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Walking the Plank: Nathaniel Philbrick

We’re a down-to-earth group here at Soundings, and generally not given to idolatry of any sort. However, if we had to choose heroes, Nathaniel Philbrick would definitely be one.

Photo by Cary Hazlegrove

Philbrick grew up in Pittsburgh, far from the sea that has floated so many of his accomplishments. Brown University’s first Inter-Collegiate All-American sailor in 1978, he went on to win the Sunfish North Americans. He earned a graduate degree in American literature at Duke University, then worked as an editor at Sailing World magazine for four years. Philbrick also wrote and edited several sailing books, including the legendary (at least in our circles) Yaahting: A Parody.

Philbrick published Away Off Shore, a history of Nantucket, in 1994. But as he described in an interview with the Paris Review in 2013, he did not hit his stride until the publication of In the Heart of the Sea in 2000, when he was 42. The enthralling tale of the whaleship Essex’s disastrous last voyage — whose history was a major influence on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick — won the National Book Award and became a bestseller. (It’s coming to movie theaters in December, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth.)

Since then, Philbrick has published a slew of bestselling and award-winning books, including Mayflower, Last Stand, Why Read Moby-Dick? and Bunker Hill. For his ability to breathe thrilling life into history — as well as his rare modesty, charm and generosity — Philbrick is a hero worth having.

First memory of being on a boat: Lying amid the moldy life jackets stored under the deck of my grandparents’ Beetle Cat.

First boat you owned: A Sunfish named Rosebud. I had just seen Citizen Kane.

Last or current boat: Phebe, a 38-foot cold-molded centerboard yawl designed by Bruce Kirby and built by Damian McLaughlin. She draws 3 feet, has 6 feet of standing headroom and can sail the 7-mile length of Nantucket Harbor to Wauwinet in a dead low tide.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: Phebe, without a doubt, although the Beetle Cat and Sunfish were my first loves.

Your dream boat: McLaughlin is building us a cold-molded Haven 12½ — a Joel White variation on a Herreshoff 12½ that has a centerboard. I love the Beetle Cat, but I’m reaching the age when my back requires a seat of some sort.

Most rewarding professional experience: Winning the National Book Award was pretty cool, but probably the most rewarding professional experience I have had is ongoing: Whenever I finish a chapter, I read it to my wife, Melissa, and that editorial/matrimonial relationship is special.

Scariest adventure aboard: A practice race on Lake Michigan during the first U.S. Youth Championships in 1973. I was about to turn 17, weighed about 120 pounds and was sailing a full-sail Laser for the first time when a thunderstorm went through the fleet and capsized every boat in sight. Big waves, a lot of lightning and a terrifying lee shore. I finished absolutely dead last in that historic regatta, and a sailing magazine that shall not be named had the temerity to publish all — I mean all — the results.

Most memorable experience aboard: Winning the 1978 Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, Rhode Island, was the highlight of my sailing life. It’s been downhill ever since.

Longest time you’ve spent aboard: I’ve never been aboard a boat for longer than a week. Once my writing life slows down a bit, I hope to cruise Phebe up to Maine and down to Key West. I love to cruise, but I also like to stay in sight of land.

Favorite destination so far: Coskata Pond at the Head of Harbor on Nantucket is one of my favorite places in the world. My idea of a great cruise is sailing Phebe up to Coskata on a Saturday morning, then sailing back to the mooring late Sunday afternoon.

Favorite nautical book: Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Around the World Alone. He’s the reason I own a yawl.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: I was an honorary chair of the campaign to restore the Charles W. Morgan, and one of the greatest thrills of my life was to sail aboard that vessel while she was surrounded by a bunch of whales off Provincetown, Massachusetts. Mystic Seaport is truly America’s maritime museum.

Favorite quote about the sea: Although I now live on Nantucket, I grew up sailing Sunfish on a usually windless lake outside Pittsburgh, and as an 18-year-old I was absolutely blown away by Herman Melville’s riff in “The Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick: “But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.