Prepare your nautical comfort zone for a jolt. In Sailing Down the Mountain, warm and fuzzy . . . and staid . . . conventional thoughts on sailing, construction and personal discovery are casually set aside. Casually, but firmly. Actually, unconventional is an understatement. Equal parts of Walter Mitty, MacGyver and the vibrant counterculture ethos of Haight-Ashbury in the ’70s define much of this story.
The book chronicles both a young couple’s growth as well as the birth of a sailing legend, the Cabo Rico 38. Ben and Helen Harrison’s singular focus on building their dream sailboat, as well as a deep belief in themselves, is the story’s glue. Their ultimate success, despite obstacles and human failings, makes it an epic.
In addition to the Grateful Dead and Steve Jobs, San Francisco can count among its credits the formative muscle behind the Harrisons. In the fall of 1974, Ben and Helen left the City by the Bay but not its sweet energy. Driving a tired but trusty station wagon to Central America, the saga began. In the Costa Rican hills they took a bare hull and, with little experience, built La Dulce Mujer Pintada, The Sweet Painted Lady.
Bending or breaking bureaucratic rules that stood in their way, they never forgot the beauty or the dignity of those around them. Their days and months swung back and forth from staggering to sparkling, side-steps to bold gains, as all real adventures do.
This story is not some predictable tale of heroics and overcoming impossible odds. It is, instead, refreshingly candid and authentic, at times graphic, and always insightful. A quirky, colorful, stuttering bounce of a narrative, I found myself progressing from “I couldn’t do that” to “Wow, I really could!” Admiration for their humanity, audacity, and sheer guts comes easily after reading Ben’s journal.
Sailing Down the Mountain accurately captures the joys of aiming high in life, of stretching exuberantly for the prize, and that rarest joy of all: seizing it. This book will provoke and inspire. I salute Ben and Helen for taking a right turn from our complacent world.
Sailing Down the Mountain: A Costa Rican Adventure by Ben Harrison (New Atlantian Library, 2014, 436 pages)