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Einstein's Energy For His Boats

Even while unlocking some of the world's most incomprehensible mysteries, Albert Einstein, like ourselves, just had to get down to the water and go messing about in his boat.

Old sepia photo of Albert Einsein standing on a sailboat rigging the sails with other man helping him

Albert Einstein told a reporter, "Atomic power is no more unnatural than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake." (Photo: Princeton University Library)

To many people, the word "genius" conjures up a familiar picture: a benevolent, wrinkled face topped by an untidy mop of white hair radiating wildly in every direction. Usually a long chalkboard full of minute scribbling comprises the background. This face most associated with genius, of course, was that of the German-born physicist whose Theory of Relativity rocked the world of physics in 1907, and became the foundation upon which the modern study of space and time is based. His most famous formula, E=mc2, is recognized everywhere, by young and old alike, even if few of us can explain what it actually stands for, and even fewer can fathom its ramifications.

Though arguably one of the world's greatest minds, Albert Einstein was, in many ways, much like the rest of us. In his spare time, to sort out his thoughts, he didn't resort to an isolated ivory tower lined with dusty books, high above the world's concerns. He craved instead to get out on his boat. And if he ran that boat aground more often than he would've liked, perhaps we can let the occasional lack of seamanship slide, supposing that a eureka moment of inspiration may well have been distracting him.

Black and white portrait of Albert Einstein smoking a pipe and hanging onto ropes from his sailboat while on the the water
Photo: Associated Press

Before World War II dispossessed Einstein of his home and possessions, and turned him into one of the world's most celebrated refugees, he used to putter at every opportunity aboard his pride and joy, a 21-foot sloop called Tummler that had been given to him by friends on his 50th birthday, after he had been ordered by his doctor to take it easy. Tummler, which means "porpoise," had been built with Einstein's tastes and needs in mind. Einstein wasn't fond of engines, deeming them too complicated, and he never even learned to drive a car. Tummler was fitted with a cleverly hidden inboard engine — even the controls weren't visible when not in use. Her tiny cabin had a small head, extra seating, and a special shelf for storing his pipes.

Einstein sailed Tummler out of his summerhouse in Caputh, Germany, until 1933, when the gestapo seized all his property. Later, from his home-in-exile, in New Jersey, he tried to get his beloved "thick little boat" out of Nazi clutches, but was unsuccessful. The German boatyard's owner, who easily could have moved Tummler to neutral territory for shipment to America, was too frightened of Nazi retaliation to do so. Tummler was eventually sold at auction and records of her disappear in the mid-1940s.

After moving to the U.S. Einstein owned another boat, a 15-foot dinghy that he sailed around New England, named Tinef, Yiddish for "worthless" or, simply, "junk." Perhaps he was drawing a comparison between her and Tummler, a more splendid boat. Or he may have called her Tinef in playfulness, for we do know he had great times in her. Some reports say he was a very good sailor, barreling pell-mell toward other boats only to turn away laughing at precisely the last instant; others cite those maneuvers as a testament to a certain happy-go-lucky seafaring ineptitude, adding also that he was known to periodically run aground on the same sandbar several hundred yards from his house. Tinef was eventually stove in against a rock while he was sailing in Saranac Lake, New York, and no trace of her or many photographs remain.

It has struck some observers as strange that a man of such an orderly and precise-thinking mind could so enjoy boating, which involves constantly varying and unpredictable factors — wind, tides, waves. They speculate that perhaps a little chaos might've been just what a mind such as his needed as a release from the rigid structure of complex scientific thought. But those of us who love boating, and who spend as much of our time as possible out on the water, might come to a different conclusion. We know that the elemental forces of nature, whether gently ruffling the waters or piling them into roaring billows, are always on display, that they exhibit great order, and what was Einstein's work dealing with if not those very forces? It's that energy — the invisible "E" in his famous equation — that moves the matter that creates the winds and tides and waves that so addict those of us who love the sea and boats. It may very well be that seeing the end results of nature's work — and there may be no better place for that than upon the sea in a little boat — helped Albert Einstein to recognize and define the elemental laws of nature that lie at their source.

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Ben Zartman

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Ben and Danielle Zartman, and three young daughters live aboard their 31-foot Cape George cutter, which they built themselves for long-distance cruising. Ganymede spent last winter at the dock in Newport, Rhode Island, while Ben worked as a boatwright for the International Yacht Restoration School.