As end-of-summer escapist reading, Peter Nichols's account of his solo attempt to cross the Atlantic in a 27-foot, engineless wooden sailboat provides plenty of thrills for the armchair traveler—among them, gale-force storms and a desperate race to patch a leaky hull. But this is much more than a salty sea tale. Through captivating flashbacks, we also-follow the up-and-down course of the author's recent, ill-fated marriage to a smart and feisty woman he calls J. For five years they lived as yacht bums in ports from Monaco to St. Thomas, scrounging jobs and living much of the time aboard Toad, a tubby but surprisingly seaworthy craft stocked with his favorite sea books, such as the naturalist Charles Darwin's classic journal of his voyage on the Beagle.
Gradually the two journeys—marital and maritime—merge in a finely wrought, achingly honest blend of storytelling, log notes and entries from J.'s diaries—which she left aboard following their split. Nichols may struggle to keep both Toad and his marriage afloat, but his meticulous, understated prose never strains in showing us how heartbreak can also hone the adventurous spirit. (Viking, $23.95)