I spent two years trying to demonstrate to my various assigned skippers that I could indeed sail a cruising boat safely and conscientiously. There were some things I did well and I recognized some items that needed improvement. Now that I have been deemed capable, I find I am still continually being judged...by myself.
This self-critique process is made both easier and more difficult because of the consummate skill and professionalism embodied by the men and women who serve as skippers in our club. Recognizing how experienced and accomplished they all are, it is easy to be self-conscious about my own abilities. Yet because I have been considered by these same people, I am buoyed knowing they feel I am qualified. Recent communications concerning skipper requirements likewise have made me feel welcome and accepted by this superior cadre. I will continue to watch and listen. There is so much they can teach me.
In my mind, the assessment and evaluation never stop. I view life as a continuous learning experience. Sailing is no exception. Each trim of the sails, every anchor set, and every docking maneuver are more opportunities to experience, evaluate, and then make modifications for the next attempt.
It is undeniably important to return crew and vessel unscathed to the point of embarkation but in the Sailing Club, Inc., that is not all that is expected of us. We must recognize that our crews come in a full spectrum of never-been-on-a-boat to offshore passagemakers and live-aboards. Some people may want a full discussion of Bernoulli’s principle while others just want to be nowhere and do nothing in particular, and there is no correlation to their experience level. The one thing they do have in common is a desire to enjoy their time afloat.
The best way I know to help my crew enjoy their trip is to openly share my enthusiasm for this sport that brings us all together. To me, sailing is a very sensual and romantic activity. I mean that in the broadest possible sense. Every day I look to the sky and feel the wind. I can’t help assessing what kind of sailing day it will be. (Are there any bad days?) I get a sensation of salt sea air in my nostrils. I feel the moving air on my face. I see the rigging straining as it surges with the puffs and relaxes in the lulls. I hear the wake bubbling off my stern. When I arrive in a new anchorage, I remember that all my ancestors arrived in this way. I truly appreciate the sense of awe they must have felt, both the Africans and the Europeans, when they first saw strange and previously distant shores. The splendor of the night sky often inspires me to recite or create verse and prose that describe how I feel. And I want everyone around me to understand what it is that moves me so. They need not necessarily agree with me...just understand.
There is a great satisfaction that comes with having a boat respond to its environment as I desire. I get just as much joy in helping someone else understand why a particular response should be expected as well as when and how to initiate it. Indeed, there are few tests of our knowledge and abilities better than teaching others. The light of discovery in the eyes of another is just as stimulating as the nocturnal lights of heaven blinking their silent blessings upon us.
As a skipper, I can never afford to get so complacent as to assume I know all I need to know or that I always know what is best for my crew. Autocracy is only appropriate in emergency situations. Therefore, I will begin each trip with these questions to my crew:
By the time you read this, I will have probably completed my first trip as skipper. I hope I do well. With the continuing support of my peers and with your help and input, we can all become better sailors!
Have you heard it?
Every place has a rhythm and a harmony of its own. The composition is set according to the desires of our heart and so, each of us can hear very different music in the same circumstances. The music is always there but we must listen for it. What you hear may depend on your mood, your perceptions, and your expectations. The experience will be forever incomplete if we neglect the concordance between ourselves and nature. When I glide into the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay, my mind fills with a symphony of strings. They are playing a larghetto for the nobility of that great estuary. My soul fills and lifts. It glides like butterflies in the slipstream of the sails, hovering effortlessly and following compulsively.
As the day grows more full, the melody changes from symphonic strings to a joyful acappella roundelay. The voices are clear and strong. The notes are their words and my tenor interprets what I hear accordingly. The warmth of the sun on my face beams with the energy of the harmony that flows all around me.
When the day wanes toward evening, the musicians change once again. Now it is a jazz ballad I hear. It mourns the passage of another priceless day while celebrating the imminent birth of the next. There will be new opportunities...new experiences. I am saddened at the end of the day for fear that I might not have used its full potential. I will be grateful for one more chance to be thankful for who and where I am. As the veil of sleep is drawn over me, I relive the day and its euphony. I hope for one more, identical only in the opportunity to celebrate the experience.
