When Mike Plant was 8, he learned to sail on Lake Minnetonka. By 11, he’d designed and built his own boat and become obsessed with racing. By 14, he was hiding a bottle of bourbon in the hull. By 25, he was on the run from Greek police for drug smuggling.
We learn this by way of Julia Plant, whose memoir of her older brother is, while by no means a rose-colored memorial, imbued with affection.
Mike Plant was an internationally renowned sailor who died at age 41, washed overboard in the North Atlantic while on his way to what would have been his fourth solo race around the world. In “Coyote Lost at Sea: The Story of Mike Plant, America’s Daring Solo Circumnavigator” (McGraw Hill, 239 pages, $25), Julia Plant writes of the less-than-heroic facts of his life with the sort of clear-eyed devotion that he’d likely have appreciated. Not that he’d ever have admitted it.
In one of the book’s most cogent passages, she writes of Plant’s failure to thank friends and family members for their great efforts to spring him from a Portuguese prison where he was awaiting extradition to Greece: “Mike said nothing,” she wrote. “Thanking people meant acknowledging that he had screwed up, and he didn’t want to do that.”
By the time you read that, halfway through the book, you’ve accepted his failings just as she did, mostly because his shortcomings pale against the vicarious thrill of reading about his exploits. You want to smack him, yet not hard enough that he can’t raise a sail again. The chapters about racing through the southern oceans, drawn from his journals and radio transmissions, are spellbinding.
Minnesotans who followed his single-handed races around the world, and the long search effort when he was reported missing in 1992, likely never caught a whiff that he was anything less than a boyishly handsome daredevil. His sister, writing because “he truly was the most alive person I had ever known,” notes that this book actually took 20 years to write because she was afraid to embrace “the parts that showed what a schmuck he had been at times.”
The result is a fully credible account that still instills an admiration for his tenacity, his skills, his respect for fellow sailors and, in the end, his relationship with himself, with whom he spent a lot of time in the arduous circumnavigations. The risks he took, whether driven by lack of money or his own demons, cost him. Yet Julia Plant wisely resists suggesting there’s a lesson here, because only a thimbleful of people live such a life. That’s why we read.
Kim Ode is a feature writer at the Star Tribune.