Making Every Day Count

The story of Charlie's Charts co-author Margo Wood continues. "Sailor Profile" from our October 2007 issue

November 3, 2009

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Margo Wood shows David Thompson the new edition of one of her guides. Nonnie Thompson

“No, no, no! You mustn’t even consider going south until after hurricane season!” says Margo Wood, a white-haired and clear-minded septuagenarian with a gentle voice and motherly eye. My husband, David, and I smile at each other. Margo, a preeminent cruising authority and the co-author-with her husband, Charles-of Charlie’s Charts, is sitting in the saloon of our Able Apogee 50, Bittersweet, which is moored in San Francisco Bay. Charlie’s Charts of the Western Coast of Mexico is open on the table.”No, no, no! You mustn’t even consider going south until after hurricane season!” says Margo Wood, a white-haired and clear-minded septuagenarian with a gentle voice and motherly eye. My husband, David, and I smile at each other. Margo, a preeminent cruising authority and the co-author-with her husband, Charles-of Charlie’s Charts, is sitting in the saloon of our Able Apogee 50, Bittersweet, which is moored in San Francisco Bay. Charlie’s Charts of the Western Coast of Mexico is open on the table. She’s advising our very determined German friends as they ready to embark on their passage home. It’s April, and hurricane season is approaching in the Pacific Ocean.

“You see, you haven’t much experience, and your crew is unprepared for the challenges. In order to have peace and comfort on board, you must wait for weather.” David and I both know she’s right. On our friends’ faces I see disappointment, but then acceptance. This husband-and-wife team are impressed with Margo’s self-assurance. They’ll begin cruising on the right foot: accepting the dominion of the sea and weather and heeding the advice of those more experienced.

“In 1975, Charles and I were caught in a storm off Baja California,” Margo recalls. “With double-reefed sails, we prepared to ride it out. Suddenly, a shrill voice crackled from the VHF radio. Through rain, wind, and black night, a woman was screaming, pleading for help. Calmly gathering information, Charles learned that her husband was injured, her boat was disabled, and they were drifting toward shore. As the seas crashed, he talked her through her fears and was able to teach her how to clear the fuel line and head for safety.”


This encounter with an untrained and now terrified crew made Margo realize the importance of all crew knowing their boat and engine and respecting weather patterns and predictions. These weren’t just good ideas to Margo; they were matters of life and death. She went on to spread the word to captains and crews, as she did with us on that night.

So who is this confident and savvy woman, who’s been familiar to Cruising World readers since the 1970s?

Margo was born to a farming family in the Peace River region of northern Alberta, Canada, during the Great Depression. She grew up riding horses and running her dogs in the “back of beyond.” To explore beyond her fences, she broke the local mold and headed off to college in Edmonton while working summers in Banff. After graduation, she moved to Calgary to teach high school.


While she was planning an around-the-world adventure with a college pal, friends introduced her to Charles Wood, a mechanical engineer and world traveler. They hoped he’d advise her on how she could travel on a tight budget. Born in Burma, Charles had escaped during the Japanese occupation of that country during World War II, gone to school in Glasgow, and climbed mountains in the Alps, Scotland, and Canada. His education and worldly experience intrigued Margo. They married in 1958.

They settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, and dreamed of far-flung adventures. Sailing seemed the perfect means, so they bought a 30-foot wooden yawl, but Margo was leery. “I was afraid on the tippy boat, until we hauled her,” she says. “Then I saw the sturdy keel, proof of Charles’ claim that the boat wouldn’t just flip over.” Thus began a steep learning curve of boat work and cruises from the Strait of Georgia to San Francisco Bay. After several starter boats and passages, they fell in love with Ern, a 37-foot Barkhouse mahogany cutter in the Great Lakes. They bought the boat and sailed her to the Bahamas and then to Florida, where they arranged to put her on a train for Vancouver.

In 1967, Margo and Charles expanded their family beyond their spaniel Beau with the adoption of a 6-week-old boy, Devereau. Soon after, Margo was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery and slow recuperation followed. Eventually, with an “all clear” from her doctors but having faced her mortality, Margo was more determined than ever to “make every day count.” The couple adopted a baby girl, Charmian. Their family now complete, they sensed faraway islands beckoning.


Readying boats for cruising and putting many miles under various keels had taught Margo to follow orders and fight her fears. Charles was a tough and patient teacher; she was a determined and sensitive student. To Margo, each opportunity to learn was a step in the right direction, and she took it. Still, Margo wanted to go beyond being able crew; she wanted to be a partner. With that conviction, she signed up for swimming lessons and joined a women’s racing club. In-the-water training and on-the-water racing honed skills and built confidence. She was finally out of the cockpit and up on the foredeck, learning to sail-and sail fast! With the support of Charles and the racing women, she became a competent sailor in her own right and, thus, a partner aboard Ern. Knowledge of boats calmed her fears and increased the family’s safety at sea.