Can you hear it? Have you listened for it? Quiet your soul and clear your mind. You must be willing to accept it but you cannot pursue it. If you do, you will never find it. It comes to those who welcome it and eludes those who chase it. Listen...listen...listen. Hear the joy and join the chorus.
I am sitting in the rarefied air of a commercial jetliner at 29,000 feet. Why am I dreaming of sailing?
With two small children at home, it is difficult to sail more than two or three times a year. I wish it could be more. Hopefully someday it will be. I have already taken my son sailing…daysailing and cruising. I was a proud father when it became clear that he loves sailing almost as much as I do. The picture of him at the wheel is priceless. I was proud and ecstatic to give him his first cruising experience so early. I did not try sailing until I was 16. He has an eleven year head start on me. I wonder how much greater my passion would be if I had eleven more years to ripen my love of the sport.
It was bit like watching myself. I saw his eyes widen as we hoisted the mainsail. His nervous giggle held more amazement than apprehension as the sail snapped full on the wind. From then on, he wanted to know everything… “What’s that?” “Why do you do that?” “How does it work?” “How do you know?” He wanted to do everything too! “When can I steer?” “I can so pull up the anchor!” “Can we catch crabs?”. At the end of three days, he knew container ships from car carriers, buoys from daymarks, and red right returning.
There are many components to my love of sailing. Testing my own abilities is one. You cannot grow if you don’t stretch. The beauty of the surroundings never fails to move my soul. It does not matter whether the backdrop is a sapphire sky or a gray rain. Nature’s beauty is always there. Sometimes we simply and rudely choose to ignore it. Any turmoil in my disposition is quieted by the soft peace of a beam reach. Restorative, soothing, rejuvenating…choose any synonymous adjective you wish.
No less important an element is my crew. Like the twists and strands of a line, we are capable of so much more together. It is not just the physical labor to which I refer. The mate tells me of a previous situation. It then becomes part of my learning experience. One crew member asks what I may have considered to be a question with an obvious answer. I will not make such assumptions again. We eat well and laugh heartily. I am more eager for the next opportunity.
There are many people I would love to have in my crew. There are nearly as many that I would not mind having again. It is extremely difficult to mutually satisfy these preferences given that I cannot sail as often as I would like and that some with whom I may wish to sail have their own preferences. It is momentarily disappointing but I soon remember that I have yet to not enjoy a trip or a crew.
My son asks when he will be able to go sailing again. I tell him I hope it will be soon. My daughter asks when she can go sailing like her brother. I tell her that she needs to be a little older. When will I get to sail with you? I hope very soon indeed!
We learn from our experiences. Our life...our knowledge is a greater sum of all of our life experiences. To a degree, we also benefit and learn from the experiences of others, many we don’t even know.
The Sailing Club is very much about shared experiences. The very concept of sharing is what makes our club successful. We share the costs and logistics to make it possible for a greater number of people to participate. We share our knowledge so that others may learn. This allows them to achieve a deeper appreciation of the sport and then, to possibly share their knowledge with others. Perhaps most importantly, we share our enthusiasm. We become our own cheerleaders, not so much whipping our crewmates into a frenetic fever pitch as helping them to enjoy more of the novelties, subtleties and shadings of sailing and cruising.
Personally, among my favorite things are enjoying a simple, relaxed meal in the salon with my shipmates and then retiring to the cockpit to ponder the universe, both local and cosmic, and all the events that transpired to bring us to that place in space and time. Sometimes the best conversations are those without much basis in reality. One should realize that “deep” conversations, like archeological discoveries, begin at the shallowest levels. However, layer by layer, we reveal more precious treasures.
