Solo Woman Sailor Faces Stormy Seas, Stormier Emotions


By Lydia Bird

North Point Press

265 pp., $23

Even if you don't know a jib from a gyro, Lydia Bird's account of her 1992 sailing voyage is absorbing. Impatient to begin her transatlantic solo passage aboard the 42-foot sailboat she named Sonnet, Bird casts off in the evening, challenging the darkness, thundersqualls, and her own common sense. Steering sleep-deprived, as she will for the next 5,000 miles, she heads out of Chesapeake Bay toward the Azores off the coast of Africa.

It is not the first time that heart has led head, as she put it. Nor is it the first time she has sailed solo for a long distance. Bird holds the women's record for the Single-handed Transpac Race from San Francisco to the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

At first, "Sonnet" seems like a luck-and-pluck adventure story. The ocean is so treacherous that Bird cannot leave the helm long enough to grab a granola bar or brush her teeth. But as the weather improves, two stories emerge. One is a dazzling technical account of the complex judgments involved in sailing; the other is a reflection on the intricacies of loneliness, longing, and independence.

When Sonnet reaches the Azores, the recurring themes of the story have been established. Although Bird misses her husband, who has taken up a diplomatic post at the American Embassy in Bulgaria, she needs to be sailing. The guilt she feels at spending his salary on her favorite pursuit is somewhat relieved by the thought that she will find a female sailing companion and that they will prove women's ability to handle large sailing craft.

The story deepens as one realizes that no formal competition looms, and the venue in which women's expertise will be confirmed is vague. When Bird makes contact with Monica (a pseudonym), the woman who arranges to sail with her from the Azores to Greece, it is clear that this new crew member will not fulfill Bird's wish to have a sailing soul mate.

For Monica, sailing is a pastime; for Bird, it seems to be an ongoing test of self-worth. Consequently, each little slip-up and difference in opinion is magnified.

Later, when Bird meets Skyli, a more simpatico woman seafarer, Monica is more or less emotionally ostracized, and quits the cruise. Skyli is the more dedicated sailor, yet all is not smooth sailing. In Spain, Bird visits her ailing parents, and is distressed not only by her father's progressive memory loss, but also by her mother's persistent alcoholism. The trip to Greece is haunted by reflections on the inadequacies of crew and parents.

Single-handling again, from Athens to the Macedonian peninsula of Halkidiki, Bird's spirits are buoyed by the thought of joining her husband and cruising the Aegean Sea with him. Yet, as readers will have guessed, Steven is loving, but unable to share Bird's passion for protracted sailing.

"Sonnet" is part of the fast-growing American taste for intensely personal non-fiction narrative. Readers tend to respond as if in conversation with the author, often perceiving the big picture better than the author does. A favorite strategy in fiction, it can be awkward in nonfiction. Where one may be amused or angered by the foibles of fictional characters, one does not try to change them.

But before Bird has docked in the Azores, one wants to urge her to examine her inner motivations for sailing, solo or accompanied. If this trend continues, books will have to be published with their authors' e-mail addresses.

* Mary Warner Marien is a landlubber, who occasionally paddles her canoe in Star Lake, New York.

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