Cover image for Dark wind : a survivor's tale of love and loss
Dark wind : a survivor's tale of love and loss
Chaplin, Gordon.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
225 pages : illustrations, map ; 22 cm
General Note:
Map on lining papers.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F1433.2 .C45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
F1433.2 .C45 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Dark Wind is the true story of a whirlwind, midlife romance and two lovers' pursuit of a life of adventure on the high seas. In this brave and searing testament, Gordon Chaplin tells the tale of a catastrophic sailing journey he and his partner, Susan Atkinson, undertook through the South Pacific.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Reflection and confession can have a great deal of therapeutic value. Chaplin's partner Susan was killed in an unpredictably powerful typhoon while they were sailing in the Marshall Islands in 1992, and one might expect that it has taken him all this time to be able to assemble his thoughts and feelings so that their story can be told. Susan and Gordon both came from failed marriages with the assortment of psychic baggage that one might expect, but they seemed idyllically happy with each other and with their vagabond lifestyle. Each was well connected and privileged enough so that they could live life, traveling and sailing, earning enough through their writing and stock holdings, in a manner unknown to most of us. Their life seemed a grand adventure, not perfect, but with enough friction to make it interesting. And then a misstep of judgment brought it to an end. This book presents to the reader an unusual though very engaging combination of romance, sea thriller, and tragedy. Chaplin writes with regret and sorrow, and though he replays each possible action that might have led to another result, he ultimately seems at peace with what happened. He leaves himself and the reader with the time-honored lesson that life is brief and must not be wasted. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

Combining a love story with an account of a doomed 1992 sailing trip through the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Chaplin has written a harrowing memoir of adventure, disaster, guilt and the subsequent anguished search for understanding. Chaplin met Susan Atkinson in the mid-1960s when both were married to other partners. The two couples socialized and their four daughters became friends. By the late 1970s, after the failure of both marriages, Chaplin and Atkinson discovered their love for one another, as well as a mutual passion for sailing. After purchasing a sailboat called the Lord Jim in 1990, they sailed down the Mosquito Coast to Panama. Chaplin intersperses his anecdotes of this voyage with a bittersweet description of a loving relationship and the problems that erupted. He highlights Atkinson's adventurous spirit as well as the apprehension that made her insist on every safety precaution for their trips. Her fears were realized when they were caught in a typhoon off the coast of the barrier reef of Wotho Island. Chaplin decided that they should ride out the storm rather than swim for shore, only 300 feet away. In stark sentences, he describes their last moments on the boat before it was torn apart. In the water, Chaplin and Atkinson came out of their life jackets; Chaplin was washed ashore, but Atkinson drowned. Chaplin questions his decisions and agonizes about his inability to save his lover. His book is an eloquent plea for forgiveness and a haunting reflection on the nature of chance. Agent, Tina Bennett at Janklow & Nesbit. $100,000 ad/promo; author tour; Renaissance audio; foreign rights sold in Italy, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Holland and Norway. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

After a failed marriage, Chaplin finds his true love‘then loses her when they sail straight into a typhoon off the Marshall Islands. A 75,000-copy first printing. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Into the Blue November 1989. We started our voyage with that same toast, sitting side by side in the cockpit as the sun went down into the stately purple wave tops, with Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas a vanishing red dot in our wake and 290 miles of flying fish, sargasso weed, and blood-warm Gulf Stream ahead of us. We were bound for the Mosquito Coast of Central America, with a 20-knot easterly breeze on the port quarter and all sails set and drawing.     "Will you just give me a little pinch?" Susan asked, after the toast. "Not too hard."     I had my arm around her. I reached my hand up and pinched her nose, something I loved to do because her nose was long, thin, and sensitive.     "Perfect. Dow I doe id's really habbenig."     I let go of her nose and rested my hand on her shoulder while she took hold of a finger. I wanted to tell her that the main reason it was happening was because of her, but instead I said, "Maybe it isn't. Maybe we're just in the same fantasy."     "That's okay," she said softly. "But if it's yours, you have to promise me something, all right?"     "Sure," I said proudly. "Anything you want."     "No surprises. Anything can happen, but you have to tell me about it first."     