Archive for August, 2008

The Elusive Light

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Acorns and crabapples fall. Swamp maples flare vermilion. Clumps of leaves on sugar maples turn red and orange. The plants in the flower beds look strung-out, and the weeds and wild grasses yellow. Weather comes from the north again, instead of the prevailing summer southwesterlies, dropping the temperature into the forties over the last few nights.

When we sailed last week, the water in Buzzards Bay had a chillier edge than a few weeks before, and it’s clear as gin. I scraped barnacles off the hull, releasing all sorts of minuscule creatures for the schools of scup to eat. The upcoming month of  September is typically a terrific sailing month (if the hurricanes steer clear of us), though the water cools off so much, wading or swimming to the boat is better left to Iron Men. I’ll have to employ our wobbly dinghy again, the bathtub-with-oarlocks known as Ringy Dinghy, or risk heart failure.

My brother-in-law Tom Piemontese and I tried to sail out to Cleveland Ledge light last Saturday. The light stands sentinel in the middle of the bay, in the distance an entrancing castle-like structure jutting from the watery wastes. The wind blew at about ten knots, an ideal speed for our catboat, but it blew directly from the direction of the light. Catboats are notorious for their inability to point high, meaning you can’t sail right toward your destination. You have to tack. We sailed far into the shipping channel, closer to the opposite shore than our home waters of Megansett Harbor, out among the big vessels and the oceanic odor of sea creatures and iodine and saltwater, out where the shore becomes a mirage. Tack as we did, our course would only describe a zigzag scribble if we plotted it on a chart. We never got close enough to our destination to call it a success. So we eased the sheet and ran for home under the spanking blue sky, making plans to set out for the light once again before the true cold sets in, unless the wind has other plans in mind, of course.

Seaborn got a mention in the recent WoodenBoat Magazine and an enthusiastic review in The Chronicle Herald of Halifax. 

Passage to the Unknown

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Today marks two momentous events, at least in the world according to Wharf Rat: the release of Seaborn and the eve of our daughter’s move to college.

I’m amazed that they spur such similar feelings inside me: relief, anxiety, excitement, pride, and, yes, a wistfulness or sense of loss. Our daughter is leaving our sheltering cove, headed toward what looks to her like a dauntingly complicated world. My book leaves the coddling hands of its author and editor and publisher to make its way in an exceedingly complicated world. Both are making a passage into the unknown.

I suppose my wish for both of them is the same, too: Embrace the world and let it embrace you.

So I’ll sit here with my dog snoozing at my feet and listen to the whisper of the rain on the leaves and the hiss of the crickets in the woods while I ponder what kind of passage I am now embarking on. 

About Wharf Rat

Monday, August 11th, 2008

(Thanks to Roaring Brook Press for the questionnaire)


I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not exactly a salty place. But saltwater surrounded me anyway in the form of my father, who had served in the Pacific while he was in the Navy during World War II and took us sailing since before I can remember.


Stops along the way

I’ve lived in Lancaster, Newtown, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Denver, Colorado; New York City; and Boston and Harwich (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. I’ve been lucky enough to sail in the Chesapeake, Long Island Sound, to the Elizabeths, the Vineyard, and Nantucket, anchoring in Newport, Block Island, Dering Harbor, Gibson Island, Back Creek, Hadley Harbor, Cuttyhunk, and other waypoints. I’ve fished in the Great South Channel and Nantucket Shoals and hauled lobster traps on the Continental Shelf. I’ve driven across the continental U.S. several times and also spent time in many states including Texas, California, and Wyoming and a number of countries including Denmark, Scotland, England, Switzerland, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Italy. And I’ve driven through Alma, Colorado and Friendship, Maine and a lot of places in between.


Current place of residence

My wife and I live in Franklin, Massachusetts. We have a daughter and a son. Our yellow Lab Salty is 70 in dog years. He still goes running with me.



I graduated from the University of Denver with a B.A. in English, emphasis in creative writing. I graduated from Harwich High School on the Cape and also attended George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania.


Making a living

Writing stories and books is my reason for being, and I’ll be grateful if I can continue to see my chicken scratch transformed into the ordered beauty of printed pages. Working as an advertising copywriter in New York City and Boston and now as a creative director and promotional writer to support myself, my family, and my vocation as a fiction writer has been a necessary evil, but one, in my more lucid moments, I can see as an accomplishment in itself. Working on commercial fishing boats in the years after college taught me that I could stay awake for far greater periods of time than I ever imagined—and helped further open my eyes to the beauty and danger of the ocean that I’d first experienced when I sailed as a kid.


