Books

story behind the book | kate tuttle

A time when he was in need of a sea change

david wilson for the boston globe

At 36, Nathaniel Philbrick found himself lost at sea. Ten years after stepping back from his journalism career to care for his children, Philbrick had an enviable life on Nantucket with a loving, healthy family; still, he felt “a sort of pent-up professional frustration. All my friends were in the middle of careers,” he said. “As a writer, I didn’t really know what to write about.”

So Philbrick took to the water. A lifelong sailor who had won the Sunfish North American Championship at 22, he decided to spend the year training again for the same race, a process he describes in “Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor, an Island, and the Voyage That Brought a Family Together.” The book, which was originally published in 1998, comes out this month in a new edition.

Rereading the book for its audio version, Philbrick said, “was kind of a nostalgic rush. It was a different time — before cellphones, the Internet, all of that. Nantucket was a different place.” And the author was, in some ways, a different man.

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“It was a really pivotal year for me,” Philbrick said, “the year I kind of discovered my voice as a historian.” At the time, sailing and writing seemed like different activities, but looking back, he said, “I think they’re inextricably entwined. There’s been a maritime bent about everything I’ve written as a historian. I almost needed to get back on the water to find my way into the archives.”

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Now 61, Philbrick sounds a wry note when confronted with his earlier sense of midlife crisis. “When I look back now, I think, ‘Look at the energy you had to do all that’,” he said. “’What were you thinking? Your whole life was before you!’ ”

“I was talking with my wife today and she said, “None of us had a clue it was all going to work out’,” Philbrick said. “Fortunately for all concerned, it really did go somewhere.”

Philbrick will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Harvard Coop.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.