Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

“Caution: Genius Aboard”
by John Vigor

Albert Einstein was a cruising sailor – relatively speaking, of course – and in his boat, as in physics, he sailed joyously close to the wind.

Sailing was a passion for Albert Einstein, the lovable, spaniel-eyed genius with the wild white hair that floated in the wind. He learned to sail on the Zürichsee, in Switzerland in 1896 when he was an 18 year-old student, and continued sailing until ill health forced him to give it up more than 50 years later, long after he had become the world’s most famous physicist.
Einstein sailed as he lived his life absentmindedly. He was a dreamy yet instinctive kind of sailor, bemused and delighted by his sport and pastime. His was a true passion, one undiluted by caution and unburdened by technical knowledge. His mast fell down regularly. He often had to be towed home. He almost drowned himself and had to be rescued by a motorboat, yet he refused to carry an outboard motor himself. He despised machines, declaring that he’d rather drown than permit a motor on his beloved sailboat.

The sailboat in question, one of many he owned or borrowed, was a battered 17-foot day sailor called Tinef – meaning worthless or of no intrinsic value. He sailed her extensively in New England, though it is difficult to classify, in conventional terms, the type of sailing he did.
He never strayed too far from shore. He cer­tainly didn’t race. He had no desire to pit Tinef against any other boat. “The natural counter­play of wind and water delighted him most,” said friend and sailing partner Dr. Gustav Bucky. “He wasn’t a conventional gunkholer.” The natural conclusion, therefore, is that Einstein was a cruising sailor. Of sorts. Relatively speaking, of course.

When Einstein settled in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1933, he long had been the most famous scientist alive. In 1905, while working as a probationary technical expert (third class) at the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote five scientific papers in his spare time. Among them was his first on Special Relativity, a dissertation of 9,000 words entirely devoid of footnotes or references. It was an extraordinary document from an extraordinary man.
Einstein was recognized as the most brilliant physicist the world had seen in three centuries, perhaps in all time. His great strength was his ability to make intuitive leaps of the mind and then find the scientific facts to fit them. His theory upset classical concepts of physics and laid down a blueprint for the way the physical world was built. And, paradoxically, although the vast majority of people never would understand it, it excited their interest to the extent that he was mobbed when he appeared in public.

His famous equation, E=mc², in which energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, became a household phrase the world over. It is interesting to speculate about how much of the theory of relativity may have come to Einstein while he was sailing. From the very beginning, he carried a notebook with him on the water.

As a young man, he often sailed on the Zürichsee with Fraülein Markwalder, the daughter of his landlady. It was a lasting friendship, for he was still writing to her 50 years and two marriages after they had met. She remembered that when the breeze died and the sails drooped, out would come the notebook and he would be scribbling away. “But as soon as there was a breath of wind,” she said, “he was ready to start sailing again.”
Naturally, Einstein would have been as aware as any other sailor of the effect of the kinetic energy stored by a moving boat. That formula is described simply as mass, times the square of its speed, divided by two. In practical terms, it’s an early form of relativity; it means that hitting the jetty (or another boat) at two knots is relatively less damaging than hitting it at four knots or eight knots.

Soon after he settled in Princeton with a lifetime appointment to the Institute for Ad­vanced Study, Einstein, who was as much of a recluse as a Nobel Prize winner can hope to be, taught his secretary-housekeeper, Helen Dukas, how to deal with members of the pub­lic who wanted a simple explanation of relativity. “Tell them,” he advised her, “that an hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.”

People often asked him for the recipe for his success and he had a formula for that, too. “Success,” he said, “equals X times Y times Z, where X is work, Y is play and Z is keeping your mouth shut.”
The adults of Princeton soon got used to the sight of this shabby, sockless, shock-haired genius in their midst and accorded him the privacy he sought. But the children were too intrigued to hold their tongues. Einstein was delighted, for he adored children. One little girl warned him that if he kept refusing to wear socks, “… your mother will be afraid you’ll catch cold.” When a group of small boys asked why he did not wear socks he replied, “I’ve reached an age when, if somebody tells me to wear socks, I don’t have to”.

The clothing codes and manners imposed by conventional society meant nothing to Einstein. When he visited Felix Ehrenhaft, a pro­fessor at the University of Vienna, he took with him two jackets, two pairs of trousers, two white shirts and only one white collar. Ehrenhaft said afterward: “When my wife asked him if there was something he had left at home he answered, ‘No.’ However, she found neither slippers nor toilet articles.
“She supplied everything, including the necessary collars. However, when she met him in the hall in the morning, he was barefooted. She asked him if he needed slippers. He answered, ‘No, they are unnecessary ballast.’ His trousers were terribly crumpled; my wife pressed the second pair and put them in order so that he would be neat for the second lecture. ‘When he stepped onto the stage she saw to her horror that he was wearing the unpressed pair.”
Einstein was a worshiper of simplicity and harmony. He loved fields and forests, lakes and mountains, the earth, the sky and the sea. When he was sailing, he found simplicity, harmony and, undoubtedly, inspiration in the rhythms of the wind and the waves. And he always found his wav back home from the sea or the lake, which is more than can be said of his attempts at navigation on land.

In his book Einstein In America, biographer Jamie Sayen relates the story of a Princeton undergraduate during Einstein’s first year there: ”Twice I heard from two different girls who lived in Princeton about his (Einstein’s) sense of direction. Each said that Einstein had approached her on a side street several blocks off Nassau Street and asked for directions to Nassau Hall. In each case Einstein explained that the only reason he wanted to get to Nassau Hall was that he knew his way home from there. Both girls asked him where his home was and suggested more direct routes. He thanked them both but said no, he would go via Nassau Hall.”

