July 31, 2003
Octogenarian Sets Sail With Memoir
"Keeping Ahead of Winter" written and illustrated by Ruth Silnes (Xlibris Corporation, $21.99).
Run a Google search of "Jews" plus "boats" and you'll likely come up with something about steamships and Ellis Island.
Then there's Ruth Silnes, one Jewish mariner who refuses to go into dry dock.
Silnes, 88, is the kind of octogenarian everyone hopes he or she will be (if they make it that far) busy, happy, healthy, in full possession of a steel-trap mind and always game for an exciting new project.
In fact, the San Mateo resident and Bay Area native is currently trying to master the fine art of marketing and publicity.
That's because she's out there pushing her book, "Keeping Ahead of Winter," a self-published chronicle of a life-changing yachting adventure she undertook nearly 40 years ago.
"The book came out last May," Silnes said, "but I didn't realize you have to promote it. So I had to learn all the jargon."
That jargon includes terms like "press kit," and Silnes has put together a pretty good one. Articles about her have run in several papers, all lauding her amazing array of talents: poet, painter, illustrator and, yes, sailor.
At the moment, Silnes likes best the label of author, especially since "Keeping Ahead of Winter" is so near and dear to her heart.
Silnes began writing the book a few years after her 1965 honeymoon journey across 4,100 nautical miles of America's intercoastal waterways.
Fifty years old at the time of the trip, Silnes, along with her husband, Torger, sailed their 38-foot trawler TORU from Joliet, Ill., to the Florida Keys. The journey took the better part of a year, providing Silnes with a look at America rarely seen by landlubbers.
"It was a different world looking at the country from the waterside," she said. "The people we met, the camaraderie, it was life-changing for me."
Intriguingly, Silnes also cited what she called a "loss of sense of self" as a key component of her experience.
"I had been an independent woman for years before," she recalled. "But [on board] I had to take orders from my husband. It's a lot of work when you're the crew. At the time there were few women sailors, most relegated to the galley, but I was part of running the boat."
During the journey, Silnes kept a ship's log and diary -- much of it composed on an old-fashioned typewriter with carbon paper -- which formed the basis of her book.
A first draft remained unfinished for many years, but at age 80, Silnes took a writing class. The experience inspired her to revisit the manuscript, finish it and get it published.
That just-do-it spirit has typified her life from the beginning. Born in San Francisco, Silnes was raised in a nonobservant Jewish household, though her grandparents were founding members of the new Temple Emanu-El (rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and fire).
As a child, Silnes loved drawing, and later in life she found work as an illustrator. She also married and had children. By the time she met Torger, a former Lutheran seminarian, she had divorced and was working in real estate.
The love match between the two found its fullest flowering on the yachting adventure. Though health problems plagued her husband after the trip, the couple lived happily until his death in 1994.
Today, Silnes is a resident at the Peninsula Regent, an assisted-living facility. But retirement is the last thing on her mind.
"I have 80 pages of my memoirs done," she said. "I've also written some fiction stories. I was a prolific painter, but physically I can't handle them now, so I donated a whole storeroom of paintings to senior services."
Cumbersome as painting on canvas may have become, working with a computer has been a snap for Silnes. "I've always been interested in new things and keeping up with the times," she said. "I couldn't wait to get my hands on one."
Now she's trying to figure out how to scan and enhance some of her recent drawings and illustrations using her computer.
Silnes said she'll get to it "as soon as I get someone to show me how to do it."