When You Take a Sailing Trip for Novel Research and It’s a Total Disaster
Amity Gaige Nearly Gets Lost at Sea
I considered including “Xanax” in the acknowledgments for my latest novel, Sea Wife; maybe I had pushed myself a little too hard researching. It all started back in the winter of 2017, when I signed up for a ten-day sailing course that took me to Grenada, an island nation in the Caribbean. I was stuck on my novel, partially because I was hellbent on setting it at sea. Why I chose to write a novel set at sea remains unknown, even to me. I grew up in urban Pennsylvania; I have no sailing background; I am neither brave nor handy. I am useless on a boat. I knew that writing a nautical novel would require months and months of research, as well as learning a new vocabulary of nautical language, and after that, the hard part would begin—writing the thing, inventing a narrative from the ground up.
“Almost everything difficult is serious,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in the famous book of letters ritually given to depressive teens, “and everything is serious.” Wait a minute, Rainer. So, everything is difficult? In letter seven of Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke offers a quote I think about a lot: “We know little, but that we must hold on to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”
It’s unsettling how much this arguable notion drives my life. And maybe yours too.
Sailing is difficult. Not tooling around the Long Island Sound on Saturday—I mean serious, off-shore passages, 360 degrees of nothing but water, a lunar absence of humankind. People do this for fun! Sailors share not only a nautical vocabulary, but also a tolerance for danger and uncertainty that far outstrips anything a rail-clinging creampuff like me finds doable.
The boat waiting for me in a marina in St. George’s, Grenada, was a 44-foot-long monohull. Four students would share this space during the course: me, a married couple from Maine, and a wealthy Russian. This sounds like the set-up for a joke, and maybe it is.I believe that people who write novels or undertake other related marathons have a temperamental attraction to difficulty.
Our captain was a short, white Grenadian named Neil. Like a lot of lifelong sailors, Captain Neil had a trove of morbid death-at-sea stories, which he trotted out at the earliest opportunity, as soon as we’d all said hello and started provisioning the sailboat at the marina: stories about almost dying in 90-foot waves, stories about being lifted halfway up the mast by his ankle because he left a knot in the halyard.
Who said we were supposed to return this body in pristine shape? he’d often say.
Then there was Carmen and Dave, the couple from Maine. I liked Carmen immediately.
She was a witty woman who’d left her advertising executive life to raise kids in Maine with Dave. As soon as she identified me as a potential conspirator, she provided running asides about how little she wanted to be on the boat, and how insensitive Dave was for not understanding that she did not want to learn to sail. Meanwhile, Dave, a handsome, humorless man, was certain that this course would convert Carmen to the sailing life. He kept talking about buying a catamaran. Dave kept saying, Carm, we could get a big catamaran and sail with other families. Then Carmen would turn to me and say, Yes and we will pay for that with our money tree. We have a money tree in the backyard! I will give you a clipping.
Oleg, our Russian classmate, was a likable man but an unteachable student. He pooh-poohed most of Captain Neil’s instruction. Oleg had a Slavic relationship to the vowel “o.” He would elongate the “o” in cookie, but shorten the “o” in coconut.” He was restless when he didn’t have something to open or close or fuss with. He was a successful man in some other realm.
“Don’t you have a good book to read?” I asked him during some down-time on our first evening aboard the boat.
But no, he only read technical booooks.
And me? I was myself—terminally ambivalent, and suddenly confused about why I was sitting on a cramped boat about to set sail with a handful of strangers. I mean, if I wanted to write a novel, couldn’t I just have used my imagination? Fiction writers only need to display an aura of knowledge. No one expects fiction writers to achieve expertise in every subject their novels touch on. Also, I had not genuinely considered the risks of sailing. When I had convinced my husband, months before, that this trip to the Caribbean was necessary for the novel I was writing, I’d told him not to worry.
“It’ll be December in the tropics,” I’d said. “December is nowhere near hurricane season.”
I believe that people who write novels or undertake other related marathons have a temperamental attraction to difficulty. Mario Vargas Llosa called the urge to stamp out one’s own version of reality via fiction writing “rebellious.” I also offer up the words “stubborn” and “ambitious.”Our second night at anchor was even worse than the first.
But the reader, too, is ambitious. The reader of novels is also attracted to difficulty. Why else would she put herself in such close proximity to pain, conflict, injustice, or despair—the lifeblood of the novel? Why does the reader agree to intimacy with characters who cannot hold or comfort her? Why even put oneself in such proximity to suspense, a state that is closer to agitation than pleasure?
I believe we read novels because we want to dance with the danger we know is coming to us, and has come to us, collectively, in both culturally specific and universal ways.
We are rehearsing our survival.
On the first day of our course, the instant our little vessel left the protection of the bay, it was met with high winds—face-slapping gusts that burned the eyes and flapped the cheeks. The sea was made of swells that reminded me of big trucks driving under the surface—long, humped motherfuckers, filled with blue energy. Carmen started to whimper. The boat tipped slowly and horrifyingly. Soon we were sitting on the windward side of the cockpit staring down into the ocean, legs braced against the cockpit table.
Carmen cracked jokes for a while, but soon reality set in, and she started scanning the horizon delusionally for a way out. After we summited each crest and surfed down the back of each wave, she’d put her hand to her heart and smile, as if that wave were the last wave. We all took turns at the helm, even Carmen. She bore a corpse-like smile throughout, and when Dave cheered her on, I glimpsed a look of sheer contempt on her face.
Captain Neil made the first mistake. Our first night at sea, we anchored in a current, which caused the bow of the boat to drift into the mooring ball. This meant that every twenty minutes, the aspiring sleeper would awake to what sounded like the hull being rent in two. That’s when I first made friends with Xanax. In the morning, Neil apologized. It turned out, Carmen and Dave, in the V-berth, had the worst of it, and did not sleep at all. The tension between them was palpable.
