“Sailing at the Edge of Disaster: A Memoir of a Young Woman’s Daring Year” by Elizabeth W. Garber; Toad Hall Editions, Northport, Maine, 2022; 330 pages, paperback, $24.95.

Elizabeth Garber’s memoir “Sailing at the Edge of Disaster” is on its surface an account of an adventure on a star-crossed sailing vessel. It’s full of the crazy, heartwarming, yikes-inducing incidents you’d expect from teenagers crammed together aboard a ship. But in its core, it’s about a family’s dark emotional troubles.

Garber tells her story in mostly chronological order, beginning with the domestic circumstances surrounding the decision by her father in 1971 to send her, age 17, and her brother Woodie, 15, to an alternative school on the square-rigged sailing ship Antarna. We get an uncomfortable picture of the emotional abyss between the kids and their overbearing father at home in Ohio. The father arranges for Elizabeth to be a summer assistant at the Oceanics School, and by September the students and teachers are gathering at the ship docked in Miami. Antarna is not ready to sail, and the students are put to work on the repair and maintenance projects needed to make her seaworthy.

The narrative is a kind of picaresque of incidents aboard the docked ship over the next months. Elizabeth forms a close friendship with her brash 15-year-old bunkmate, Kim, both obsessive journal writers. Among the accounts of daily onboard scrapes and shenanigans (re-created from journals, letters and other sources), Elizabeth keeps track of how relieved she and Woodie are to be hundreds of miles away from their father. These asides on home life come to seem like the real gist of the story when in December, while the ship still has yet to sail, their father turns up unexpectedly to “help out” with the endless preparations. His weeklong presence chagrins Elizabeth and Woodie, and when he announces he’s decided to remain on board and sail with them, they close ranks to stop him. This is a moment of emotional liberation for them, and a turning point for the narrative.

Not long afterward, and more than halfway through the book, Antarna has gained a captain and a measure of seaworthiness, and finally sails, making her way from Miami to Key West, then to Veracruz, Mexico. A heavy storm makes up the most vivid episode at sea. In Veracruz, murky maintenance and legal problems have to be addressed, so the students are sent off to explore by themselves in Mexico, providing the narrative with raucous stories of teenagers loose in a foreign land.

From Veracruz they make for the Panama Canal, intending to sail on to the Galapagos Islands. But the voyage comes to a bizarre end when the owners of the ship, who behind the scenes have been causing great trouble for the school organizers, conspire with the Panamanian military to block the Antarna in the canal. Eventually the ship’s old captain—whom the kids have come to admire and Elizabeth seems to view almost as the father she always wanted—comes through to get everyone off the boat safely.

The Antarna adventure is over. But the book continues on to detail the aftermath, partly in an aborted project to find a second sailing gig, and particularly in now-confident Elizabeth’s desire to deal with her family life. We hear her detailed recollection of a plan to kill her father.

The book is framed by this fraught relationship, whose emotions and turbulences underlie the entire narrative, really. “Sailing at the Edge of Disaster” gives a detailed picture of teenagers’ life, work and relationships on a floating experimental school, but in its shadows is a prime example of the endemic family issues that drove parts of the culture-wide youth rebellion of the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s.

Elizabeth Garber is an acupuncturist in Belfast. Among her other publications are “Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter” and three poetry collections. “Sailing at the Edge of Disaster” is available through local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

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