Sometimes when I am pondering, I look at the waves and wavelets that kiss the hull of the boat and wonder how far they have traveled. What have they seen? What stories can they tell? Perhaps if I listen carefully to the swish of reflected ripples, I can hear the voices they have heard softly whispering. I like to think that the waves and ripples, like rays of light, never fade away completely. They bear forever the stories, sights, and sounds of all the lives that have witnessed those watery undulations. In peaceful coves, I hear echoes of our ancestors and the original peoples of that place. Their words comfort me and I realize I am in an exceptional place at an exceptional time. On my last trip, my friend Cecile helped to remind me how loquacious the breathy quiet of being under sail can be.
As that ceaseless swell departs from us, what messages will we convey along with it? I think about the next person who believes enough to listen to the water. Will she hear the rapture I feel in being borne by the wind? Will he be inspired or discouraged? If the joy imparted to these waves is as clear as the images it leaves in my memory, years from now someone may be writing about a vestigial sailor whose thoughts will still be propelled by the wind and carried by the sea. Indeed, as I write this composition, my thoughts are of all the sailors whose utterances still reverberate from the shores of time. It will always be so.
My fellow traveler, take heart. You see, immortality comes in many casts. We need not seek it so desperately. We should only seek to leave a wake that is as soft and gentle as the waves that welcome us each time we push out into the deeper waters.
I am fractured, disjointed, segregated…disassembled. Life has again gotten the better of me. I feel my body’s humors seeping from the crevices of my disintegration. Much like sand through my fingers, my energy follows similarly.
Driving down the highway, I realize I am speeding. I can’t get there quickly enough. I slow down to keep the officer happy but I smile more broadly in anticipation. The weather is looking splendid. I am following the edge of a long line of fair weather clouds ever onwards towards my destination…or more correctly, towards my departure.
I am lifted. It is almost as though I am no longer touching the ground. I am more cloud than human…more spirit than being. Unconsciously I take a slow deep breath and it is sweet in my lungs. Hurry… Each moment not there is a moment’s less cure.
What is it? What about this addiction so completely restores me? Perhaps it is selfish of me but will I not be better when I am done? It can’t be a bad thing to want to be refreshed. Will I not be better for those around me for having had these moments? And it is an addiction. I must seek it out because it does not need me. I need it. It will exist and flourish whether I participate or not. At this point in my experience, I can’t imagine not participating. I cannot think of this distraction not pulling at me…pulling against the mooring lines that hold me grounded and steady. I must let go and follow.
At last my goal is at hand. Masts line up like Belgian pine forests. I feel the change beginning to happen. The fog is dissipating. The sea is calling me and the way is becoming so much clearer. Walking down the dock, I hear dock lines stretch and slack. Shrouds and stays hum harmoniously. I smell the creosote on the pilings. I feel the wind on my neck. Silently I calculate the routes and headings for the journey. My footsteps are light and quickening.
I stand and absorb the sight of my vessel. It is a comely and sturdy ship. She will do most adequately. I step on her gunwale and she yields to my weight.
The healing has begun…
What do you remember? What things in your memory draw you back to a previous destination or prior activity? Memory is a powerful resource. On the one hand we can recall the complete lyrics of a popular ballad from the 1970’s yet we struggle to remember a friend’s telephone number. (We shall delay the discussion about speed dialing to another time.) We know where we were when JFK or MLK was assassinated but we have no idea where we left the cordless phone after we last used it. It would be too simplistic to categorically state that we preferentially choose to remember historic moments or personally relevant events. What is the nature of reminiscence, recollection, and remembrance?
Whether we want to admit it or not, our memory is highly selective. It is a matter of preservation, particularly of one’s sanity, that we consciously or unconsciously choose to be less complete in our recall of painful, distasteful, or embarrassing times. Do you remember finding food in your teeth after your prom or how much you enjoyed dancing with your date? Do you remember your first time driving or failing the road test? We usually remember one defining incident…one moment. It is that instant which characterizes what our memory selects as the context during future recollections. Once our psyche chooses what to keep as treasure, it is amazing how much is in the storehouse of our mental artifacts.
