I spend a lot of time telling my wife about my boat and the joys of sailing. I paint pictures of sunny days, stiff breezes and tales of adventure. I want her to share my enthusiasm and look forward to the day when we can ply the Chesapeake.
She usually listens quietly to my ramblings. But there are limits to her patience and a couple of weeks ago she interrupted me with a tone of mild irritation. “There certainly is a long build up to this adventure,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You’ve been working on the boat for months—and you have a long way to go, that’s all. How long will I have to wait?”
Hilary has taken to correcting me when I say that she doesn’t like to sail. “That’s not true,” she says. “I don’t know if I like sailing or not. I’ve never been sailing.”
Actually, she had one experience on a sailboat. About twenty-five years ago she went out on the San Francisco Bay with a group of friends. The swells were bad (as they often are) and she ate too much crab dip. All she really remembers is the nausea. That’s the sum total of her sailing career. No wonder she doesn’t share my dream of sailing away.
Suddenly, it all seemed obvious. Talk won’t get me anywhere. What I needed to do was get her on the water. The only thing that will convince her is a happy sailing experience. In her own way she was saying, “Shut up and take me sailing.”
In fact, the whole family needed to go sailing. While the kids have been in canoes, kayaks and the obligatory plastic paddle boats, none had been in a boat driven by the wind. It was a silly oversight that I planned to correct.
I watched the weather reports and on the first sunny day we drove down to a nearby state park. There was a small lake and a concession that rented Sunfish by the hour. The temperature was in the mid 70’s—cool for this time of year—and occasional clouds promised gentle breezes.
Sunfish are small boats; there’s barely room for two, so I took everyone out one at a time. I was determined to project an image of calm competence, but as I stepped into the tiny cockpit it occurred to me that I hadn’t sailed in a least a decade. I hoped that boats were like bicycles and I hadn’t forgotten how to handle the sail and rudder.
Matthew, one of our twins, was the first aboard. He’s a comedian and skeptic so, of course, he was sure I would send him to Davy Jones’ locker. I ignored his taunts as I maneuvered into the middle of the lake, looking for a breeze. I turned the boat a bit upwind and tightened the sail. That’s it. Now I remember!
We scuttle across the water and near the opposite shore. Time to turn about. I tell Matthew to duck as the boom swings across. Just then the wind dies and we stall. Matthew looks at me skeptically. “Sailors have to be patient,” I declare sagely. A moment later the wind returns with unexpected force and we lurch sideways. “Everything’s fine,” I say (a little shrilly) as I jerk the tiller a bit too suddenly. But we recover in a moment and head back to the other side. I hand the sail to Matthew and let him decide where it should be for maximum effect.
Twenty minutes later we return to the landing and Matthew disembarks. He’s a natural tease, but I can tell he had a good time.
Now it’s Hilary’s turn. She gets in and faces me with a look of brave determination. We push off and immediately feel a nice, steady breeze. “I like this,” she says before we even get to the other side of the lake. She looks so cute in her shorts and life jacket, the wind blowing her hair, I lean over and kiss her–and keep kissing her until the wind shifts and we heel over unexpectedly. I recover both the boat and my dignity and start talking about the theory and practice of sailing. She listens, I feel, with genuine interest.
Exhausting my knowledge of the subject in a matter of moments, I hand her the sail. She tugs and I turn. It feels like we are working together—as we have for nearly twenty-five years—to find our way to a distant shore.
I sit there smiling with childlike pleasure, but I know the stakes are high. While I want to test my abilities as sailor, I also know that the most important task is to give the family a good time. I have one chance to convince Hilary that sailing is fun. I need to erase any thoughts of crab dip and her persistent worries about safety. That means no sudden moves, no scary turns and—please, God–no knock-downs. This keeps me cautious and I move back and forth at a leisurely pace, working over the same patch of water. I don’t trust my skills at tacking so I more or less run across the wind to avoid getting trapped at the far end of the lake.
We return safely and by the end of the afternoon, everyone has had a ride. Sophie has a way with the sails; I think she’s a natural sailor. Avery, my oldest, seems the most enthusiastic and announces on the way home that wants to build his own boat. The day is declared a great success.
My own doubts are dispelled, as well. Before getting in the boat, I privately wondered if I was setting myself up for disappointment. Sailing was fun as a kid, but what if I realized that it was no longer exciting? What if I simply found it tedious or unnecessarily frustrating? But on the way home, I simply looked forward to the next opportunity to get on the water.
However, I clearly see my limitations. After the first hour, I had recovered most of my childhood skills. But I also realized that I didn’t know all that much as a boy. A ten-year-old in a Sunfish on a tiny lake can’t do much more than go back and forth, following the wind. Instinctively, that’s all I did with the family. I don’t really know how to tack efficiently or set a course to a particular destination. When I’m on the Chesapeake, however, it won’t be enough to go in figure eights. I need to get from Point A to Point B. I still have a lot to learn.
But I decide to worry about that later. For now, it’s enough to hold the tiller, feel the sails, and kiss my wife.