Books published



Roaring Brook Press, 2008

The Sea Singer
Roaring Brook Press, 2005

Salt Luck
Waterfront Books, 2005

A Man of Many Skies
Waterfront Books, 2000

Our Perfect Youth
Waterfront Books, 1998

A Sailor’s Valentine

St. Martin’s Press 1994, Parnassus Imprints, 1999


About Seaborn

One of my greatest fears when I was a deckhand on commercial fishing vessels was to wake up to find myself alone on the boat, the skipper having been washed overboard. The prospect of finding myself alone offshore confronted with searching for the captain and keeping the boat afloat haunted me. When we were steaming out at night and I was off watch, down in the cabin on my bunk, sometimes I would climb back into the pilothouse to check to see if he was still at the wheel.


For Luke Emerson, the sixteen-year-old narrator of Seaborn, finding himself alone on a boat is real. Just before the family’s annual summer sailing trip, Luke’s mother unexpectedly leaves. Luke’s father decides to take the trip anyway. Luke now must face an angry and confused father—and his own turmoil. Then a storm catches them, and Luke’s father is swept overboard. Luke must figure out how to survive on a wrecked sailboat far at sea—alone, unprepared, and terrified.


People have asked me if my stories are autobiographical. Many of my stories spring from personal experience, and if that is the definition of autobiographical, then I would say that a great many of them are. But Seaborn is among many stories of mine that do not confine themselves to lived experience. True, I’ve drawn on my sailing and fishing experience, my love and awe of the sea, to write the novel. And while Luke is not me, I recognize in him many of my quirks and sensibilities when I was his age. But I have been lucky enough never to have faced the trials he must face alone. So in a sense many of my stories, especially Seaborn, are lived inventions, built of the ribs and planks of my life but driven by the sails of my imagination.


A book metamorphoses on its journey from idea and manuscript to galley and printed hardcover. Right now Seaborn is in its final stage called bluelines or blues before it hits the printer. When will we see copies? Soon, so stay tuned.


About The Sea Singer

My sister Alison, a reading tutor, writer, and artist in Philadelphia, said to me several years ago, “We need a good chapter book on Vikings in my class. Why don’t you write one?” Normally I dismiss other people’s suggestions about books that I should write. But this one was like a stone dropped in a pond. Its ripples touched many of the things that meant the most to me: Sailing was one of my great loves. I’d spent years working aboard commercial fishing vessels off Cape Cod. I’d traveled to the Outer Hebrides and discovered that many of the place names there were Norse. When I’d traveled to Denmark, many of the people I met looked to me the way I imagined Vikings would look—and many of the boats still showed the influence of Viking design. All these factors meshed, and eventually The Sea Singer was born.

What book (or event, or person) made the greatest impression on you as a child?

When I was little, reading Harry the Dirty Dog spurred me to go outside and roll in the mud. If that’s not making an impression, I don’t know what is. Later, A Boy Ten Feet Tall made me realize that you could survive the worst that could happen to you. But it was a story my father told that resonates with me to this day. We were on a sailboat, anchored in a cove one rainy night, sitting below in the warm cabin. My two sisters and I were on one berth. My mom and dad were on the opposite berth. By the amber light of the oil lamp, Dad told us a tale about a great white horse that galloped across icebound Nantucket Sound to rescue a young woman. The details of the story are lost to me, but the feeling of the rocking boat, the surrounding darkness, the scratch of the rain and the lap of the water haunt me to this day.

Who in the world (alive or dead) would you most like to meet? 

Going with Mark Twain on a long journey by stagecoach or steamship would give me a chance to listen to his acerbic and humorous commentary. I’d also like to chat with Dylan Thomas at The White Horse Tavern, and ask him what the sea meant to him. Or I’d like to go sailing with E.B. White on his small boat, and not ask any questions at all.

What three books would you take with you on a journey to another world? What movie? Piece of music? Painting?

At first I thought I would take three books that I hadn’t read. But then I thought, If I’m going to another world, wouldn’t I want to share works by writers that have meant a lot to me? There was no guarantee books I hadn’t read would qualify. So I’d take Moby Dick and an anthology of short stories that included works by Twain, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, James Thurber, Isak Dinesen, Jack London, and as many others as possible. I’d also bring a compendium of poetry such as The Norton Anthology. (The three-book limit is maddening, so I know I’d find a way to smuggle copies of the following books at the very least: The American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch, Moominpapa at Sea, Charles Simic’s The World Never Ends, Robert Frost’s poems, The Outermost House, Huckleberry Finn, Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch, Don Quixote, Rabelais, and Dominic by William Steig). For movies, I’d take a DVD with Through a Glass Darkly, Throw Momma from the Train, The Wizard of Oz, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Throw in a CD with Dowland’s lute music, Bach, Mozart, and Leo Kottke’s guitar music. Add a print of Edward Hopper’s The Martha McKean of Wellfleet and Wyeth’s Far Away. I’d also bring a small jackknife with a scrimshaw handle and a piece of wampum. Will all this extra baggage prolong the voyage?

