Still thinking about Father’s Day….
Beating to windward! Ah, how I love that point of sail! Ah, how I love that phrase! Actually, I love all points of sail; each has its own rhythm, its own disciplines. To be sure, it is a rhythm with which you must learn to be in sync, and you must adhere to the disciplines or you will betray your course. I’ve been sailing since I was 14, even before that, but at 14, my friend Chris and a few other contemporaries–instructors–who were way ahead of me, made sure that I knew how to handle the helm. I never was much of a racer, but I have a life-long love of sailing thanks to the Yacht Club at Point O’Woods.
If you’ve read my post, “Advice to My Daughter,” you know that I do not have a daughter. Well, most unfortunately, I do not have a son either. About the closest I can come to a son is my young friend Sean, whose career I have followed since he rode his bicycle from the next town over many years ago to mow my lawn. I have tried not to drown him in advice. Thankfully, he had a dad, a wonderful one at that, who taught him all kinds of practical knowledge, in addition to what I would call the Christian basics. Sean is as bright a young man, as worldly smart as any, but he can also tear apart a car and rebuild it in a manner befitting the best racing mechanics on the track.
If I had a son, what would I teach him? If I only had two pieces of advice to give, well, they would probably be “love your neighbor and “love the Lord with all your heart.” Beyond those biblical missives, “learn to sail and get a boat” would surely follow. “Start with a small one you can handle and work your way up to a cruising sailboat. I’ll teach you what I know, and we can fill out the rest of your education with sailing courses, if need be.” My first boat was a Sunfish, my second and last, a 35 foot Catalina sloop. What a jump! You cannot “strike a match on a buoy in a 35 foot sloop,” I admonished my cousin Robert during one sail. The Sunfish belonged to my brother Brian, and I bought the Catalina 350 myself. Between ownership of those two of hulls, I assiduously avoided doing what I loved, sailing. Early on, I practiced on Cape Cod Mercuries, fooled around on Thistles and even crewed aboard a graceful Zephyr and Narrasketuck or two. The latter two boats will take you back in time….
“Sailing and maintaining your own boat will teach you just about every skill you need to advance in life, especially if you own one big enough to invite others aboard, either as passengers or crew.”
That’s what I would tell my boy, if I had one. Continuing on:
“Sailboats require work.” You cannot just turn on the engine, point the bow and and run from point A to point B as power boats do. If the wind is in your favor going out, it will be against you coming back, unless it changes during the day. The same is true for the tide. “If the wind and wave oppose, you’ll get the heck beaten out of you. So, you have to plan your trip.”
“Your crew can turn a pleasant sail into hell on the water.” Not everyone likes to sail. “I don’t like it when it tips,” is a sentence I have heard many a trip. No matter how I tried, I could never convince some reluctant crew members that we weren’t going over. He or she had apparently never been exposed to a pendulum. I had a girl I was dating who actually thought we were not going to make it under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge when she spied it from our location off Ellis Island. Despite the fact that I assured her I had been underneath at least 100 times, she just wouldn’t take my word for it! Choose the wrong person or people, and you are in for a miserable day, morning, afternoon or evening. “As captain, you learn quickly who can be trusted, who is lazy, selfish or short of patience. You learn who has a Napoleon complex, who thinks he or she is a better sailor. As captain, you learn to forgive and who forgives.” In all the time I sailed aboard my boat, I only had to put two people off, one bi-polar young lady (I decided she had to go), and the other–let’s just say– he decided to return to shore of his own volition. With his USCG license, he outranked me, and I wasn’t slavishly taking his direction aboard my boat. It was clear, however, that neither person had the respect for the captain, the boat or for the other crew I had aboard, and this was a situation I couldn’t tolerate. “You don’t have time for people who don’t respect you.”
“As captain, USCG licensed or not, you are responsible for the safety of your boat and your crew at all times. If you don’t want to be in charge and take the risk, you shouldn’t be captain. If you want to be crew, be crew. No shame in crewing, but make yourself invaluable.” Captains don’t have it easy. Twenty-four-seven responsibility is the reason, I never drank a drop of alcohol when I was at the helm. I also watched the amount of alcohol my crew consumed, if they drank at all. (Two beer limit over an afternoon.) Most drank nothing, as I kept them busy trimming the jib or main. “If you want to find out what someone is made of, teach them a skill and give them a job.” I would share the wheel frequently. “A drunk crew is useless in an emergency and might even create one. Forget about drugs.” If you strike a match aboard my boat, it better be to light a barbecue grill. Stoners never boarded my boat. If someone was feeling seasick or uneasy, I would turn to him or her and say, “I’m not feeling that well myself, you had better take the wheel.” You would be amazed how well people responded. “Challenge your crew; give them a reason to be aboard.” Thank you Ernie McVey. (it’s been a long time. Hope I got your name right.)
“Finally, the boat itself must be well-provisioned and kept in great shape, since there are no pit-stops at sea. You have to learn to make do with what you have.” From hardware to provisions, you had better have planned ahead. You cannot repair engines and your boat with tools and hardware you don’t have, and you cannot dine on what you didn’t bring. Fire extinguishers are a must. I have put out two fires in my life, and one was aboard my boat. Quick thinking and actions by me and Captain Harris, who helped me sail her from North Carolina to New Jersey, saved us from having a smoldering tachometer turn into a raging inferno. Great team effort. (Floating fiberglass hulks that have burned to the waterline are not a pretty sight.) As luck and planing on my part would have it, I happened to have the exact replacement part aboard. (The tachometer hadn’t been operating correctly before the trip. Something told me I needed to have a spare.) We were able to make it to port where timely repairs could be made. “The right tool in your toolbox is vital.” If I reached for a tool on my boat to find that I didn’t have it, the next trip out I would have whatever it was stowed safely below.
“You learn so much about yourself–what makes you tick, and about your crew, when you sail. Every day–fair weather or foul–can be a learning experience.” This is why I have always loved sailing. The wind and the waves can be unpredictable and unforgiving at times. “Much like life, you have to be practical, and have to rely upon common sense honed by experience.” Electronics can help you, but they cannot save you if you don’t know what you are doing. “Men have been sailing for thousands of years. Learn a bit of the wisdom they knew.” In a gale, or a bad storm, you can lose your boat, a limb or even your life, not to mention the lives of your crew, if you are not careful. “Prepare and prepare, but you still learn your most valuable lessons through trial and error.” Hopefully, your trials and your errors won’t cost you too much. Ask me about dislocating my left shoulder sometime. I would chance dislocating the other one for one more opportunity to sail aboard my Catalina.
For the love of the sailing–to me the essence of freedom–you learn and you challenge yourself. You sail day in and day out, regardless of weather, in hope of the gentle zephyrs gracing your boat. Ah zephyrs….
(Photo credit – top of page Sailing Yacht: Cameris/Shutterstock)