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Waterlines: On Writing and Sailing

Shipbuilding, etching by Winslow Homer
Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images
Winslow Homer, Ship-building, Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts, 1873

I haven’t always been fond of sailing boats. Not that I hated them, I was indifferent. When I wandered around a port, my gaze would rove over the yachts, their tall masts and their sets of white sails. I loved the seaside only for the beaches, the blue skies, salt water, and the whiff of vacations. The horizon was a distant frontier, a line that held little promise other than sunsets.

I was born in Paris. A city-dweller, a landlubber. I relished the bright lights and noise. My earliest memories of sailing are gray, rainy, and cold. When I was a boy, my grandfather used to take my brother and me to a sailing club near Saint-Malo. We’d clamber into a tiny single-seater shell fitted with a rudder, a mast, and an almost square sail, and we’d spend hours on the water trying to obey the instructors’ yelled commands. I was freezing cold, I understood nothing about the wind, nothing of the subtle techniques for maneuvering between the waves and the currents. Sailing didn’t interest me at all.

But the sea is everywhere, including in fiction. As an adolescent, I devoured Jack London, Hemingway, Conrad, Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Through their stories, I sailed on The Cruise of the Snark, fished for giant marlin, hunted sperm whales, and explored the ocean depths. I discovered I was a sailor even before returning to the water. The writers who took to the sea were my role models. I went back to it to experience similar adventures for myself.

One July day, I embarked on a small sailing boat with some high-school friends. We set out from Lorient, in southern Brittany, and sailed up to the western tip, below the Bay of Brest. We moored in the middle of the Glénan Islands, slept at Concarneau, and cruised past the Eckmühl lighthouse. As we racked up the miles, I tried to make this universe—so well described in my bedside books—my own. The spray, the swell, and the tides. The coast sharply delineated and perilous. The mesmerizing open sea with its shifting moods. And, of course, the boat. Its hull, its rigging, and its sails that took us everywhere—providing there was a breeze.

I came back changed, passionate, obsessed. In the following years, I took every opportunity to go sailing. One boat after another, each bigger, faster, more sophisticated. I hired yachts to sail along Brittany’s Emerald Coast, explore the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey, and discover the Mediterranean. As I became more experienced, I pushed farther and farther. The voyages grew longer, the Earth disappeared. I crossed the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, sailed to the Canary Islands from Portugal, and navigated the Atlantic, reaching the West Indies. And the more captivated I was by the sea, the more fascinated I became with the boats that enabled me to move over it.

At the age of twenty-two, I enrolled for a master’s degree in naval architecture at the University of Southampton, in England. My passion had become my vocation. Armed with my degree, I started working for a shipyard in the south of France. There was only a wooden door between the design office where I sat and the workshops where some thirty craftsmen were building huge, powerful catamarans. I simply had to walk a few yards to see our calculations and drawings coming to life in the sheds. I spent hours and hours gazing at the fiberglass hulls, their streamlined beauty, and their reinforced structure capable of withstanding the constant onslaught of the powerful swell.

At the same time, I wrote short stories, travel tales, and novellas that sat gathering dust on my shelves. I embraced the pen as I’d once done the sea, full of hope and dreams. I gradually felt confident enough to show my work to people, asking everyone for advice and ways to improve my writing. My approach was very similar to how I saw my day job at the shipyard: I sought to construct, to build a novel that could be published one day. Subconsciously, my two passions were already nurturing each other.

A boat, like a piece of writing, is first of all conceived as a structure. Whether it is a cargo ship, an ocean liner, a ferry, or a pleasure boat, each has a primary function, a part to play. Its purpose defines its size, its shape, and its overall dimensions. When I write, I proceed in the same manner. The form—short story, novel—must be fitting for the story I want to tell. Its architecture underpins the words. It is with this specific aim that I divide it up and seek a balance. Each part, each chapter, has its own function. Just as the engine powers the boat, as the bow cleaves through the waves, and the keel ensures the stability, even the shortest paragraph fulfils a certain purpose. In my case, the engineer endows the writer with a desire for efficiency.

After several years’ work, my first novel, Schrödinger’s Dog, was published in France, in 2018. Although that book is not about boats, the sea is ever-present in it. As I write, I’m putting the finishing touches to my second novel, which is set in a shipyard.

It is not always easy to analyze the connections between our passions and to understand the logic, the link, between our different activities. But I’ve always written as a means of sailing away, escaping, and taking the reader with me if I can. Boats, like books, are a means of transport. They allow us to travel and discover worlds whose existence we hadn’t suspected. Because they make us live, they teach us self-knowledge and help forge the individuals we become. I know I’ve loved a novel when, on closing it, I have the distinct feeling that I’m someone different. That I’ve been somewhere new. Great works are huge sailing boats that transport us slowly from one shore to the other, enabling us to develop.

Boats tell us stories, too. The stories of the people who designed and built them, of those who have sailed them down rivers and across the seas. They tell of the ocean, its seascapes, and the storms the sailors have battled. The English refer to ships as she. A boat isn’t an object but a being in its own right. The experience of sailing at night is similar to the intimacy of writing. Because there is the same abandon, a complete relinquishment: sailing at night is to allow yourself to surrender, to let yourself go. It’s to have absolute faith in your boat, which, like the writer’s pen, sometimes makes you think that it is the one deciding which route to take. But you have to stay on course. Know how to maneuver under a moonless sky that merges with the sea and not allow yourself to be intoxicated by the sensation of flying. When the powerful swell tosses the hull, raises it up, and sweeps it along in eddies of foam. When the words seem to align themselves so perfectly that you almost forget what you are writing about. Then you have to keep your eyes on the faint light coming from the compass. It indicates the direction. The end point that should never be lost from sight.

But for this naval architect, the boat, above all, is a novel whose ending he will not write. A story that will soon be out of his hands. The architect writes only the first crucial, fundamental chapter: the birth. The day soon comes when he will have to watch it sail over the horizon. That is what I felt on seeing Schrödinger’s Dog on the shelves of a bookstore for the first time. That day, I knew deep down that it was no longer mine. I had spent hundreds of hours building that novel, dreaming it, conceiving it, putting it down on paper, and now it was going to live a life beyond my control. An existence in the hands of others—the readers, who would likely always remain unknown to me. It was terrifying and fascinating.

And the longer I looked at it, alone, lost amid the ocean of books on the shelves, the more it seemed like a message in a bottle, or like a boat being swept out to sea.


This essay was translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.