Book Review: First You Have to Row a Little Boat

You know you’re reading a good book if the first sentence chokes you up. Richard Bode’s memoir of his youth spent learning to sail does just that. “When I was a young man I made a solemn vow. I swore I would teach my children to sail. It was a promise I never kept.” So begins First You Have to Row a Little Boat, a series of life lessons recorded by a father to his grown children, his attempt to atone for “sins of omission.” Not only does he pass on the beautiful metaphor of sailing for navigating life to his children, but to the grateful reader as well.

Though an expanded metaphor could become tedious or sentimental, Bode usually avoids this temptation by couching his lessons in stories both honest and poignant. Orphaned at a young age and raised by an aunt and uncle, Bode finds his security in a self-sufficiency learned sailing a boat in a shallow bay. It is to some degree a coming-of-age tale, but also serves as reflection and advice from a seasoned sailor. Chapter titles include “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Zigzag Line,” “Unfounded Fears”, “Fogbound,” and “Like a Boat Without a Rudder”. My favorite chapter was possibly “Of Knots, Loops, Bends, and Hitches” in which knot-tying becomes a metaphor for romantic relationships.

The best part, probably, is that you don’t have to be a sailor or be familiar with sailing terms to enjoy the book. You might learn some of the lingo, but it is not a prerequisite. All of us have to learn how to enter uncharted waters, go with the flow, and stay afloat because life isn’t always smooth sailing.