Whenever I am getting underway, I will briefly recall the initial moments of my first charter. I set off from Fairlee Creek in rain and heavy fog. Visibility was less than one-quarter mile. Yet, I navigated 15 miles or more using DR and pilotage to within one-quarter mile of the track I had laid out. The smile that spread across my face warmed the chill of the early spring mist right out of me. I remember the early anxiety but I recall with pride the accomplishment.
Three years later in a substantially bigger boat, we were beating across the Bay towards the Choptank River…again in cold, hard rain. One crew had the onset of hypothermia. The boat was pounding and the tacking was hard in such strong winds. Later at anchor, the light of a full moon flowed through the deck hatch illuminating my bunk. It provided a spotlight for my reverie and ruminations. I learned from the hypothermia incident but I fondly recall the magnificence of moonlight cascading through the deck hatch spotlighting my slumber.
The weather forecast was for 25-knot wind and 6 foot waves. We had some 32 miles to sail to reach Tangier Island. I felt some apprehension for conditions in which I had not sailed previously. However, it turned out to be an exhilarating exercise in maintaining control of our little ship in such capricious circumstances. There were tense grips on the wheel and sore muscles on the other side but the ride reminded us all of what it feels like to be alive. I will also remember what it took to make that trip. I will not forget the attention to weather planning and the navigation that was needed. The background for those memories is the sheer thrill of that energetic crossing.
Last summer I had the opportunity to crew on the delivery of Dave Steward’s Stewardship that took us up the New Jersey coast. I was on the midnight to 4 AM watch with Dave. During our watch we listened in stunned silence to radio transmissions involving a drowned man out with his family. He was a young man and from what we heard, it is unlikely he survived the incident. Dave and I both rechecked our harnesses and tethers. We are good friends, Dave and I. Briefly I considered what it means to lose a friend or family member. I soon returned to enjoying the night’s sailing and the company of my good friend. We were both thankful to be where we were instead of being the ones who were being heard over the radio. The majesty of reaching up the Jersey coast is still with me…one more memory of why sailing captivates me so fully.
Finally, last September I sailed the Chesapeake Bay for five days with friends, my pastor, and his wife. Our last full day treated us to a glorious 15-knot wind from the SSE. We sailed 8 hours or more that Thursday. As we approached our destination for the night, I did not want to head into the anchorage because the winds were giving me every good reason not to do so. Yet, I knew that some of my crew were not as enamored with the sailing as I was. Once our anchor was firm and dinner was served, Pastor Paul offered a blessing. I had expected that he would mention the beautiful weather or the perfect sailing conditions. Instead, his thanks were for the company of the men and women around him and what we contributed to the moment. As much as I love sailing, being on a boat, and going nowhere in no particular hurry, I remembered in that instant that it could all be meaningless without the camaraderie and fellowship of good shipmates. To Pastor Paul’s prayer, we all responded “Amen…”.
I recount these memories to any who stand still long enough to listen. The trigger for the memory is frequently an unexpected stimulus. Sometimes it is a taste of crab, the smell of salty air on the wind, or merely the sound of straining sheets. I hope my audience grasps the lessons learned but more so, I wish for them to feel the full extent of the passion that these recollections evoke. Perhaps that is the thing: It is not so much what I remember but how I feel about it in that instant. I am passionate in the original moment. The telling is stout with zeal. And because there is such fervor in my reminiscence, the memory stays with me even longer.
What will you pack away at the end of your next journey? And why?
I had to plant some grass this spring on my lawn. That involved digging up compacted clay and mixing it with compost from our heap by the garage. Then there were fertilizer and seed and raking and straw cover. I had not done this in a few years so it caught me by surprise at how fatigued this whole process made me...for only a 32 square foot area! Had I forgotten how hard this work was? Or am I just getting older and feeling it ever more fully? I think it is the latter.
