Susan Cole's Holding Fast is a moving account of a sailing marriage, with all the highs and lows of pitching seas, says Julia Jones

Holding Fast
Susan Cole
White Bird Publications, £17.73

This is the record of a marriage more than an account of a cruise; yet sailing couples will understand how the two become intertwined.

Susan met her husband John in 1969 when they were both working in a creative, hippy-ish company in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Their backgrounds were quite different: John having sailed since the age of four and having spent significant periods of his life in Africa.

Susan from a landlocked Jewish immigrant family in Ohio. Both were then married to other people.

Susan tells the story of their first 15 years as liveaboards in Long Island Sound, rowing ashore in the mornings to change into business clothes in the bushes.

Anyone who has grappled with the dying years of ancient wooden boats will know from the day their transom fell off on their first outing, that weeks, months, years of joint hard work is only postponing the inevitable.

Their first home – a 1903 former ferry boat – sunk and they lost everything.

They then bought a 50-ton Colin Archer designed ketch, so heavy as to be almost un-sailable, married and lived on board for a further ten years, working in advertising or market research, far too busy filling holes in the boat and dodging the deck leaks, to follow their dream of sailing away.

Or, more accurately to follow John’s dream of sailing away… Susan was happy when they moved ashore, lived in a charming red brick house with a garden, had a baby, became part of a community.

But she always said Yes to John.

In the mid-1990s they left their comfortable home, took their young daughter Kate out of school and set off from Mystic Seaport, down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, Yucatan, Belize, the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

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Their yacht was a Mason 43 called Laughing Goat.

Theirs was less a journey than a way of living, punctuated with trips back to New York for work or time spent on land with family.

They were not confident sailors and often used a paid captain as an additional crew member when they faced especially challenging passages.

Susan presents herself as constantly wracked with anxiety about the dangers of their life and the effect it was having on Kate’s development.

She uses quotes from John’s log books showing that he shared these worries.

Their relationship was demanding and intense; the sailing was often frightening.

Susan and Kate endured Hurricane Mitch, the second deadliest Atlantic storm on record, alone in Fronteras on board Laughing Goat while John was away on business.

Susan doesn’t make either sailing or marriage sound easy or fun, yet she succeeds in presenting the compulsions of both.

Though she denies that she is adventurous, surely her willingness to say yes and share John’s dream is the essence of adventure.

The later chapters of the book describe a journey of a different sort – cancer – to a destination she cannot share.

She’s a good and perceptive writer. This is a hard-earned, worthwhile human document.

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