I inherited the fantasy from my father, who was on his way from England to the South Pacific in a small sailboat when he met my mother and came ashore to live out his days comfortably in Philadelphia. I'd always thought he had taught me boating so I could continue the voyage, and continuing it now, among other things, seemed a perfect way to atone for my various shortcomings as a son.     Susan entered the fantasy for the first time in the mid-sixties. She was married to my college roommate, Bill. I was married to my college sweetheart, Holly. Bill and I were working as reporters on a little newspaper outside Boston, and for a week's vacation the four of us chartered a sailboat in Maine.     For the last two years I'd known Susan first as Bill's witty, slightly racy girlfriend and then as his hardworking no-nonsense wife. During Bill's community activism phase in Roxbury, she supported them both on her nurse's salary from Massachusetts General Hospital. And under the pressure she'd developed a famously short fuse.     Holly had grown up sailing with her father and was the most cautious aboard. Bill was the best blusterer. I was Captain Horatio Hornblower; my job was to inject risk and drama into what otherwise might have been a pretty humdrum sail.     On the last day of the cruise we set out from Pulpit Harbor on the island of North Haven across Penobscot Bay back to Camden. A mile or so out, the black line squall bearing down on us from the west became impossible to ignore. Holly wanted to return to harbor before it struck, I wanted to continue out and get some sea room. Bill swallowed hard and sided with Holly.     We all looked at Susan. She had a strong jaw as well as a distinguished nose. Her eyes were deep set, steady and gray. Her lips were thin and straight, and her waist-length dark-blond hair was in a tight bun. She looked very Bostonian. "I agree with Gordon," she said to Holly and Bill, and I felt my chest expand. "We're not going to make it back before that hits. We should get farther out."     "You don't know what you're talking about, Susan," Bill said.     "Well, then I'll let you experts handle it." She got up and went below.     The squall didn't look that bad: a narrow band of inky clouds followed by lightening sky and even a patch or two of blue in the distance. "Yeah," I said. "You experts take her in." And I went below too.     We sat on opposite settees in the small snug cabin and looked at each other shyly. I tried a smile; she returned it. Our knees touched, and I noticed that her eyes--which could be very wintry--were soft and unfocused, and their pupils enlarged. Her mouth was open a little in concentration or breathlessness; she raised her hand absently to straighten the hair at the back of her head, showing me her palm.     Through the open hatch we could hear Bill and Holly making frantic preparations on deck. And we watched each other with a prickle of something that seemed more important than simply agreeing you don't run from a little bad weather. More important even than the secret acknowledgment that we'd both probably enjoy the rush.     The storm hit long before we made it back to harbor. Now, framed by the hatch, our two spouses seemed like actors in a badly staged movie from the thirties: sheets of fake-looking rain, wind tearing the words from their lips, flapping sails. We looked at each other again and burst into perfectly synchronized laughter. By the time we emerged from the cabin (a strand of her hair blowing loose across my eyes) we were laughing so hard we were almost no help at all.     Twelve years came and went. We each had two daughters. Along different routes, Bill and I had moved from the small newspaper outside Boston to the Washington Post . I'd helped him get the first job; he helped me get the last. Bill and Susan's marriage had fallen apart; Holly and I were on shaky ground. This was the late seventies.     It swept in and carried us away like an unavoidable force of nature: an illicit, dangerous romance of shared secrets and wild exuberance that seemed to pick up where we'd left off in the cabin of the little boat. And as I witnessed the wreckage of my family I tried to take some comfort from its apparent inevitability.     Within six months I'd left my wife and daughters in Key West, Florida, and was sailing north to join Susan on a twenty-eight-foot wooden cutter I'd virtually been given by a man whose own marriage was on the rocks. I took only my clothes and papers and the indelible memory of how my older daughter's arms felt around my neck, and how her tears felt on my cheek, and the opaqueness of my younger daughter's eyes as I assured them that I'd be seeing them very soon. That in a way we'd see more of each other now than before, that what we were doing was extending the family like the Brady Bunch, not truncating it. That I wasn't abandoning them to run off with another woman--the mother of their childhood friends Ashley and Page.     Susan joined me whenever she could get time off from her job as a nurse-practitioner in Washington: days snatched with improbable excuses for exalted reunions and wrenching farewells in remote anchorages all along the Eastern seaboard. Summer was beginning, and the big hatch over the low forward berth where we slept was always open so we could see the stars.     Eventually, we found ourselves in New York harbor, en route to Massachusetts, where I hoped to find a buyer who might appreciate the old wooden boat. Late afternoon, with big summer clouds rising over the towers of Wall Street, the anchored freighters, and--over near the marshes on the Jersey shore--the rococo spires of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.     "The Big Apple," I proclaimed. Susan didn't answer: the Silent Treatment. She hadn't spoken to me since early morning, when I'd tried to laugh off a canceled invitation from my parents in Philadelphia. (They were afraid our adulterous status might shock the maid.)     My plan was to shoot through the East River on the incoming tide and anchor for the night in the lower reaches of Long Island Sound. It would be an exciting ride. The tide at Hell Gate reaches seven knots at full flood, which was about when we'd get there.     Deep into the harbor, with the island of Manhattan dividing the water of the Hudson on the left from the East River on the right like some huge ocean liner, the wind failed. Susan silently took the tiller while I sheeted in the limp sails and started the engine. The hollow sound of the exhaust seemed to echo off the monstrous glass buildings, now melting into gold from the setting sun. The water was smooth and brown, with detritus swirling in the eddies from the increasing current. A tug pulling a garbage barge toward us out of the mouth of the river was kicking up a mountainous chocolate bow wave but gaining almost no ground against the landscape.     After about fifteen minutes of running, with the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge arching high and beginning to blink with the first lights of cars, I noticed the temperature gauge was reading well over boiling.     I shut down the engine.     "What?"     "Damn thing's overheating." I swung down into the cabin and began to remove the housing.     "What do I do?" In the fading light, framed by the companionway, she looked the opposite of scared. The Silent Treatment was over, thanks to nautical emergency.     "Just keep her off the shoals." I spat on the bare cylinder head and watched it sizzle. "It's probably the impeller."     I set about unscrewing the impeller cover, with a flashlight necessary to see the last screws. After I pulled the impeller, I held it up proudly so she could see how the rubber blades were perished and broken off. "Shot," I said. "I'll just put in the spare and we'll be fine."     She nodded. I felt good: competent and in control. I looked in the parts box for the spare, but there wasn't one.     I climbed back out into the cockpit with the flashlight, which we'd need for reading the chart. The current had carried us under the Manhattan Bridge opposite the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, but the setting sun was still visible over a last little section of New Jersey. I told Susan there was no spare impeller and kept my eyes on the sun. We were drifting helplessly, with no steerage way at all. I was thinking of the tugs and barges, the shoals at the end of Roosevelt Island, and, scariest of all, the dark abandoned piers and rusty pilings along the Brooklyn shore.     "Well," she said. "I put a bottle of champagne on ice this morning. We still have time to open it before sunset."     All I could do was stare in admiration. It wasn't as if she didn't know the dangers; we both knew them, but the toast had been her idea. The pop of the cork echoed festively in the dark canyons. Her rapt face over the rim of my full glass was the same face I'd recognized twelve years earlier before the storm in Maine. Her left eyebrow cocked. "Here's looking at you."     No harm came to us. Twisting and turning in the eddies but always just avoiding the obstacles, we drifted into a little cove at the north end of Roosevelt Island (mast clearing the forty-foot-high bridge by inches) and dropped anchor. More toasts and dinner in the cockpit, staring back at strollers in the little park on what the chart designated as Hallett's Point, Astoria. We fell asleep to the swish of traffic on the Triboro Bridge and, reflected on the mast, the neon blink of the big Brooklyn Pepsi-Cola sign.     A surprise came later. My ex-wife bought the boat after it finally arrived in her home state of Massachusetts, where she'd returned from Key West. She claimed half ownership, so I only got half the asking price. She sailed the boat to Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, hauled her, and never got around to launching her again.     Eight more years came and went before Susan and I were able to buy another. We'd landed in upstate New York, weren't getting any younger, and the time to go adventuring seemed now. The greater Mosquito Coast, unsavory, inaccessible, and politically unstable, stretched down the eastern shore of Central America from Belize through Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to Panama. It was the destination of our dreams.     We planned to sail it. I had a contract for a travel essay book and Susan hoped to gather material for a novel, her third since leaving nursing to write full-time. We had no doubts our books would be terrific, though one reviewer was to write about mine, "Chaplin strains for charm but at the same time seems barely able to behave himself."     Well, nobody's perfect.     Our four daughters--whose ages interlock seamlessly a year apart beginning with her older, Ashley, twenty-one at the time, to my older, Diana, then Page, and finally Julie--were all in college. Mine were in California, so only hers were present at our farewell dinner in New York City in late October 1989.     