I notice of late that I spend a lot of time playing “remember when”. I smile at all those pleasant memories. I chuckle when I remember my youth when I listened to my father's wistful tales about growing up on the farm. It causes me to wonder if I sound to my son as my father did to me all those years ago. I also wonder if my memories are still accurate or becoming a thing of fancy. Is it not so much a “remember when” as I wish it had been?
Perhaps it is the economy. Perhaps it is the pressures at work. Or perhaps it is the incumbent stress of raising a family. Maybe it is all of that and then some. Have you ever felt like you were in Dorothy's tornado with all of life swirling about you chaotically? I suspect all of us wish we were over the rainbow more often than we would publicly admit.
But now it is spring again. Those fledgling grass seeds have sprouted already. The birds are building their nests. The air has that certain earthy freshness that infuses us with the energy of renewal. From an emotional point of view, I think New Year's Day should be on the first day of spring! And speaking of the air... In the spring it moves. Warm, moist air masses begin to move up from the south as winter's fence, called the jet stream, retreats north. I stand with my face to the sun allowing the new winds of spring to wash over me like a giant wave. On a good day, I swear I can feel it pass right through me taking all the ill humors and harsh auras away with it.
We are all sailors. Like little boys to fire trucks, we instinctively turn towards the source of our heart's delight. We are like ground-level windexes. Our bodies point into the apparent wind and our smiles record the quality of the breeze that carries us over that rainbow to the imaginary Bay of Perfect Winds. Beam reaching across to the other side we slip our way into Nature's Cove wherein we find peace and tranquility for the night. Did you just look out the window to see which way the wind is blowing as you read this? You see! We can't help ourselves.
As we stand there in that warm spring wind, all those memories of great sails and even better crews come rushing back like the puffs that fall out of the bulging cumulous cloud over head. It is our own time machine. In our mind's eye we travel back in time: the first raft-up, the first overnight, the first command, the first time off the dock. Quick frowns mark the unpleasant but necessary memories that we swear to not repeat. Just as fast, the pained wrinkles fade as our expression is replaced by the joy of happy times. How very basic our needs seemed then. How simple our desires and the means by which we achieved them! It makes us ask whether life has gotten complicated for us or have we complicated life?
That sobering inquiry brings us back to the present. We look around and take stock of the situation. Point here. Ask a little help there. Call to the crew. Slipping our moorings it comes back to us that this is just like the first time all over again.
The shadows of e'en come on hushed steps
While the eyes of Heavens open
Deep into the universe and souls.
Voices out of black whisper to allies
And shout at their foes.
The body of twilight moves all at once,
As it ripples waters and leaves,
It cools the Earth's womb
But not her passion.
The perspiration of angels washes `way
The day from the night
But opalescent Luna brings it back
On provocative reflection.
And now, having witnessed nature's truths,
Can we be any less
Than what it is we feel?
I was notified Friday that Bay Poet has been hauled for the winter. There are now 105 days until she is launched. By about the end of February, it will begin to sink in just how brief those 105 days will have been. However, I am grateful for the help and comraderie of friends who insist on helping me with commissioning, winterizing, and then later in the winter, scraping and painting Bay Poet's hull. It is not terribly surprising to know people who want to enjoy a weekend on my boat. It is another thing altogether to have friends who are not only willing but eager to replace parts on the head, to look like coalminers after scraping and sanding bottom paint, or challenging their physical strength and agility by carrying off the mainsail for folding or to bend it back on in the spring.
And...these are not just willing workers...limbs and fingers for physical labor, these are friends and people with whom I enjoy spending all manner of time. Those experiences have included testing our abilities in 35+ knot winds, navigating into creeks long after dark when our primary anchorage became impractical, or singing in the cockpit as an icy rain fell all about us.
