Sailing as a conduit to renewal

“Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor, an Island, and the Voyage That Brought a Family Together”
by Nathaniel Philbrick; Penguin Books, 2018; 240 pp.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

The Sunfish. What a weird boat, though not as weird as the flush-deck Sailfish. We had one of those at the lake when I was a kid. Very heavy plywood. My father would go out alone on gentle days and sail slowly to nowhere, lying on the deck in the sun. It was weird to see him relax like that. Disengaged from his world, he was at peace. He never took me out on the Sailfish, but I did eventually learn to sail on that thing. Then I pretty much forgot about it. My dreams were for more substantial boats.

About 60 years later, as in last year, I ordered a Kindle version of a book by Nat Philbrick because, well, I had read and liked many of his books, which are about the sea and history and nature and are very popular. He is a wonderful writer.

But at first I thought I’d made a mistake buying “Second Wind.” I have little interest in sailboat racing, and somewhat less in sailboat racing aboard a Sunfish, which is a Sailfish with the added luxury of a little tub sunk in the middle of the deck where you can put your feet. Then I thought, what the heck, it’s short and maybe it will give me some insight into who Philbrick is.

And you know what? It was a fun, funny, touching little memoir, the story of a man in early middle age reigniting his passion for Sunfish racing and in the process revisiting childhood memories while setting out on a mission that would renew his skills and refresh his views on life, work, family and sailing.

Despite all his literary accomplishments, Philbrick is feeling pathetic when, early in the book, he follows his kids out into their yard at their Nantucket home. He sees the old Sunfish, filthy and long ignored, leaning against the house. With the kids, he tips it over and feels “a stabbing pain” in his gut. The pain is not from the effort, but from the compass headings that he sees that he had scrawled on the deck during the 1978 North American championships, which he had won at the age of 22. It had been, he says, “the highlight of my sailing life.”

Lately, he thinks, highlights have been few and far between.

Perhaps sensing his despair, his kids suggest he re-start his sailing life. Deep into researching and writing a consuming history of Nantucket, Philbrick sees an opportunity for distraction. He will race again.

But first he has to test himself with a regimen that others might see as more punishment than test: He would trailer, carry and drag that Sunfish into the many creeks and tidal estuaries that cold, wet fall, preparing himself for the next championship, which would be in Illinois the following summer.

“Part Joshua Slocum, part Thoreau, I would voyage from pond to pond until I arrived at my destination – the Sunfish North Americans.” The details of this voyage range from funny to terrifying to painful, representing, he writes, “conduct hardly becoming to a reasonable person.” But by the end of that fall, he is once again feeling like a sailor. January would be the start of his “comeback year.”

In October of that comeback year, he takes his family for a sail on a Beetlecat in one of those Nantucket ponds and realizes this chapter of his life hadn’t been so much about racing, but about living, a voyage to epiphany.

“Even after all these years,” he writes, “even after jobs and children, we still found joy in simply being together in a sailboat. If there was one thing I’d learned in my comeback year, it was that there is no such thing as a singlehanded sailboat. Even in a Sunfish, I needed my family, my friends, and, yes, even my dog.”

Last August, visiting my brother at his lakefront camp in Canada, I noticed a little-used Sunfish on the beach. I rigged it and pushed off into a light breeze, settling on an easy broad reach to the far shore. Dragging a hand in the water, I thought about my dad, lying alone on the deck of that Sailfish many years ago, and I got it. Solo, or in company with those you love, sailing is renewal.

Co-founder of Points East, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor.

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