Fantasy Meets Reality

For most of my life, sailing was simply a fantasy and in its service I compiled a thick album of enticing mental snapshots: There I am at the tiller, squinting into the wind as I skillfully navigate the open seas; that’s me in a paneled cabin, wearing my Shetland wool sweater while reading a book by the light of a kerosene lamp; and here I am anchored off a tropical island, barefoot and shirtless. My, how tan and muscled I look!

But there is a huge gap between these fantasies and my reality. I am neither single, nor footloose. I have a wife and three wonderful children. I love them and they love me. I intuitively knew that a remote tropical island, one possibly inhabited by young women in grass skirts, is no place for a responsible father and devoted husband.

So I tried to imagine us all on a boat, heading to an equally exotic, if unspecified, destination. But do my children actually want to participate in my fantasy? And even if they did, could I build a boat able to safely and comfortably transport a family of five and, probably, our two cats besides?

The whole project was ready to collapse under the weight of its difficulty and absurdity. Herman Melville could dream of “naked houris” and “carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters” as his whaling ship approached the Marquesas. But he didn’t have a family and he didn’t build his boat. I needed to face reality.

Let’s start with the obvious: No matter how exciting it is to envision a distant and tropical destination, my desire to “sail away” can not mean going to the ends of the earth. I have neither the skill nor resources needed to chart a course for the South Pacific, or even the Caribbean. Not yet anyway. Nor can I impose this adventure on my family. My oldest son is enthusiastic, but he’s fifteen and not especially reliable; boats are nice, but cute girls come first. He would cheerfully feed me to the sharks if it got him a step closer to his fem du jour. Meanwhile, our twins, both twelve, have little more than what can be best called a “polite interest” in the project. They would miss their friends; they would bicker; they would be bored.

Finally, it’s also obvious I don’t yet have the skills needed to build a boat big enough for the whole crew. And even if I did have the skills, I don’t have the time needed to build a larger boat. I read enough boat build blogs to know that plenty of competent builders spend years building even modest sailing craft. A thirty or forty foot cruiser would probably keep me occupied into and possibly through my retirement.

I started to pull back from my fanciful visions. If Bora Bora is off the itinerary, what can I do? The most clear-eyed and responsible thing for a novice boat builder is to construct a small daysailer, tow it to the local lake, and take the family out for a pleasant spin. At the end of the day, we all go home. I head to the office and the kids go to school.

But, no, that’s much too tame. Sailing away implies a journey, an adventure, and possibly a small hint of danger. So between the boring and the unobtainable, I settled on a plan that seems fully doable for the mildly adventurous family man: I would build a small cruiser, one large enough for all to enjoy on a summer afternoon, with sleeping space for two. The specific goal is to sail the boat down the full length of the Chesapeake Bay—my old backyard–with a willing child, if possible. It’s a trip that can be completed (I’m guessing) in a week or two.

I’m not blazing a trail; plenty of inexperienced sailors make this journey. But it is completely new for me, full of novel experiences, from reading charts and watching the weather, to anchoring for the night and cooking an evening meal over an alcohol stove. And if successfully accomplished, it will help me plan my next step. Maybe I’ll find my calling and start building an even bigger boat; maybe I’ll realize that some dreams are better left unfulfilled. In either case, the journey will be a success even if I walk away from the boat on the outskirts of Norfolk.

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