But perhaps the difference between his navigational skills on land and on the water is not so paradoxical after all. As he pointed out so elegantly, nothing is absolute, not even navigation.
With his wife Elsa and their friends Dr. and Mrs. Gustav Bucky Einstein spent the summer of 1934 at “The Studio” in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Despite frequent heavy fog, he found it a delightful place from which to sail. But the man who understood better than any other in the world the physical forces that caused the tides never managed to master them. On more than one occasion, he and Bucky ran aground. “While Bucky fidgeted,” Jamie Sayen wrote, “the schoolboy at the tiller would laugh and say, ‘Don’t look so tragic, Bucky, they’ll wait for me at home my wife is used to this.’”

That same year, in January, he was invited to the White House, where he had spent night with President Franklin D. Roosevelt discussing, among other things, their mutual love of sailing. The following summer he sailed out of Old Lyme, Connecticut. He seemed to enjoy the sense of control sailing gave him. He never mastered any other kind of machinery. He never learned to drive a car, for instance “It is too complicated,” his wife Elsa explained to a visitor. He was well over 50 years before he learned to handle a camera. He used a typewriter with great difficulty and mostly wrote in longhand.

In 1939 he passed the summer at a remote spot on Long Island, New York, and sailed daily. Ac­cording to Sayen, Einstein “loved it when the sea was calm and quiet, and he could sit in Tinef thinking or listening to the gentle waves end­lessly lapping against the side of the boat.” But he was just as happy when it was rough. His friend Eva Kavser described one time when she sailed on Long Island Sound with Einstein: “It was a rough sea; I’d rather have bitten off my tongue than to say, ‘Look, this is a little bit rough, let’s turn around.’ He was sailing away, bending down under the boom, and I said, ‘I bet this is one of the few things under which you bend.’ He laughed and said, ‘Yes.’ Finally he said, ‘Well, maybe we’d better turn back and enthusiastically I said, ‘Yes!’”

On another occasion during the summer of 1944 when he was 65 years old, Einstein was sailing with three companions on Saranac Lake, high in the Adirondacks in choppy conditions. When he hit a rock, the boat quickly filled with water and capsized. Fortunately, the water was warm and a motorboat was nearby. Einstein was trapped beneath the water under the sail, and his leg had become tangled in a rope. Without knowing how to swim, he managed to free his leg and claw his way to the surface, where he was rescued. Had he panicked, undoubtedly he would have drowned.

Ronald W. Claric, in his book Einstein, 7he Life And Times, comments on two sailing traits Einstein displayed regularly. One was his indifference to danger or death – reflected in such fearlessness of rough weather “that more than once he had to be towed.”
Another was his perverse delight in doing the unexpected. His friend Leon Watters was once out sailing with him “and while we were engaged in an interesting conversation 1 suddenly cried out, ‘Achtung!’ for we were almost upon another boat. He veered away with excellent control, and when I remarked what a close call we had had, he started to laugh and sailed directly toward one boat alter another, much to my horror, but he always veered off in time and then laughed like a naughty boy.”

Author Clark also relates that on another occasion Watters pointed out that they had sailed close to a group of projecting rocks. Einstein replied by skimming the boat across a barely submerged shelf. “In his boat, as in physics, he sailed close to the wind,” Clark commented. Unexpectedly, it was sailing that had given him most concern for his health. When he was 49 and 1iving in Berlin he suddenly collapsed one day and had to consult a doctor. He normally was skeptical of physicians, this one impressed him. Dr Janos Pletsch diagnosed inflammation of the walls of the heart. Einstein confessed that he often rowed his heavy boat home when there wasn’t a breath of air to ruffle the waters of the Havelsee, a lake only a few miles from the center of Berlin. Dr. Pletsch put Einstein on a salt-free diet a packed him off to a small seaside resort on the Baltic coast north of Hamburg. Einstein covered there, but not as rapidly as expected. Finally Pletsch discovered that Einstein the sailing addict was sailing secretly and ordered him to put a stop to it.

That didn’t last long, though. On his 50th bin day his friends presented him with a new sea boat called Tummler, which he kept on the nearby Havelsee. He loved her dearly. Tummler was “perhaps the one thing it hurt him to leave behind when the time came to shake the dust of Germany off his feet,” said Pletsch.

With the spread of fascism in Europe, Einstein became the world’s best-known refugee. He was an instinctive pacifist and committed Zionist who eventually and reluctantly conclude, that force – even the sacrifice of human life was necessary to defend the ultimate ethical values on which all human existence is based. During World War II he worked for the U.S. Navy as a research consultant in the field of conventional explosives, and he continued to indulge his passion for sailing at Saranac Lake and on Princeton’s Carnegie Lake.
Einstein was at Saranac Lake on August 6, 1945, when he heard the radio announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was devastated; here was tragic proof that E indeed equalled mc². That formula forecast the re­lease of formidable quantities of energy if the atom were ever split. Now the nucleus of the uranium atom had indeed been split, and the resulting energy had been used to kill thousands of human beings.
“Almost overnight,” says Clark, “Einstein became the conscience of the world.” And as such he wrote, spoke and broadcast throughout the 10 years of life that remained to him.

He became an internationally respected spokesman for ethical humanism and a symbol of the scientist as the world’s conscience. There was no time for sailing now. And besides he was getting frail. His second wife Elsa had died in 1936, and nearly 20 years later he was to follow her.

In April 1955 Einstein – the gentle, lovable genius who had forever changed mankind’s per­spective of the universe – began another voyage, this one into the unknown, and a grieving world wished him fair winds and joyous landfalls.”

Copyright: John Vigor; from October 1992 issue of Cruising World magazine.
Reproduced with permission.