Book Review: Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland

I got married this past weekend at a yacht club on an island in Maine. The ceremony was beautiful—we were married on a pier overlooking the water, with white lights trellised up the dock and around the railings. Our photographer snapped photos of us on the float, in a rowboat, and on my husband’s father’s boat.

Yep, he has a boat. And does charters too, by the way, and is just fantastic at them. Check him out at My husband’s uncle also does charters and lobster tours—I was lucky enough to go on one once—where he takes people on his boat and tells them about the lobster industry. My father-in-law tells his clients about the history of the bay, including where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived on Ragged Island, and my uncle-in-law tells his clients about the water chemistry and the lobstering industry, how it works and operates.

What I mean to say is that I married into a family of sailors and boaters, a family with a mutant blood composition that’s made of red blood cells and ocean water instead of plasma. For some reason, these ocean-people decided to like me and welcome me into their family, for which I will be forever grateful.

But what they don’t know is that I’ve got some ocean water in my blood, too. I have no idea how it got there—if anything, it should be regular blood and plasma, or perhaps rain water, if it’s special at all. But the salt water is in there, pumping through my veins, and it always has been.

When I was little, I loved being on the ocean. Not just going to the ocean to play in the sand and waves, but to be there. Any ocean-lover will understand what I’m saying. It’s not the sand, or the waves, or the water. Well, not all of it, not exactly. It’s the smell, too, and how the salt in the air curls your hair at the edges, and lightens the load you’re carrying. A lot of things can be made easier to bear by looking out at the ocean. It reminds you of how small you are, and for some reason, that feeling is comforting. And as if by magic, whatever you’re carrying on your shoulders seems to lift up a bit. Salt makes things float, after all, and the ocean air is full of it.

Yet there are some out there who do not understand this feeling. My father, for example, is one of them.

Enter Theo Dorgan’s travel memoir Sailing For Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. The front cover says it well—a quote from Doris Lessing reads, “A book for everyone.” And a book for everyone it is, especially if you aren’t sure why people go so batty over the coast. Dorgan, in poetic, exacting prose, describes it well from a sailing vantage point:

“Most people never venture on the sea. Many venture into it, at the coastal margins, but never travel on it or through it; millions never lay eyes on the sea in the course of their lives. Yet the sea is the birthplace of our weather, the reservoir for our water and hence, by the magic of convection and rain, our food. It is our dumping ground, our highway to the growth of empires, our place of dreaming and nightmare, our most reached-for metaphor. It is the place whose seeming emptiness we have always regarded as a repository meaning: ‘They that go down the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.’”

While you won’t find swashbuckling action in Dorgan’s memoir, there’s a lyrical flow to the words that hooks the reader and makes them keep along for the story. Though Dorgan’s boat, Spirit, never breaks down, and the crew does not encounter large storms, and though everyone is quite safe during the trip—readers are compelled to keep turning the pages.

This is, in part, because of Dorgan’s deeply personal reflections about the ocean, sailing, and trip from Antigua to Ireland. During his voyage, Dorgan contemplates life, death, writing… and more. It is through his eyes that readers are taken on a journey that seems to touch their very souls—even if they’ve never had an experience like Dorgan. He explains how sailors come to think of their boat as part of them, an extension of humanity, and this mentality is realized throughout his work.

Also compelling is Dorgan’s rebellious, “stick-it-to-the-man” mindset when it comes to sailing (and some other things). His underdog point of view makes his story compelling and relatable for a wide audience. Reading his memoir, gone is the notion that sailing is only for those with money, or that it is pretentious in any way. For example, in just one of many passages in this book, the crew of a large, luxurious ship (the Velsheda) commits a faux pas by deciding to wash the ship’s dust off with previous water. As the dust is not harmful to the ship, and with water as a scarce resource, the crew is being wasteful and arrogant. Dorgan and his sailing mates pause to watch and are disgusted at the vanity they see. They respond to a passerby’s question regarding the majesty of the ship, which Dorgan chronicles with scathing and humorous accuracy:

“Somebody passing by stops, says she’s [Velsheda’s] a beautiful boat, isn’t she? Zaf, with magnificent casualness, deliberately misunderstands him: ‘Yes,’ he says, and—gesturing to Velsheda—I like her dinghy.’ I manage to keep a straight face, but only just.”

It is this kind of self-assured, underdog humor that endears Dorgan and his crew to the reader, and the memoir is full of similar scenes. From evading the judgment of Northern Irish well-to-dos with “the look of lawyers and medical professionals about them,” to painting their boat in Horta, Sailing For Home is a miraculously good read that will bring the pleasure and peace of the ocean right to its readers, which should be everyone—regardless of whether your blood includes plasma or salt water.

See my review on Goodreads!

Quotes from: Dorgan, Theo. Sailing for Home: A Voyage from Antigua to Ireland. Dedalus Press, 2010.

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