Do not get me wrong. I love my friends but we do not always see eye to eye on all topics. One is a conservative libertarian. Another is so accommodating as to be maddening. The third can be a bit impatient at times but in each case, their hearts are always in the right place. The fact that we can spend a considerable amount of time in the close confines of a boat is a testament to our friendship. This is all leading up to how I found such friends in the first place.
When I meet someone new and the conversation gets around to sailing...as it always does when I am involved, I share how sailing makes me feel. I expand on how I feel born away by the wind and tide, how it connects me with my past, and most importantly, to a better part of myself. I discuss MY experience of sailing. And over the years it has been my experience that most people do not share my focused zeal for being on a boat. Yes...I will sail in the rain. Yes, I will sail when it is cold. I LOVE a night sail, even surfing 12-foot waves before 30 knot winds off the Jersey Coast delivering some faceless stock broker's yacht to Annapolis. I don't apologize for nature. I exist within in it.
I invite people to try it. I don't ask them to gear up in full foulies and gear. I ask them to come with me and try to see it not even as I do but to experience it for themselves. Like a bottle of wine, each person partaking will have a different encounter and the flavor that lingers will be what they remember. I believe you "grow" sailors one or two at a time. Some are already in tune with the concept before they step aboard. Others need a little time to acclimate and discover the beauty that comes with bobbing at anchor with the golden glow of a sunset flooding the cockpit or ghosting before the rising moon. I like to immerse them in the peace that is a gently rolling beam reach or the exhilaration of the spinnaker snapping full.
I am a sailor. Almost by definition, I take my cues from nature. How can I not then also be in tune with my passengers and crew? We become an orchestra, sharing in harmony the blissful quiet of being under sail. We resonate...just as the rigging hums to the wind, we synchronize and syncopate...each one of us bringing a different experience to the forum that affects how each of the rest of us experience the moment. We are musicians of a sort, creating harmony from our separate internal melodies and proverbially creating a greater whole from the components.
New sailors are not the commodity. The EXPERIENCE of sailing is the commodity and our bare and pulsating passion is the advertisement for that commodity. Go sailing. Take someone with you.
Stepping aboard, the weight of my tribulations is gently borne by my vessel. I am lightened and encouraged. With purpose and found energy, I set about preparing Bay Poet for her voyage. Open up down below. Secure my gear. Check the weather…again. (It has been reviewed several times already!) Rig the sail. Warm the engine. Departure is imminent.
Here are my friends bringing even more buoyancy with the smiles and good cheer. We make a chain to load their gear and our supplies and then pass them all down below.
The sun is warm. The breeze stirs and the mainsail rustles on the boom as if trying to get our attention. It is signaling that the boat is ready. Like a horse pawing at the ground and tossing its head, Bay Poet is ready to sail.
The crew is coordinated and adept at leaving the dock lines behind neatly and with forethought to our eventual return. As the boat slips her lines and turns to leave, our smiles broaden. Everyone looks from one to the other immersed in this moment…anticipating the next…with fond, if not loving, recall of our last experience.
The feeling is sumptuous, emotional, and even sensual. The sensation is necessarily carnal as the sun, wind, and motion stimulate each one physically. It is neither spoken nor asked as to the just how intimate…our thoughts…may be. Indeed, it is for sure that one or more of us will mentally travel well beyond the obvious and commonplace.
The crew is…in tune with Bay Poet…rocking rhythmically and in anticipation of each oncoming roll and yaw. The helmsman, a little more focused, finds the groove to damp out the random variations. To an observer, if may even appear choreographed.
I suddenly become aware of a song playing on the stereo…just audible over the sounds of sailing. The melody carries me back to a breathless intensity that inspires my imagination all the more. I feel the expansive grin of the Cheshire Cat broaden my face. My senses are as stimulated by the memory as by the current reality.
Then I hear a call. From a somewhat groggy reverie, I turn to answer the hail. In an instant, Bay Poet is securely berthed in her photo and I have just agreed to make the changes to the proposal document. This journey is concluded…or maybe only just…suspended.