When he wasn't in the laboratory, Einstein could often be found lounging on one of his boats. When he wasn't in the laboratory, Einstein could often be found lounging on one of his boats. When he wasn't in the laboratory, Einstein could often be found lounging on one of his boats. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Albert Einstein loved sailing (but didn't even know how to swim)

The beloved genius was good at lots of things, but apparently not the best at one of his favorite hobbies.

"Einstein wasn't a great sailor, probably not even a mediocre one."

That's the opening line of "Before the Wind," a new novel by Seattle-based writer Jim Lynch. "The book is loosely about sailing, family, online dating and Albert Einstein," Lynch told From The Grapevine when we reached him by phone recently.

It's no surprise Einstein is inspiring modern-day novelists. "The interest in Einstein does not fade into history," said Professor Hanoch Gutfreund of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where Einstein's archives are kept. "If anything, the interest in Einstein increases with time. It's greater now."

For Einstein, sailing was an escape. "He used to sail as a way to think. I think he loved the solitude of it, the serenity of it." Lynch explained. "He liked to go out during doldrums, and jot down ideas about the universe."

As Walter Isaacson writes in his seminal biography of the Nobel Prize winner: "He usually went out on his own, aimlessly and often carelessly. 'Frequently he would go all day long, just drifting around,' remembered a member of the local yacht club who went to retrieve him on more than one occasion. 'He apparently was just out there meditating'."

The irony, however, was that Einstein wasn't exactly a genius when it came to sailing. "Despite sailing for over half a century, Einstein was not a very accomplished sailor," wrote Philip R. Devlin. "According to his biographers, he would lose his direction, his mast would often fall down, and he frequently ran aground and had near-collisions with other vessels."

What's more, Einstein rarely wore a life vest and could not even swim. This meant he was constantly having to be rescued – sometimes by kids and other times by nearby boaters. There's a famous New York Times headline that read: "Relative Tide and Sand Bars Trap Einstein." Another headline read: "At relativity, a genius; as a sailor, not so much: Recalling Einstein’s summer of 1939."

"There's lots of stories of him being towed back in," Lynch told us. "I found ample amusement in the fact that the genius of physics is a little bit confounded by the physics of sailing."

Lynch continued: "He was notorious for capsizing all the time when he was up on the Long Island Sound and on lakes in New York and New Jersey. His doctor, at one point, said he didn't think sailing was good for his heart, but Einstein kept sailing. The doctor was trying to talk him out of smoking and sailing, and he continued to do both, as I recall."

Albert wasn't the only Einstein who had a wobbly seaside reputation. Lynch recalled hearing a story about Hans Einstein, Albert's son. "Everybody felt it was too dangerous to go sailing in the bay with Hans. It was like a family love for a sport that they didn't do kind of well. Which is kind of endearing."

But none of that mattered to Einstein. He had his own view of the world, and that included wanting to sail its waterways.

When Einstein turned 50, the city of Berlin honored its most famous citizen with a lake house where Einstein could enjoy his favorite pastime. "It's the ideal residence for a person of creative intellect and a man fond of sailing," a relative noted. Einstein agreed, writing to his sister that, "The sailboat, the sweeping view, the solitary fall walks, the relative quiet – it is paradise."

As Lynch writes of Einstein in his book: "He didn't race or cruise, but he understood the pleasing mix of action and inaction and the thrill of a sunset sail into the spangled bliss."


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