Nonfiction Review by Carol Matthews

Brian Harvey, Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father (Toronto: ECW, 2019). Paperbound, 382 pp., $21.95.

Sea TrialSomething about an island invites circumnavigation. When my husband and I lived on Protection Island, our visitors frequently rowed around this small isle. Every year islanders participate in the Pro-Isle 360 which invites swimmers or anyone in a non-motorized vehicle to race around it; every second year, sailors circumnavigate Vancouver Island in the Van Isle 360 race. Vancouver Island’s majestic coastlines are challenging and worth writing about. Books like Elsie Hulsizer’s Voyages to Windward (2005) describe hair-raising adventures on the island’s west coast; M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time (1961) is a classic memoir of sailing in this area. Dag Goering and Maria Coffey documented an island circuit in their gorgeous book, Sailing Back in Time (2002), a memoir about friendship and adventure.

Brian Harvey’s Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father is also a double memoir. The title refers both to the trial of Harvey’s skills with his new sailboat and to his father’s trial for malpractice. The account documents Harvey’s journey around the island with his wife, Hatsumi, along with Charley, their little Schnauzer. Periodically, Harvey recalls an early trip with his father that left him out by Zero Rock, eight years old and “hangin’ on for dear life” while his father tried, futilely, to perform surgery on a malfunctioning engine. He reflects on their fraught relationship as he reviews boxes of papers related to his father’s career as a neurosurgeon, and at one point he refers to “weird parallels between boating and brain surgery.”  

Sea Trial is a page-turner of a book that instantly captures the reader’s attention on both aspects of the narrative. We’re curious about what lies ahead on the author’s dangerous voyage and what lay behind in the lawsuit his father faced after receiving a summons from the sheriff two years after retirement. Dr. Harvey, two others, and the hospital were charged with negligence in the case of a child they’d cared for decades earlier.

We can’t help but be fascinated with Harvey’s portrait of his father, a handsome and talented man who was also a violinist, a photographer, and a doctor whose grateful patients often sent thank-you notes, Christmas cards, and invitations to graduations. “I helped a lot of people” and “Most of them turned out well,” he tells his son about his work. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to appreciate the complicated nature of this private and proud man, though Harvey’s own feelings toward him are not clear.

While reviewing medical and legal files, Harvey conjures his father’s ghost and questions him about details of his cases. These interactions are often testy. The ghost appears at odd moments in peculiar outfits—“vile brown acrylic pants…oversized fuzzy slippers…a checkered flannel jacket”—and gives unsolicited advice about sailing and about writing. It’s hard not to agree with Harvey’s father when he advises “Keep it simple or you’ll lose your readers” and “Nobody wants to read all that stuff about survival rates,” but Harvey insists on reviewing every medical book and trial note that might explain the outcome of the lawsuit that had so haunted his father’s later years. He describes his father’s diligence, mentors, high standards, unflagging belief in the truth, and the tragic conclusion of his career. Going through this material, Harvey refers to “the flash and sizzle” of his father’s life as “no more than a mosquito caught in the bug zapper on a summer night.”  

Moving through the wide ocean territory of his expedition, Harvey weaves in facts about the land and its people, including the histories of Indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese peoples. He reports encounters with clear-cut logging practices and questionable salmon farms, which he finds “disturbing.” He notes the difficulty of sorting the science from the rhetoric and says “Nobody’s going to win this battle, or if they do, it won’t have anything to do with science.” Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to learn more about what Harvey, as a marine biologist, had to offer as solutions to such problems.

The ever-present and practical Hatsumi and the resilient Charley ground the account with their needs and responses to the adventures. Charley quivers with fear then goes to shore to pee, play with sticks, and make friends with other dogs. Stoic under circumstances that cause the boat to roll and the gorge to rise, Hatsumi becomes as “white as the sail I couldn’t get down.” She regularly contributes solid navigational skills and shrewd advice when needed while, at other times, she quietly retreats to the cabin to do yoga.

Having previously published two mystery novels, Harvey is a master of suspense and knows well how to keep us intrigued. He’s a faithful and detailed reporter of the people he meets. On Lasqueti Island we meet “the Jones boys,” who operate a shellfish hatchery and farm at Skerry Bay and are portrayed as “eccentric, generous and strong.” The description fits many of the people the Harveys encounter in their stops at small communities and anchorages, but there are also occasional suggestions of unsavory characters such as “the axe murderer” and others on Minstrel Island.

Many people are writing memoirs these days and most are narrow and self-regarding — the literary equivalent of a “selfie”— but Harvey covers a range of topics. An accomplished writer, his voice is clear and engaging throughout. Sea Trial will attract readers interested in sailing, medicine, the environment, detective work, epic travel, or just a family pilgrimage, well-told with honesty and humour.


—Carol Matthews

As in The Malahat Review, 208, Autumn 2019