Nautical theme shines through in Nathaniel Philbrick's stories
In 1992, Pittsburgh native Nathaniel Philbrick was 36 and living on Nantucket, trying to establish himself as a writer. Married with two young children, he knew something was missing in his life.
He found it in sailing, a passion he developed while growing up in Squirrel Hill.
“It was finally getting out there after years of not doing much sailing at all, it sort of flooded through me,” says Philbrick, who appears March 9 at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley to promote the second edition of “Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor, an Island, and the Voyage that Brought a Family Together” (Penguin $17).
“I hadn't realized I missed it so much. That whole year, so much happened to me. I found my voice as a writer and I think it was the act of being out there on the water, there was something to it. It was a catalyst.”
“Second Wind” was first published in 1998, two years before Philbrick won a National Book Award for nonfiction for “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.” That award launched an award-winning literary career that includes the books “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” and “Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition.”
It's no coincidence that most of Philbrick's books have nautical or water-related themes.
“I discovered that no matter what book I write, whether it's about a whaling ship or the Mayflower, it's there,” Philbrick says of water. “Even ‘The Last Stand,' that topic was not only George Custer's and Sitting Bull's character, but there was a riverboat involved, the Far West that was actually built in Pittsburgh and sailed by a Pittsburgher, Grant Marsh.”
Philbrick's love of sailing started with sailing sunfish, small sailboats that are easily navigable by beginners, on Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park in Butler County. When Philbrick was a teenager, he became one of the most accomplished sunfish sailors in the United States, traveling to national and international tournaments. He met his wife through sailing, and transferred a love of the sport to his children.
In “Second Wind,” he recounts some of the adventures he had with his family during sailing outings. Some of the episodes, including one rain-drenched episode on the Connecticut River, go comically awry, but years later those stories have become cherished memories.
“They (his children) look back on it very fondly,” Philbrick says. “If you had gone to Disney World and stayed in a hotel and gotten your Mickey Mouse waffles, you'd probably have a memory of it. But when you suffer a little bit, particularly with your parents and you are young, it's something you don't forget.”
The events in “Second Wind” occurred when Philbrick was 36. The reissue of the book finds his children approaching that age, and Philbrick, 61, is nearly the age of his parents at the time.
“It's really sort of eerie,” he says. “Our son, Nathan, brought that up, saying 'you thought you were so old at 36 and now I'm just five years from that.' It was a really interesting experience reading it again when we were putting together this edition. … It sort of flooded back that, boy, this was a long time ago. I am the age basically of my parents that I describe in this. So goes time.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.