Compass

Interview

Most know you for your award-winning books of history, including In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award. SECOND WIND, however, is a memoir, originally published almost 20 years ago by a small New England press, which chronicles your attempt to win a sailing championship you had won some 15 years before. Can you tell us a little bit about the backstory behind SECOND WIND?

My wife Melissa and I moved to Nantucket Island with our two young children Jennie and Ethan in 1986. Melissa was a lawyer; I was a struggling writer and stay-at-home dad. I loved being with my kids all day, but my career had stalled and I had lost all touch with competitive sailing, the sport that had once meant everything to me. And then, in the fall of 1992, when I was 36 years old, everything changed. Ethan started first grade, which meant I now had until 2:30 in the afternoon (an unheard of span of time) to write and I began work on my first work of history, Away Off Shore. As if all that wasn’t enough, I decided I should also launch a comeback as a sailboat racer by using the ponds of Nantucket as my training ground for the 1993 Sunfish North Americans. It proved to be a pivotal year, and SECOND WIND tells the story of how I not only rediscovered sailing but launched my career as a writer of history.

You grew up mostly in Pittsburgh, PA, a landlocked city. How’d you get into sailing?

My grandparents had a summer place on Cape Cod, where I first learned to sail in a wooden Beetle Cat. We were on the Cape for only about a week each summer, but there was something about sailing—the interplay of the wind and the water and the sense of independence—that completely captivated me. Even though we lived for most of the year in Pittsburgh, I begged my parents to buy me and my younger brother a Sunfish, and we started sailing just about every weekend on a man-made lake about an hour outside the city. For a shy misfit of a teenager in a big city high school, sailing became the oasis that got me through the tortures of adolescence.

For those who might be unfamiliar, can you describe what a Sunfish boat is, and why sailing is a unique sport? Do you still sail?

A Sunfish is the simplest of sailboats: basically an ironing board with a sail on it. It may not look like much, but a Sunfish is fast and makes for a great racing boat. Since you can throw a Sunfish on the roof of your car, you can take it just about anywhere. What I particularly like about the class is that besides being relatively inexpensive, it accommodates a wide range of body types, meaning that people of just about any size and age can race the boat. Although I’ve since donated my Sunfish to our community sailing group on Nantucket, I still sail every chance I can get. We now have a fifteen-foot sloop that is a tad more comfortable than a Sunfish and has the added benefit of being able to accommodate our three-year-old granddaughter and her parents. The intergenerational aspect of sailing is what makes it really special.

You’re hesitant to label SECOND WIND a “midlife crisis” story, but you seemed to be stuck in a rut before deciding to train for the Sunfish North American Championship. How did the period described in SECOND WIND change your life?

I think anyone who has raised children has struggled with the challenges of balancing your own needs with those of your kids. I had reached the point—after close to ten years of being a primary caregiver—that I had lost touch with some of the things in life that had once meant a great deal to me. I’d also put my professional career as a writer on a kind of hold. When in the fall of 1992 I suddenly had the opportunity not only to begin writing my first work of history but start sailing again, I went a little crazy—launching into both the book and my training program with a ferocity that was more than a little disconcerting—especially for Melissa and the kids. But it was also extraordinarily liberating. Now, twenty-five years later, I’ve calmed down a bit, but there is a part of me that’s still trying to catch up for lost time.

Many of your works of history explore America’s relationship with the sea, and, as explained in the book’s “Author’s Note,” in SECOND WIND you explore your own relationship to both salt and fresh water. How have bodies of water influenced you, both in your personal life and in your work?

Water is the dominant theme of my life. Melissa and I met teaching sailing on Cape Cod. It’s no accident we ended up on an island thirty miles out to sea that’s riddled with freshwater ponds. Every book I’ve written is, in one way or another, about water. Even The Last Stand, about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, begins with a riverboat on the Missouri River. When Melissa and I go on vacation we almost always end up on an island or beside a river or lake. We have a new dog, Dora, a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever who is even more addicted to water than we are. I love the smell of mildew in the morning.

It’s been almost 20 years since the original publication of SECOND WIND, what’s it been like revisiting and reflecting upon this part of your life? Would you write the memoir differently now?

It’s been kind of amazing to return to this book after so many years. It was a truly different time. No cell phones or internet. Nantucket was without the high-speed ferries that have made it so much more accessible than it was back then. The person I was in 1992-93 is in many ways almost unrecognizable to me now (for one thing, I still had hair), and yet, in other, probably more fundamental ways, I haven’t changed that much. In fact, now that I’m over sixty, I’m beginning to feel some of the old restlessness. Who knows, maybe another quest of some sort is in my future; we’ll see!