I have a big problem with most sailing books and movies. There’s almost always a huge disconnect with how great sailing is and how its portrayal always falls woefully short. It seems the authors and directors feel the need to make sailing something other than it is to keep it interesting. Blasphemes!
So I wasn’t expecting much from Before the Wind (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) by Jim Lynch. But hey, he was coming to speak at CYC-Seattle and I’d get a chance to meet the author and maybe get some inspiration for my own writing. Furthermore, he was a real Northwest sailor. So, I started to read the book and was about halfway through, enough to know the book was a really good read, by the time of the CYC engagement.
After having the great pleasure of chatting with Lynch, and finishing the book a couple weeks later, my faith in sailing as the best story setting, and my eagerness to tackle fiction, were restored. For any sailor in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a must read. For sailors elsewhere, it’s highly recommended. Hey, even the New York Times had nice things to say about it.
The story revolves around a Seattle boat designing and building family, one which could be mistaken for the Buchans, particularly if the reader is not paying close attention. It is definitely not the Buchans, though it’s safe to say that there are some Buchan elements to the story. (An almost superhuman ability to find wind, for example) At a reading a few months ago, Lynch saw Bill Buchan in the audience, and thought “Uh oh,” but Bill came up after and told Lynch he remembered selling Lynch’s father a boat back in the day.
This Johannssen family lures you into their world. Our hero Josh is a multi-skilled boatyard rat who’s more interested in helping out the characters at the local cheap marina than in making money or participating in the family business, which, incidentally, is headed for Davy Jones’ Locker. He’s got a brother who really wants to separate from the family, a dad who can’t quite grasp where life went wrong (or is going) and a mother who’s too smart for her own good and a sister who is special in many ways (that wind finding thing, for one) I wasn’t that thrilled with all the characters until the Swiftsure race.
Here’s where Lynch does a neat little course change. Where you would expect it to be all about the race, there come some serious family dynamics. I won’t say more, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. And in another twist, it doesn’t end with the end of the race.
As a racer I of course kept finding problems with the sailing part of things (they only sailed with 6 family members (one an old man) on a competitive 39-footer?), but as a writer I get it (any non-family members on board would have simply ruined it.) I would have liked to hear more about how they prepped the boat and crew for the race. And then there’s a handicap rating issue that never gets resolved, at least to my satisfaction. What rating issue ever does?
Lynch does a really good job of introducing the sport to his today’s non-sailing readers. In decades and centuries past, writers like Patrick O’Brien could get away with really detailed, esoteric descriptions of what goes on on a sailing ship. Lynch thankfully doesn’t go there, but he does make the non-sailor reach a little bit.
Even though Before the Wind’s story arc is structured around Swiftsure, I wouldn’t call it a book about racing. In fact, the racing seemed almost incidental much of the time and there was enough of the rest of the waterfront, especially the boatyard, to draw in cruisers as well.
Lynch’s fondness for that sailing world comes through. The Johannssens are just a family who love sailing, but stuck dealing with the vicissitudes of rich people and vagaries of the sport and even the winds that drive it. The story isn’t driven by ambition or money, it’s a people tale.
A really wonderful thread was the mother’s fascination with Albert Einstein’s sailing. For me it was refreshing to hear that Einstein found our little sport confounding at times. I never realized how much Einstein enjoyed sailing, but it makes sense.
As a reader you’ll probably pick one of the sailing characters to identify with and track. Within this family there are diverse enough personalities there are several to choose from. I went with the obvious choice; the narrator and central character Josh who spends a little too much time worrying about others and not enough helping himself. His quest for a soul mate in the modern online dating world is precious.
If you’re looking for a simple, raucous sailing tale, this is not it. It’s mostly about feelings and family, growing up and growing old.
And as a Salish Sea sailor, you’ll feel warm and cozy in the setting. Lynch doesn’t spend a lot of time in description, but for those of use here with moss behind our ears, it’s enough. There are also some very familiar places, even if they come with different names. A yard on the Ship Canal comes to mind, and West Bay Marina is unmistakable.
No spoiler alerts necessary. I won’t write about the ending of the story other than to say it’s satisfying. I know where my buddy Josh is headed. Moreover, Lynch showed me once again what an effective setting sailing is for people stories. But now I’ll have to track down his other books at the library and give them a read.
Chances are Lynch will come up with another sailing book at some point. During the Q and A at CYC he indicated his interests are elsewhere now. But if he’s anything like his characters, once that saltwater enters the bloodstream it’s really hard to get rid of.