Last week I sailed my new little dory for the first time. It was heavenly. Until the wind died that is. My one-hour sail turned into a 4-hour battle to move even one foot forward. I know. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from being becalmed;
I can easily point out life stations in which discontent and a slovenly spirit toyed with my well-being.
Still. Just one brief hour skimming across the blue deeps, trimming sail and being consumed with the watery, foaming song of the bow slicing through the water was enough to make my re-entry into the world of sailing a delight I will never forget; an unbounded joy.
I grew up sailing an old Grumman aluminum dinghy that was my mother’s first boat. It was slow and stable, not good in light winds. When I was 12, she bought a new, fiberglass Butterfly, a beautiful, sleek turquoise boat, sail number 4607. Oh how I loved that Butterfly! It could nose ably into the wind, rising up onto the lee gunnel in a gallop across the water, straining like a racehorse to run fast. At 14, I was allowed to sail it alone, and it was then that I discovered the singular joy of a solo sail, where all the conversation is in your own head, and the music is orchestrated by God Himself. Sun. Wind. Crystal blue, cold, inviting water. Freedom and solitude. Bliss.
Until one day at the age of 16 when I made a near-fatal error in judgment about the wind. I had been sailing a little recklessly, to be sure. I was experienced, had righted a tipped boat many times by myself, but on this day, when a gust took me and the boat right over, the boat quickly turtled, a term used to describe the mast sinking from parallel to the water to pointing directly down to the bottom of the lake. Butterfly masts take in water like a big straw, so once turtled, they are hard to right. On this day, as I slid across the fiberglass down the lee side of the boat to be dumped in the water, the tiller extension (a long bar that swivels off the end of the tiller to allow the sailor extra reach for hiking out) somehow slid under the shoulder seam of my life jacket.
As I kicked to free myself from underneath the boat, I was dismayed to learn that I was, in effect, tightly trapped to the boat deck. Of course, I was wearing my contacts and had my eyes closed (dumb).
I fumbled around long enough to realize that my life jacket was ironically going to kill me.
So, I unzipped it, scrambled loose, and burst to the surface to cling like wet laundry across the placid and welcoming big white underbelly of the boat. That incident frightened me, no doubt.
Until last week, I never again sailed a boat solo,
and I had very little trust when sailing with my husband that he would keep the boat upright and not dump me into the dark and deep waters of Crystal Lake. I spent years dreaming about sailing my own boat, but the doubt would hold me back. The Butterfly was eventually sold, and we went through a few iterations of sturdy little day cruisers for our family- the Flying Scot, the Wayfarer. They were too big for me to sail alone, and the gnawing desire to sail something small and safe kept growing. I chose the 12’ dory because of its stability, and because when there is no wind it can be sculled for good exercise. The uncanny thing is that its tiller is too short, so we are building an extension- a nice smooth teak one without the T-shaped butt that can tangle in a life jacket.
Last week’s sail was fraught with a kind of humiliating comedy because I ended up needing to be towed in about an hour before dark (after refusing a tow 2 hours earlier with unexpectedly stubborn pride). But before the wind died, that sail was also a victory of will over fear, of returning to an important piece of my development from child into adult. It welcomed me back to my first memories of the power of the wind, the beauty of the white sail kissing the deep blue sky, and the sounds and smells of the water frothing its glad tidings underneath the bow of the boat. Peace. Freedom. Delight. Solitude. I’ve only just begun to make up for the 40 years I missed out there.
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