Ashley and I arrived early at the restaurant. She was a senior at Wellesley, unassailably equipped with the kind of blond coolness that seems to go with political conservatism. She liked me about as well as Diana liked Susan. The younger ones were easier about things.     Ashley hardly ever saw me alone, so this was her chance to give me the third degree. She ordered Perrier and lime; I ordered a martini. We carefully went over the strengths and weaknesses of the new boat, the kind of weather we might encounter, our proposed itinerary, and how our responsibilities would be divided.     "Ashley," I said finally, "remember the Christiana ?" The Christiana was a thirty-seven-foot Alden Challenger yawl our two families used to deliver places for her owner when the girls were young. "The Sea Wand ? The Ho Won ? Haven't we always done all right?"     "This is different," she said. "Nicaragua isn't exactly Maine."     "We sailed to Cuba twice. And the Bahamas. They're not exactly a piece of cake either."     "Plus you and Mom are going to be by yourselves ."     "Did you know," I said, "that at the age of fourteen I won the Pew Seamanship Trophy of the Bar Harbor Yacht Club?"     She just stared at me.     "And then"--I finished my martini and waved for the waiter--"at sixteen captained a Luders sixteen in the Northeast Harbor Cruise and won? Against forty other boats with seasoned skippers and crews twice my age?"     Her expression didn't change.     "I know the Third World pretty well too," I heard myself saying, "after the Peace Corps and two years in Southeast Asia as a war correspondent."     "You weren't in the Peace Corps."     "Well, I was in the training program. And Mexico. You ought to remember that." A low blow. At the beginning of our time together, Susan and I had taken her daughters to Mexico for what should have been a year. After six months, though, Ashley and Page had left--to live with their father in Rhode Island. It had been the low point in Susan's life with me.     Suddenly Ashley leaned forward and clasped my left hand as it lay on the table near the empty martini glass with both of hers. "You won't leave Mom alone on this trip, will you?"     She took me by surprise. After all, she was as fiercely self-reliant as her mother. "Well," I said defensively, "not unless I have to."     "What do you mean?"     "Things might come up, you know. Situations. That might make it unavoidable." I smiled and shrugged. "Separate adventures. Twice as much fun."     "You mean," she said slowly, letting go of my hand and straightening up, "you'd go off and leave her by herself?"     "Ashley. Your mother is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. You should know that better than anyone; she raised you to be like her."      She'd turned so pale I was afraid she was going to faint. "Over my dead body," she whispered.     "What?"     "Over my dead body you're going to go off and leave her alone. If you don't promise, I'll tie her to my bed so she stays with me."     It was an Ashley I'd never seen before. "Promise," she whispered, as Susan and Page appeared in the door of the restaurant.     Susan's face was lit with pride, happiness, and a little nervousness, as she looked around trying to find us. Ashley whispered again and beat her fist gently on the table.     "All right." I looked at her quickly and then looked away again, like a child, waving to get Susan's attention. It was disturbing to think that Ashley might know something I didn't about Susan: what really lay behind her mother's adventurousness and determination. So, as I did with many troubling thoughts in those days, I shelved it--to be dusted off later, looking through her diaries in the small hours of a winter night.     Susan's daughters' going-away present to us was a rabbit's foot.     Night at sea. Twenty-three miles southwest of the Dry Tortugas, making 6.8 knots on a course of 255 degrees. The rabbit's foot hung from a hook in the wheelhouse just below the log, lit faintly by the dial's illumination and swinging with the boat's regular swoop and check. Without the engine, the only sounds were the gurgle and slap of waves and the creak of the rigging. A three-quarters moon created a mercurial highway to the east, the Whale Road. The moonlit pearls of spray that made their way into the cockpit were the same temperature as the air.     "Ready for dinner?" Susan asked casually, as if we were back at our place in upstate New York.     From the wheelhouse I could see down into the galley, see her cooking on the gimballed stove, leaning back against a web belt attached to the counter, moving with the boat as if she were part of it. I could smell fresh Gulf shrimp, stir-fried vegetables, and egg noodles.     In front of me on the instrument panel the dials and gauges glowed green, blue, red, white. I could hear the light snore of the propeller turning as the water rushed past at almost 7 knots. The autopilot, powered from the propeller shaft by a hydraulic system when the engine is off, clicked the wooden wheel back and forth in small irregular arcs. Outside the wheelhouse, as I checked once again, the running lights showed the sails full-bellied and drawing in the 20-knot breeze. The wake creamed white into the black water, and the tip of the mast swung darkly through the stars. Copyright © 1999 Gordon Chaplin. All rights reserved.