Life on the Water

issue 03 | fall 2015
First Person - Life on the Water - Fall 2015

Abbe Wright ’07 spent four days on the Isaac H. Evans, a historic schooner, writing about her relationship with her father. Her dad died on Oct. 12, 2015.

I get my sea legs back almost instantly. Despite not being on a sailboat for nearly four years, my muscle memory kicks in. Before I fully taste the salty tang of the ocean in the back of my throat and before my eyes adjust to the stinging wind, it’s my legs that seamlessly adapt to the ebb and flow of the ocean’s rocking. “

Join us for Writing on a Windjammer,” read the ad I’d come across on Twitter. Taught by fellow Denison alumna and memoirist Pam Houston ’83, the four-day course on a trip in early October offered writing instruction by Houston aboard the historic schooner Isaac H. Evans, all while sailing along the rocky coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay. It seemed serendipitous that I’d stumbled upon it, as if a force larger than me had stopped me midscroll.

Despite my hiatus, I’ve always been a sailor. My dad taught me his beloved hobby when I was 7, resting my small hand atop his calloused one to feel his slight movements on the hand-carved tiller. He’d enrolled both my brother and me in sailing school one summer, and though my brother lost interest quickly, there seemed to be a gravitational pull inside me toward the water, one that matched my dad’s. It was as if, like being tall or having wavy hair, a love of sailing was a gene my father had passed on to me.

My father was diagnosed with cancer five days before Christmas in 2011, ironically a month after purchasing the boat on which he’d planned to retire. In a mere matter of months, I watched my father deteriorate from the man who had singlehandedly navigated his new toy up the coastline from Virginia, to a ghost of his former self, unable to lift his arms above his head, never mind haul a mainsail up the mast. And even though we had hopes that the clinical trial would work and my dad would return to his rightful place on the water, the boat remained on the hard, and he never again steered its tiller.

While I’d sailed without my dad many times—racing Lasers at sleep-away camp and competing in regattas as the captain of Denison’s sailing team—I suddenly didn’t feel right stepping onto a deck without him, knowing how much he’d love to be there with me. While my father’s diagnosis sidelined him from his sport, it sparked in me a need to know more about him, his life, his passions—and what he’d passed on to me—before he was gone. So my dad and I had embarked on a storytelling mission, and I began to furiously write what has developed into a memoir, a braided narrative of my dad’s and my life stories, linked by our love of sailing. And now I figure the Isaac H. Evans is undoubtedly the place to work on it.

The schooner creaks and groans as she leaves her resting place on the shore. Lines are released and hit the deck with a heavy thud, the reverberations of which I can feel on the balls of my feet, cloaked in well-worn deck shoes. The captain points the bow toward the break in the jetty, and I separate myself from the chatty conversations of the other writers in our group, heading to the bowsprit to be alone. It’s the first time I’ve been on a boat since my dad was diagnosed, and as the wind whips my face, I feel my eyes prick with tears. I want him to be here so badly, healthy and ready to spring into action alongside me, like we had done for so many years before.

Instead, as I hear the captain call for volunteers to raise the mainsail, I grasp the mainsheet, my long arms readily pulling the line hand over hand, raising the canvas above our heads. The wind on my face feels too good to ignore, and in spite of myself, I grin, knowing that if he were on the water with me now, my dad would be grinning too.

Abbe Wright ’07, a former Denison Magazine intern, is the editor at, with Penguin Random House. She is working on her forthcoming memoir, Adjust Your Sails.

Published November 2015
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