What are you reading now?

Usually I keep several books going at the same time even when I’m not researching a story, and that holds true now. I’m reading Old School by Tobias Wolff (which also happens to be my son’s summer reading book), short stories by Isak Dinesen, Heavy Weather Sailing by Adlard Coles, Sloop by Daniel Robb, Fly-Fishing the 41st by James Prosek, and Monkey Island by Paula Fox. I just finished An Island Summer by Walter Teller. I plan on reading The Off Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley and rereading The Summer Book by Tove Janssen. Speaking of that wonderful Finnish author and artist, if anyone out there knows where I can get my hands on a copy of The Coal Man and Other Stories, I’d push everything else aside and read that right through.

What is your favorite word?

Among the many words I adore such as snowdrift, ocean, cloud, evergreen, sky, horizon, and scribble, the word sailing stands out (as you might imagine). I associate it with some of my fondest early memories of being on the water with my family and with days spent aboard a variety of small boats in the past and present. It also pleases me for its sound and sense—even things as different as a hawk and a huge ferryboat can be said to be sailing. The word carries a wonderful sensation unto itself. Lie on your back in the summer grass and look at the blue sky and a fluff of cloud passing. Are you not sailing even though you’re lying still?

What quality or accomplishment do you most admire in others?

People who maintain an aura of calm good humor in the face of trying circumstances get my vote because I know just how difficult it is to fight against anger, fear, and frustration without showing it.

If you were writing your autobiography, what would be the most exciting (or interesting, or unlikely) chapter?

I would find it hard to keep fiction out of my autobiography. If I allowed it to creep in, I’d tell about the time I sailed single-handed around the world in a jury-rigged dugout canoe, stopping in exotic ports whenever the spirit moved me, and how I learned how to breathe underwater from a passing manta ray. But if I was forced to narrow it to experiences I’ve actually lived, the most exciting chapter would be about the boats and water in my life, from when I was a lad sailing in dinghies to working on commercial fishing vessels—and then onto today, sailing with my wife in our little catboat.

What other career (or task, or adventure) would you like to attempt?

I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of jumping in my truck and driving north as far as the road will take me. Greenland has always had a magnetic effect on me, and someday I’d like to go there to see firsthand what Rockwell Kent painted so beautifully. I’ve also dreamed of the day my wife and I have the luxury of sailing a small boat along the New England coast to Canada. No matter what I did, I’d also find time to write every day.

A Wow! Moment

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

One of the most gratifying aspects of publishing a new book is to hear your publisher volunteer praise for it. Sure, you say, it’s in his best interest to praise the book (and if he didn’t like it, why would he have published it?), but when you know how many other books he publishes and how exacting his standards are, you glow with pride. His words: “I had a Wow! moment  when I first saw it.” Who wouldn’t rise like a trout for “Wow!”?

No matter how many books I publish, I still nearly swoon with giddiness when the publication date nears. People have asked me if we’re going to have a book party the way we did many moons ago when A Sailor’s Valentine came out. No, but we will use it as an excuse to go out to dinner in the North End or have a lobster or sail our little catboat out on a picnic cruise, as long as we can find a day with some lighter airs. Recently the sailing has been very much on the sporty side, not necessarily conducive to offering a toast to Seaborn.

The last time we sailed the wind had to have been gusting to twenty knots with the water surface gray and shivered on top of a three-foot swell, quite wet conditions for a twelve-and-a-half foot boat.  I had two of my brothers-in-law aboard, and we beat out into the southwest wind toward Seal Rocks buoy, the rail buried and seawater crashing over the foredeck. Seal Rocks was boiling with surf, and we tacked long before we reached them considering that the farther we went out toward the open water of Buzzards Bay, the harder the wind blew and the steeper the seas. Across the bay, the sky went charcoal gray with a band of braided silver gray cloud above the distant haze of land.

Still, we sailed for about three hours, tacking back and forth within the relative protection of the inner part of the bay.  We ran back in and beat back out, keeping our eyes out for Halftide Rock, the waves gushing over our bow and soaking us with the thankfully warmish water, the wind intent on trying to seize our sail and knock us down.

I realized that I adore sailing in these conditions. I was thrilled by how well the boat responded. I was enraptured, absorbed in the second-by-second requirements of reacting to the waves and wind and the action of the boat. It helps to have two game hands aboard who can move nimbly and help with the lines (the tiller, even with the sail reefed, fought against me) and take care of the all-important beer-opening (even though the beer was half saltwater within minutes).

But it was a Wow! moment for a different sort , and maybe we’ll opt to celebrate the book’s publication even if we have to toast it with seawater in our champagne.