Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father by Brian Harvey

I consider myself an armchair sailor. I have been on a small sailboat (once, on Lake Ontario) but I enjoy reading about the travels of others, whether fiction or fact, small craft or large, alone or with a crew. So it was with great eagerness that approached Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father by Brian Harvey (2019, ECW Press). The cover alone was enough to entice me: a watercolour print on textured paper that suited the subject matter perfectly. Kudos to cover designer David A. Gee.

Sea Trial involves two storylines: the sailing of the author along with his wife (and their Schnauzer Charley) aboard their boat Vera around Vancouver Island, and the delving into the files from a malpractice suit against the author’s late father. So “trial” takes on two meanings: the trial of circumnavigating Vancouver Island (not as easy as you might think) and the trial of going through his father’s papers regarding his legal case. The author has an ardent desire to do both, so why not do both at the same time? It’s an inspired idea, and it works, particularly in the way Mr. Harvey unreels each storyline, then weaving them together in a logical way since the sailing of Vera takes precedence and a lot of patience so he can only scrutinize his father’s copious notes when safely anchored.

I wasn’t interested in judgment — of him or his accusers — and I decided right then that if I looked any further into this story, it wouldn’t be with any romantic idea of exoneration. There had been no findings in the hydrocephalus case, no assessment of fault, only accusations, discovery, a few days of trial, and the huge settlement. It was over a long time ago. Nobody cared about it anymore. But there was a detective story in this box, even if the only person interested in the outcome was me. Who was this man who came to the breakfast table with blood spatters on his glasses, who never took holidays, who lugged his camera into operating rooms, who exhorted his children in their projects, “Do a job!” (And, I have to add, who took his sons in a nineteen-foot sailboat to certain death in Haro Strait?) After death comes to me, will my own children unearth a summary of my life like this one? Not a chance. Most people, when their parents die, have to do their reconstructive work using letters, snapshots, mementoes. How many people get the chance to really understand what a parent actually did when they left the house each morning? How many people get the answers to family mysteries neatly packaged in a single cardboard box? Even if, as it turned out for me, it’s not the answers they’re expecting?

The fascinating thing about sailing stories (and Sea Trial is no exception) is the different characters one meets at every port and anchorage. Sailors have their own fraternity and it’s only neighbourly to say hello or knock on the hull of the boat anchored next door and share a meal or a drink or two. This happens quite often throughout Sea Trial and it makes for a nice diversion from the weighty legal matters Mr. Harvey must sift through. Yet the reader is just as eager to get through the files as the author is, for we want to know the outcome, as we would with any trial, whether civil or criminal. It’s irresistible.

There are also various places along the shores of Vancouver Island that Mr. Harvey colourfully describes for us, so much so that by the time the trip was over, we feel as if we have circumnavigated the Island along with him. There are abandoned Indigenous and settler communities, salmon farms (he even tours a fish processing plant), old mills and popular tourist areas like Hot Springs Cove. Thankfully, there is a map of the Island at the front of the book with major locations of interest pointed out. It would have been nice to have had some photographs to accompany the narrative, but it appears this was not to be.

Semi-psychological and cathartic at the same time, Sea Trial was a highly enjoyable read. Mr. Harvey, through his writing and interactions with others, comes across  as the type of person one would like as their neighbour (on land or sea) and we easily sympathize with both his father and the young child (“Billy”) who was born with so many problems that it made treatment difficult, to say the least. This was in the time before CT scans, so lumbar punctures were the order of the day. It was an unadvised lumbar puncture (performed by another doctor while they awaited Dr. Harvey’s arrival) that was the at the core of the malpractice suit.

If you are a sailing enthusiast (armchair or otherwise) then Sea Trial deserves a place on your shelf alongside Joshua Slocum, Henry Dana Jr. and others who so masterfully brought the world of sail to life in printed form. Sea Trial received five stars from me at Goodreads and goes on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Non-Fiction.

“Harvey has serious skills, and his riveting story is impossible to put down.” — Cruising World

Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father by Brian Harvey
ECW Press

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