With the growing family, they needed a bigger boat. So they sold Ern to buy a Spencer 51 bare hull that they planned to complete. After Charles suffered a major heart attack and a long, painful recovery, they finally launched Frodo in 1975 and began an exhilarating trip to Mexico and, they hoped, beyond.

They explored unknown waters and anchorages of the Pacific Coast, with only advice from other cruisers to guide them. As they cruised, Charles stayed busy by sketching harbors and landmarks while Margo made note of shoreside amenities. Little did they know the future significance of these scribblings.


After a season in Mexico, Charles hadn’t regained the necessary strength for them to continue into the South Pacific, so they began their long trip back to the Pacific Northwest. In San Diego, Charles showed his sketches and notes of coastal Mexico to the cruisers who’d given them tips as they sailed south. Excited by his detail, they encouraged him to share his information with others. In 1977, Cruising World began printing a series of notes and sketches submitted by this unknown Canadian couple. A book, Building Your Dream Boat, followed Charles’ articles.

While focusing on work and family, they received eager inquiries from cruisers who’d seen their handiwork in Cruising World. At the time, there was no sailing guide to Mexico in print, so Charles and Margo formalized their notes, maps, and experience into a cruising guide. Sadly, because of Charles’ continuing health struggles, they had to sell Frodo. Coincidentally, Ern came up for sale in Vancouver, and they bought her back, this time with plans to cruise closer to home.

In 1982, they published Charlie’s Charts of the Western Coast of Mexico. Its spiral binding filled to bursting with sea-view sketches, color photos, and landside curiosities, the guide exuded Charles and Margo’s passion for cruising. Wildlife identification, history, weather, and tide guidelines made for great reading. Coast-guard, harbormaster, and marina information rounded out the vital stats.

San Diego marine stores sold 1,000 copies of Charlie’s Charts in the first year. Charles flew to Polynesia and Hawaii to gather material for additional guides. Queries prompted a family cruise, which resulted in Charlie’s Charts of the Inside Passage to British Columbia and Alaska (today called Charlie’s Charts North to Alaska) and, eventually, Charlie’s Charts of the U.S. Pacific Coast.

In 1987, during the writing of the U.S. Pacific Coast guide, Charles died from a heart attack. Grieving, Margo resolved to carry on. In time, she completed Charles’ work on the U.S. Pacific Coast guide. She learned to care for Ern, always wishing that she’d paid better attention when Charles was in command. “My childhood dreams, optimism, and determination to live life to the fullest somehow carried me along,” she says.

In 1996, when my family and I sailed up the beach from Panama to Puget Sound, we studied and devoured Charlie’s Charts of the Western Coast of Mexico. In St. Lucia, as we were about to begin our trek toward the Pacific, we’d traded our precious Caribbean guide by Chris Doyle to a northbound cruiser for his Charlie’s. It was dog-eared, scribbled on, and smeared, but we knew we had a treasure. With Charlie’s help, we gunkholed into rocky inlets, found fuel and food, and learned local customs.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the appearance of the Woods’ first articles in Cruising World and the 25th anniversary of the publication of their first guide. Margo updates the guides regularly with the help of Pacific cruisers, locals, and her own landside and cruising research, adding GPS waypoints and overview planning. Updated guides for Mexico and Costa Rica will also be printed this year. To date, more than 83,000 copies of Charlie’s Charts have been sold. In her engaging autobiography, A Prairie Chicken Goes to Sea, she details her journey from the Alberta farm of her childhood to the deck of Ern, which she’s still sailing in the Pacific Northwest.

At 70-something, this remarkable woman teaches and encourages audiences of women to thrive in the cruising life. Her humor and caring advice have no gender bias. While Margo promotes women’s involvement, she believes that encouragement between captain and mate is the key to allaying fears and developing trust. From proving herself a worthy crew in the Erie Canal in 1965 to taking on the care of Ern in 1987 and continuing to write cruising guides ever since, her attitude has inspired men and women alike to follow a dream and “make every day count.” She still lectures and guides, and she still loves to tell a good story.

Nonnie Thompson began her 40-year sailing career on Long Island Sound. She’s sailed and raced more than 15,000 miles with her husband, David, most recently in San Francisco Bay aboard their Able Apogee 50, Bittersweet



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