Was Albert Einstein a Lousy Sailor ?


Prof. Albert Einstein on board of his sailing boat which he was given by friends. (photograph: A.Harms)

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?

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13 Responses to Was Albert Einstein a Lousy Sailor ?

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  2. Ulrich Rudofsky says:

    Although I cannot remember the title of the book, a son of the noted psychoanlyst A. A. Brill wrote that Einstein had no basic understanding how sailboats worked. After the famous grounding on the Connecticut River he sawed part of the centerboard off and, subsequently, had trouble going to windward and needed to be rescued. Brill also mentioned that Einstein tried to invent a new type of an anti-aircraft gun, but lacked the basic high school understanding of projectile motion.

  3. Indeed, where better to “ponder the mysteries of the universe,” whether they are in the interior of the atom, the exterior of the stars or the complex world of human emotion and thought.

    Thanks for this article, Rick. I love its blend of information, history, research and speculation.

  4. Rick Spilman says:

    I read the same sort of stories and find them hard to believe. They may be true, but then again, other accounts seem to contradict them. I find it especially hard to believe that Einstein couldn’t handle high school dynamics, which is based on Newtonian motion. Einstein’s most famous equation, E=MC^2 is just Newton’s equation for energy, E=MV^2, with the speed variable V replaced with the constant C. What Brill writes may be 100% correct, but I suspect that there is more to the story.

  5. Rob Frenette says:

    If anyone is interested I have the boat that Einstien sailed while staying on Lower Saranac Lake. It was scheduled for the chain saw and I took it to preserve it. Rob Frenette Tupper Lake

  6. Rick Spilman says:

    Interesting. An unlikely bit of history. Great that you were able to preserve it.

  7. Bill S says:

    Is there any truth to the story about Don Duso saving Albert once on Lower Saranac. I believe I saw a news article in Crescent Bay about this.

  8. David Marshall Billikopf says:

    I first met Albert Einstein in the summer of 1936 when he visited Knollwood on the North Shore of Lower Saranac Lake. With my $4.98 Kodak Brownie camera I took a photo of him when he was standing on the upstairs porch of the boathouse, a photo which has never circulated until this autumn when it will appear in Curt Stager’s (Paul Smith’s College) YOUR ATOMIC SELF.
    During the summer of 1944 Einstein was my next-door neighbor at Knollwood and again during a number of subsequent summers. As a result I have various Einstein anecdotes (true ones). My favorite concerns my conversation with his secretary-housekeeper, Helen Dukas, who used to stand on a rock overlooking the lake. One day I asked her what she was looking at. “I’m waiting to see the professor’s sailboat come into sight so that I will know when to put his baked potato into the oven.”
    Back in 1936 I was impressed by the fact that Einstein did not wear socks and included this observation in an article I wrote for our Lower School paper. I’d be glad to send you more anecdotes if you’re interested.

  9. Dan Duck says:

    Rob Frenette do you really have the sailboat Einstein sailed? Is it the 15 foot Tinef?

  10. Lise Steinhauer says:

    The Don Duso story is true, but apparently he was one of many people who saved the inept sailor. I have a friend who was Duso’s lifelong friend so heard it firsthand. It is repeated in Duso’s obituary online.

  11. Jonathan Paul says:

    When he was summering on Nassua Point, my mom remembers watching him several times trying to sail in front of our house on little Peconic Bay. He was a “buffoon of a sailor”. He couldn’t even navigate out of the cove. There are 14 reports (some may be of the same event, so not necessarily 14 events) of Einsteen having to be rescued while sailing during his two summers (1938 and 39) in Peconic – this area is now part of Cutchogue. This is one of those mysteries of quantum physics I guess why he couldn’t get it.

  12. Jonathan Paul says:

    On further discussion with my 90 year old mother (she was 12-14 when she observed Einstein sailing) , I am not so sure he was a “buffoon” of a sailor but only appeared to be to a teenage girl. Never did she observe him flailing in the wind with his boat. He would simply sail out into the Peconic bay, put his feet up and sit back and stop sailing. I think he would then get caught up in his brilliant thoughts and not worry that the current was taking him to places where he would need to be rescued. He had alot on his mind that could excuse him from appearing like a buffoon, like trying to integrate quantum mechanics and general relativity and then in July of 1939 , his thoughts were awakened to the possibility of an Atomic bomb. I think this explains the paradox.

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