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untitledKathryn Lasky is well known as a prolific author of award-winning and popular children’s books. Her Guardians of Ga’Hoole series became a major motion picture (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoolereleased by Warner Brothers in 2010.  She is not as well-known—but by golly she ought to be—for her sailing memoir, Atlantic Circle, published by Norton in 1985 under her married name, Lasky Knight, and recently released on Kindle. 

I bought the hardcover copy of Atlantic Circle the year it came out, when I was a newly minted lawyer looking for ways to dissolve the extra money I was bringing home from my first real job.  I found the most efficient money-solvent on Earth in a sailboat shop not far from my first apartment. I shudder to think of all the dollars washed down the wakes of various sailboats I have owned since then (four sloops, one cutter, two catboats, and one ketch), thanks in part to Ms. Lasky’s little book.

Atlantic Circle is a wonderfully conversational and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny look at the macho business of crossing an ocean in a small boat, told by the self-confessed “Jewish American Princess” shanghaied aboard a thirty-foot ketch given to her and her husband Chris as a wedding present.  Lasky objects at first to the princess label but concedes that if it means having “money and privilege,” she and her sister fit the term growing up. “We were indulged but not spoiled,” she says. “There is a difference, I think.” In reading Lasky’s story, the difference couldn’t be more apparent. Clearly, Christopher Knight found himself a longsuffering pearl of a girl. In fact, after reading about her seventy-year-old mother Hortense, green with seasickness but soldiering on after joining her daughter for a rough European leg of the voyage, one can scarcely doubt that this strength of character runs in the family.

Those looking for another overblown installment in the sailing-adventure genre will not find one here, thank God. Lasky spends just enough time describing precipitous breaking waves, purple squalls, and howling gales to give the reader a feel for the experience and no more. Instead, we are invited on long meanders through the author’s past before joining her inward journey as the often terrified, sometimes despondent, but always faithful crew. Speaking to us from a windswept deck in the North Sea or from the bunk where the author often hunkered, below, her writing sparkles throughout. The reader gets the sense of sitting down for a chat about life, good food, and the pursuit of happiness with a thoughtful, wise and witty friend.

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The author, then.

The story begins with what Lasky describes as “the bargain in the sky.” While riding along and imagining a fiery death in the small plane flown by Chris as he barnstorms the rocky coast of Maine, Lasky agrees to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat if Chris will give up flying. A bargain is struck, and the die is cast.

Before we weigh anchor with the newlyweds, we get a closer look at the families on both sides of the aisle and the “fundamental differences” between the two. While Chris and his New England kin are the saltiest of salty dogs, Kathy describes herself as “strictly an ‘amber waves of grain’ sort.” Her father dabbled in racing Thistles on a lake in the Midwest, but only briefly. When her mother fell during a sail change and her father started yelling encouragement, Kathy remembers her mother, “still bleeding,” saying in a “dangerously sweet voice,” “Marven, you know what you can do with your goddamn spinnaker?”

The first leg of the voyage follows the shorter but more arduous northern Atlantic route to Europe from New England—the same one the Titanic failed to complete coming the other way. This route is recommended for August departures from the U.S. to ensure good weather and westerly winds in the higher latitudes, but Lasky and her husband leave in June when, predictably, they encounter fog, cold, and two prolonged spells of winds above forty knots right on the nose. But with youth, luck, pluck, and love on their side, somehow they make it all work.

An endearing quirkiness comes across in photos of Lasky as a gangly young bride, girded for battle in a wool watch cap and weathers against a background of foggy, bleak seas, fearing death no less than she did in the air but sticking to the “bargain” and managing a pitiable, half-hearted smile for the camera. These images are all the more poignant after you have read about her as the girl who took water ballet in college and “eventually became the lead dolphin in a group called The Wet Dreams.” There is nothing about this woman that was made for a rugged life on the ocean, as she forlornly admits. And yet she goes. Along the way, despite an often vulnerable goofiness (she packs—and eats—dozens of bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies; she falls overboard in the canals of Europe; she hoists a storm jib upside down in a gale; she tosses her cookies and her favorite meal of the trip into the Med), Lasky’s grit and keen intellect always shine through.

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The author, now.

Atlantic Circle was published before the Internet age, and the few reviews recently posted on Amazon don’t reflect this book’s enthusiastic audience at the time of its release. Judging from the snarkier comments, some readers have missed the point in complaining that the story does not move quickly in a straight line to the next wave, the next storm, the next port, and so forth. This is not fast food for the drive-through reader but a luxurious feast for the literary gourmand. It’s less about what happens next and more about why, exactly, two perfectly sane, healthy young people with careers, loving families, and lots to do right at home would say goodbye to all that for the desolation of the open ocean. The question begs for an answer, and while Lasky is never confident she knows what it is, she treats us to an intimate and often humorous look at her struggle to find one while keeping her sanity, her marriage, and her vessel intact. Somehow she manages to succeed in the end, discovering peace and balance at the water’s edge. We are richly rewarded by her journey.