Review: Seven at Sea by Erik Orton and Emily Orton

Reviewed by Ronnie K. Stephens

Seven at sea cover sailboat in oecan with big skyNarratives of escapism abound from the silver screen to bookstore shelves, each one offering an anecdote on the power of rejecting the responsibilities of daily life in favor of freedom. This freedom is often presented as the solution to stressful, over-committed lifestyles, but it usually comes with a caveat: to achieve inner peace and sleep soundly under the stars, we must remove ourselves entirely from our current lives. Where the fictional narrative allows for mental escapism, non-fiction often renders stories which teeter on the edges of both memoir and self-help. Where fiction acknowledges itself as surreal and fantastical, non-fiction delineates concrete steps toward physical and spiritual cleansing.

Seven at Sea: Why A New York City Family Cast Off Convention for a Life-changing Year on a Sailboat (Shadow Mountain, March 2019), at its core, is the story of a man frustrated with the mundanity of daily life and a family willing to indulge his desire to cast off, literally, from the confines of his cubicle. When Orton proposes the idea of purchasing a boat and sailing for one year, his wife and children are hesitant but supportive. The Ortons, a Mormon family of seven, never waver in their willingness to work together to realize Erik Orton’s goal. The two oldest girls quickly learn how to help sail the boat, and they are equally helpful with the younger children. They diligently internalize both the jargon and physical demands of sailing, first through classes and then through practice sails, while they search for the perfect boat with which to sail away from the bustle of New York City.

Told through the alternating perspectives of Erik and Emily Orton, the book invites readers into very different perspectives. The sections written by Erik tend to be more technical, centering on sailing and boat maintenance; the sections written by Emily tend to be more personal, centering on family interaction and the friends the Ortons meet along the way. To their credit, both narrators have managed to find a writing style which moves fluidly between voices, and the writing itself is quite good. The sentences propel the reader forward, making this a potential companion for light reading at the beach. The descriptions are vivid and enticing, never overdone or idyllic, and transport readers to the Caribbean with ease.

Unfortunately, these strengths are not enough to carry the narrative, which drags heavily in the first half of the book. While the cover touts a year at sea with the Ortons, the first three months on their boat are spent in port dealing with various mechanical and technical issues. This section becomes cumbersome for the reader, as page after page fails to provide any forward movement at all, both literally and figuratively.

The most glaring issues, though, are the privilege with which the book is imbued and the treatment of Lily, one of the Orton’s daughters who has down syndrome.

As with many nonfiction books touting a path to physical and/or spiritual freedom, Seven at Sea presents a life at sea as a tangible opportunity for the average household. Indeed, the book describes Erik Orton as an office temp feeling the pressure to support his family and one blurb on the back cover purports that the family lives on a “shoestring” budget. The reality is that Orton is the sole provider for the family of seven, yet they draw twenty-thousand dollars from savings when they decide to buy a boat and calculate that what remains in savings is enough for the family to live on for approximately one year with no additional income. The privilege is not limited to finances, however, as the Ortons offer only superficial characterization of those they encounter and deride island culture multiple times.

Given that the jacket copy for the book specifically mentions the Ortons’ youngest child having down syndrome, I anticipated that her presence in the book would be more prominent, and perhaps that her life on the boat would be, in some way, enlightening for either her or the family as a whole. However, Lily is almost never mentioned and, when she is included, the quips came across as alienating and derogatory.

Some scenes, like one in which Lily accidentally defecates in a swimming pool, do not seem to serve a purpose in the narrative, and some give the impression that Lily is considered burdensome by the rest of the family. The longest inclusion of Lily, for example, involves a hike during which Emily Orton realizes Erik has unintentionally left her to care for Lily on outings. She laments to Erik that she is unable to enjoy their time in the Caribbean because she is catering to all of Lily’s needs, and the couple praise their decision to share the burden of caring for Lily for the remainder of the trip. Because of the way it is written, this scene gives the impression that Lily’s parents lack compassion for her.

Seven at Sea has a fantastic premise, but it falls short on its promise as a life-changing journey and their quest for enlightenment.

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