The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Albert Einstein is probably not “sailor.” Nevertheless, Einstein enjoyed sailing and appears to have done at least some of his most important work while on sailing vacations. A friend described sailing as, “his favorite of all pastimes.” Remarkably, Einstein is said to never have learned how to swim.
It is unclear when Einstein started sailing. In 1929, a group of admirers, including the American banker Henry Goldman, had a sailboat built for him as a present for his 50th birthday. It seems an unlikely gift unless Einstein was already a sailor, or at least had a strong interest in sailing. The boat was named Tümmler (German for Porpoise) and was a centerboarder with a fractional Bermuda rig, about 23′ long with a beam of 7.7′ and a sail area of roughly 215 square feet. The boat had a 5hp engine, a galley stove, a head and berths for two.
Tümmler was confiscated by the National Socialist government in 1933. This wasn’t the end of Einstein’s sailing, however. In the summer of 1935, he stayed in Old Lyme Connecticut and sailed on the Connecticut River and along the coast. During the summers of 1937-1939, Einstein rented a summer house in Nassau Point, on the North Fork of Long Island. These summers he sailed a 15′ sailboat the he referred to as “Tinef” which is colloquial German for “junk.” While at Nassau Point, he wrote a famous letter to President Roosevelt warning of the danger of atomic weapons.
In the years that followed, he summered and sailed on Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks of New York. While at Princeton, he also often sailed on Lake Carnegie and continued sailing even as his health deteriorated. Johanna Fantova, a Princeton librarian who often sailed with him, wrote “Einstein’s health began to fail, but he continued to indulge in what remained his favorite of all pastimes, sailing. Here too, his analytical precision helped him to calculate the smallest movement of air, even on a nearly windless day. Seldom did I see him so gay and in so light a mood as in this strangely primitive little boat.”
Despite having sailed for many years, Einstein developed a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being a rather hapless sailor. From Scuttlebutt Sailing News — ALBERT EINSTEIN: Not much of a sailor
Often sailing near the mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook, Einstein ran aground on a sand bar once. The New York Times took note, running the following headline in the summer of 1935: “Relative Tide And Sand Bars Trap Einstein.” Another newspaper put it this way: “Einstein’s Miscalculation Leaves Him Stuck On Bar Of Lower Connecticut River.”
Interestingly, Einstein seemed to be indifferent to the dangers of sailing, and the perils were particularly acute since he didn’t know how to swim! It is rather amazing that he didn’t drown. In 1944, for example, while sailing on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, Einstein’s boat hit a rock and capsized. A rope entangled his leg, and he was trapped briefly underneath the sail, but he managed to find his way to the surface without panicking and was saved by a passing motorboat.
Those who knew Einstein claim that he always took a pencil and a pad of paper with him when he sailed, so that if he got stuck or if the wind died, he could write down his thoughts. Since he liked solitude and privacy, perhaps this was just another aspect of sailing that appealed to Einstein. Perhaps even aspects of his famous Theory Of Relativity were formulated onboard a sailboat.
Was Einstein really a lousy sailor? Over the expanse of time It is difficult to tell. For many years it was widely reported that, as a young man, Einstein had been a poor student and had failed in school. Allegedly, when Einstein’s father asked his son’s headmaster what profession the boy should adopt, he said, “It doesn’t matter; he’ll never make a success of anything.” As it turns out a review of Einstein’s school records indicate that he did indeed have excellent grades. He apparently did have problems with learning by rote and did not have a real facility with languages, but was otherwise brilliant in math and physics.
It is possible that the story that Einstein was a lousy sailor may be as questionable as the claims that he was a poor student. Was he a bumbler or did “his analytical precision help… him to calculate the smallest movement of air, even on a nearly windless day?” We will never know. Whatever was the case, the image of Einstein on a becalmed sailboat, with a pad and pencil, making notes is fascinating. Where better to ponder the fundamental mysteries of the universe than beneath the dome of the sky on a small sailboat?