It didn’t take me long to see the gift I’d been given in Carmen and Dave. My novel was about a couple in a strained marriage trying to work it out at sea. I’d written about a hundred pages of my sea novel already, and Carmen and Dave were supplying me with excellent material. Even the strongest marriage would be occasionally battered by the experience, but Carmen and Dave had some structural problems—what they call, in the boating world, “failure points.”
Let us now revisit my idea that because it wasn’t hurricane season, we would experience only sunny days of amnesia-blue skies. Here’s how that went: Our second night at anchor was even worse than the first. My prone body was flipped back and forth across my berth like a toy. Neil once again promised he’d find a more protected anchorage. On our third night, at 1 am, we were engulfed by a storm. Rain pelted the boat, and wind speed reached 45 knots. We were a fragile vessel tied to safety by a single chain. The sounds were obliterating. The boat’s hull amplified the sounds of the sea—the wind screaming from above, and the stern of the boat slamming down on the water below.
That’s when I realized I had made a tragic mistake. I led a blessed life full of family, friends, and art, but due to my arrogance and my abstract dedication to “difficulty,” I had tried to reach for one more fucking thing.
The feeling of regret was total.
I left my berth. There was Neil, in the companionway, smoking.
“Oh hello,” he said, as if he’d been expecting me. But I’d seen him the second before, looking worriedly at the sky.
I told him, as politely as possible, that I was in over my head. I told him that I would appreciate it if he would just drop me off somewhere ashore in the morning and I’d find my own way back to St. George’s.
Neil nodded. Then stepped backward into the cabin and retrieved a bottle of Captain Morgan’s and a glass. The wind screamed.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “This happens at this time of year.”
“It does?” I said, thinking that a warning might have come in handy before I signed up for the course. “But what if we break loose from the mooring?”
“I would fix it,” he said. “And if I couldn’t fix it, there is a Coast Guard boat right there…” he pointed vaguely toward land, “and help would arrive immediately.”It’s hard to describe all the little ways the trip went wrong.
I sighed. I had absolutely meant what I said. I wanted off the boat. I wanted the conversation to be final. But standing there with Captains Neil and Morgan and their hollow promises, I saw that there was literally nothing to be done right now.
“All right?” he said, pushing the glass toward me. “Drink some rum, go to sleep.” I filled the glass to the top. Then I washed down another Xanax.
I thought, I love you, Xanax. I love your mother and your father and your siblings and their siblings and I love all the things you love, Xanax.
I fell into a deep sleep, and awoke to sunlight, refreshed.
It’s hard to describe all the little ways the trip went wrong. Later, Neil himself would admit this to me, as he smoked another ciggie on the bow. As a group, we did not work well together.
Carmen and I liked each other, but this only made Dave dislike me—I was yet another interloper who adored Carmen. Oleg drove Neil nuts, because he did not listen. And I was dead weight, making everyone nervous with my creepy scrutiny.
We slogged through the rest of the week, stopping occasionally to take the tests for sailing certification at restaurants. Well, everyone else took the tests. I just drank. In the end, I failed two of the three levels of the course.
On our final day of sailing, it was my turn to play “Captain.” The three others had taken a turn, and they looked a little skeptical as I assumed the helm.
Does it surprise you to hear that I was an inept at my duty? As the day went on, I fell into reveries, trying to come up with pretty descriptions of the wind (childish wind… inquisitive wind…), or listening to Carmen chat beside me in the cockpit. Carmen was in a good mood, probably because our course was coming to an end. I’ll admit I did not hear Neil start hinting to me that we needed to tack, which required me to organize the crew. I didn’t notice how close we were to shore.
Neil said, “I didn’t know this boat had wheels.”
Which was his funny way of saying “We’re going to run aground.”
I should have called Ready About! But I didn’t. Instead Neil shouted again: I didn’t know this boat had wheels!
But Carmen didn’t hear Neil, because he was way out on the bow, smoking. So Oleg tried yelling to Carmen, but she couldn’t hear Oleg because of his accent. So Dave tried translating Oleg’s translation, and finally Carmen wheeled on him and said Dave if you say one more word to me, I swear to God that will be the last straw for us.
Then she ran below crying.
When he came back on deck, Dave looked exceptionally humorless. But did we stop and rest?
No, Captain Neil wanted to practice Man Overboard exercises. As he barked at us to prepare, I heard a whole new sound of distress—Dave screaming.
Dave collapsed on the deck, having pulled out his back.
That night, I sat on the bow overlooking our final anchorage, inwardly shaking my head. How could this trip have sucked so bad? Dave was down for the count. Carmen’s mental health was precarious. I was reliving my youth as the triangulating child of a complicated marriage. Captain Neil was acting out his personal dissatisfactions by playing with our lives. And why—for what?
Oleg came up to me on the bow for a moment of uncharacteristic reflection. “Well,” he said, “I did not have very much fun on this trip.”
Difficulty yields meaning, yes. But since all lives meet with difficulty on their own, it bears asking why anyone would search out added opportunities to face obstacles. Anyone involved in free solo climbing, for example, seems to me to be courting difficulty. And maybe I could be accused of the same. But many other actions that no one would pathologize could also be labeled as “courting difficulty”: starting a business, getting married, bearing children. Grief is written into the blueprint of all these things.
In that sense, Rilke was right: Everything is serious.
The critic Geoffrey Sanborn wrote that we read because we want to know “what is coming next and how to bear it.”
I write to participate in this collective fictional investigation. The stakes are high. The results are urgently needed.
I patted Oleg on the back. “It’s OK,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to be fun.”
Sea Wife by Amity Gaige is available via Knopf.