North Florida trip. It was too early to head back north and I couldn’t think of anything else so we kind of gave up. A friend flew down, rented a truck to carry the canoe, pick us up, and take us to Saint Pete. We stayed there a while. But anyway, that was that trip, a big one.
We bought a van that my brother had for sale cheap, mainly because it needed a lot of work. I fixed it up and we made a bed in it. We traveled in it for a year and then found a nice motorcoach in Florida. We traveled in it and towed the van with the canoe on top of it. That was from ’96 to ’99 and we went paddling here and there.
In 2000, I got this job as caretaker here at a camp in Rhode Island. Or I should say my wife got me this job. It really wasn’t my idea. So, after 2000 it has just been trips of a week to 10 days on New England rivers doing all of the river except for the whitewater parts at the beginnings. A couple of rivers I split in half and did three days for part of it and three days the rest of it, like the Kennebec. I did the Machias River, the Grand Lake Stream, the Delaware River, and the Saint John River, which is up along Canada. The Saint John was interesting because without a passport I couldn’t camp or even land on Canada’s side. It was the first river that had only one bank that I could get out on.
These trips were all in solo canoes. One was a 14′ Bell Wildfire made of ABS. Then I got a lighter one, which was a Mohawk Solo 13. The Solo 13 is 1′ shorter and not as pretty but it’s lighter and I’m getting older, so that is good. Then I got a a 12′ Kevlar ADK and went for three or four years doing different things in the Adirondacks, mostly for a week at a time.
In 2020 I drove to the Susquehanna River. It starts in New York and continues all the way down to the Chesapeake. That’s a big river so I did just the part in New York. That was the first year of the pandemic, so nobody was on the banks and nobody was on the river. The highway runs along the river almost the whole way so I hid water bottles on my way to the put-in so I wouldn’t have to go to people’s houses to ask for water. That worked out really well. A good trip.
There was another nice solo in 2014 that took 10 or 11 days from north to south in Rhode Island. I started up near the northern border and worked my way down the river to the bay. I got out of the bay at Fall River and paddled several rivers and came out at Westerly. I crossed over to Connecticut and took out.
I guess that’s about it. It has been pretty constant.
There are a few things other than boating. There was flying. I always have my eyes up in the sky when I hear something. I love the biplanes and always wanted to buy a Stearman biplane. I remember when they were about $5,000 and I just didn’t have quite that much. Then I sold the DISTANT STAR, the big schooner, and I said, “Gee $25,000! I can get a Stearman now.” I looked it up and they were $60,000 at that time. So, okay, I’d forget that dream. I did hot air ballooning and got my certification for that and for gas balloons because it was early on and they weren’t too organized and they just put them both together. If you could answer the questions about the dangers of gas, you got the certificate for gas (even though I couldn’t afford to fill a balloon up with it). In the ’90s my wife and daughters bought me hang-gliding lessons, so I did hang gliding for about three years. I got up to Hang 4, which is an advanced rating. With it I could technically fly off any mountain. That was really cool. I loved it.
The other fun thing was motorcycling. I’ve had five motorcycles. The biggest fun trip was with my daughter Zoey, from Saint Pete up the Smokies all the way to Rhode Island. I was really surprised that she agreed to go. And I once did 1,000 miles in 24 hours just for the heck of it.
What in my background led me to do all this? I would say one thing. It was the fact that my dad was a schoolteacher and a principal and I went to his junior high school. He retired a year early and talked about what he and my mom could do, but then he died that year, the year he retired. So that probably influenced me. I know that in college—I went to Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau, Missouri—the Mississippi River ran nearby and I would go down to it quite often. It gave me what I needed for the four years that I was in school. Instead of looking forward to what the school could give me, I think I looked forward to what the rivers could give me.
JAYCEE BODIE, Jim’s last boat
The johnboat is not really for here in Rhode Island. It’s for the big rivers of the Midwest. We’ll see what happens. I don’t think we can get out of here unless things change. But you never know. It doesn’t matter. I’ve enjoyed building it and it has been great fun. I did add some more things. I put the shelves beside the bunk so there’s a place to put a few things: clothes, a wallet, whatever. I’ve enclosed the space behind the cabinets and those spaces will be hidden and look like just a panel to hide the hull. I’ve got them attached by magnets, so I can squirrel something in there like money or papers or whatever. Whatever I want to hide, I’ve got a hiding place.
I built the boat for finishing the Ohio River and then seeing the tributaries and the interesting areas along the Ohio, and maybe the Tennessee River. And there’s the Cumberland. The Tennessee goes way on up to Knoxville. That would be a nice place to spend the winter. But we’ll see.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats.
If you have an interesting story to tell about your adventures with a small boat, please email us a brief outline and a few photos.