The Making of a Sailor
I had a brilliant idea for my next book. The only hitch was I needed to learn how to sail to write it.
THERE’S NEVER BEEN A MORE IMPORTANT TIME than now to know how to dream. Reading is a form of dreaming. As a novelist, I know that when I write a novel, I’m attempting to place a dream into the mind of another. In order to do so, that dream—so private, so incomplete, even to me —has to be rendered in such rich detail that the reader feels it is her dream, that she is dreaming it.
Take Paul Theroux’s 1982 classic Mosquito Coast. Whenever I read that novel, I feel as if I am walking beside the young narrator, deep in Honduran jungle, as “parroty birds, and birds so small they might have been insects, screamed around our heads,” while the wings of bigger birds “made slow broomlike brushings against the treetops.”
I close my eyes, I hear the wings.
In my new novel, Sea Wife, a family—mother, father, and two young kids—leaves conventional life behind to live on a sailboat. The family is transformed by the beauty and the vertigo of travel, but eventually, they are tested by the sea in a life-altering way. When I began the novel, I had two challenges: the normal challenge of rendering my fictional dream richly, and the added challenge of writing a book set at sea.
Confession: I am no sailor. I am afraid of the sea. I grew up in a city. I am not brave, handy, or decisive. And as sailors like to say, the sea hates a coward.
Yet this novel compelled me. How would it feel, I wondered, to be surrounded by an unbroken horizon of water in every direction, your children and spouse your only crew? Like a traveler with maps marked terra incognita, I quickly ran out of reference points. I’d read sea novels, but what did I really know about life on a boat? Getting behind the helm myself seemed outlandish, not to mention scary. Perhaps I could take the smaller, safer step of searching for a family that had lived that life.
I found that family moored in Newport, Rhode Island: Ben Zartman, his wife, Danielle, their three daughters, and their nautical home since 2009: the Ganymede. Constructed from a kit entirely by Ben, the 31-foot gaff-rigged cutter had a repurposed streetlight pole as her mast. Danielle, no makeup, her hair plaited across the top of her head Frida Kahlo-style, was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. The rowdy girls—then ages 6, 8, and 10—wore cabled wool sweaters over flouncy party dresses. On deck, the girls showed me how to “fly.” Holding onto a spare halyard fixed to the mast, they swung far out over the water, skirts whipping. The family told me details from coasts around the world—from the aromatic frangipani blossoms of Cartagena, to the silence of Nova Scotia.
Over the next two years, Ben and I exchanged dozens and dozens of emails, and I continued to visit the family from my nearby home in Connecticut. I thought maybe I could write my novel with Ben’s eyes and Ben’s experience. As I inched my plot forward, I often had to stop and consult him. When should you heave to? Which sheet do you ease first when reefing the sail?
But something felt thin and incomplete in my drafts. Sailing is like love, I realized. You can’t just read about it. You have to get out there and give it a try.
What did I do?
Reader, I learned to sail.
IN DECEMBER OF 2016, I was one of four students on a one-week sailing course off the island nation of Grenada, living aboard a 46-foot fiberglass sailboat. It may not surprise you to hear that I was a disappointing sailor. I couldn’t tell one sheet from another. I bolloxed the simplest tasks. Once, when I was at the helm, nobly steering the boat through the swells, I overheard the captain telling another student to watch me to see what not to do. I was excellent, however, at describing the wind. The wind has so many personalities! I never knew! It could be childish, rowdy, demanding… Maybe I wasn’t mastering the art of sailing, but I was still learning, with my skin.
One night, anchored off the Grenadine island of Carriacou, I felt a new kind of wind. I woke up on a seasawing mattress. We’d been engulfed by a storm. Overhead, furious winds strafed the boat. Waves gnawed at the hull, and the boat strained and whined against its anchor.
And I? I was belowdecks, in my heaving berth, bargaining with God.
Dear God, I said, Hey—I don’t really need to write a book set at sea.
Next time, how about I just use my imagination?
I decided to go above and check if the land was still there. I met the captain looking up at the sky through the companionway. I told him that I was sorry, but this trip had been a mistake and I was clearly in over my head. I’m just a writer, I said, by way of explanation. He nodded, fished a bottle of rum out of a locker, and put it into my hands.
I HADN’T BEEN LOOKING FOR A STORM, but by God I got one. I survived my sailing course, returned home to my family and domestic life, and wrote my novel. In fact, I finished the book quickly, within the year. I felt, in writing the final quarter of the story, that I was writing more closely and urgently than I had in my life.
The cure for everything is salt water, wrote author Isak Dinesen. “Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.” And while saltwater delivered my sailing cure, I learned that my novel, despite its setting, its plot, and its seaborne family, is not about sailing. What Sea Wife is about is those other salt waters—the sweat and tears that anoint each journey, those both far away and deep inside.
Could I have reasoned this out myself? Perhaps. But if I hadn’t gone to sea, how else would I have learned that, at high speeds, the wind makes a whistling sound in the rigging of a boat, playing the tensioned wires like a string instrument? How would I have learned that in calmer moments, it mutters in the sailor’s ears consolingly, like a lover? How else would I gather the very details I needed to deliver a fictional dream worth dreaming with you?