Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Another Pointless Excursion

It was September 1997. After several years on a trailer in my father’s side yard, the Snipe class dinghy we had sailed together now lived in my garage. I had painstakingly worked out how to manipulate 225 pounds of hull by myself, so I could turn her over to refinish the bottom and turn her back over again.

Somehow, twelve years had sneaked by since I had sailed any boat, let alone this one. I’d lived inland, using a kayak on small waters. In that time my first marriage had run its course. Now I was alone, a middle aged guy with an elderly dog and a cat who thought she owned the place.

The middle of life gives a good view of both ends, perhaps too good a view. Some people get really crazy. Since I felt life was short and not to be wasted from the time I was ten, I had an advantage over people who had given it less thought. Every moment is precious. You can fill every minute with great achievement, which gives the impression the time has not been wasted, but what if you never gave yourself time to think? That’s when you slam into the wall at age 40 or 47 or 53 and find yourself sitting in the crumpled body of your sleek, powerful life, wondering what happened since your twenties.

I’d never been good at sailboat racing. I enjoyed the ride too much. But now I held the tiller and the main sheet – and the jib sheet, too, for that matter. My style would no longer inconvenience anyone else. No one human, anyway.

Winter Harbor on Lake Winnipesaukee does not offer an ideal launching site. All the ramps on this lake are built with motorboats in mind. They don’t need a place to rig. They don’t care if they’re on a lee shore. But with summer over, the Winter Harbor ramp was deserted. Traffic on Route 109 was light. The trailer parking is not half a mile away, so trailer handling was about as easy as it gets for the lone boater.

A stronger wind would have bashed up the boat while I was finishing rigging. The water was too shallow for me to ship the rudder until everything else was ready and I could hold the boat across the end of the short pier by the ramp.

Because I hadn’t done anything that day with my dog Lee, I had brought him with me to the lake. Now I had to get him aboard. He wanted to get near me, but couldn’t make the drop from the high pier. I encouraged him to swim out from shore and then hoisted him aboard, standing beside the boat in waist-deep water.

He was a bit disoriented in the boat. Once aboard, he stood dripping on the floorboards, on shaky legs, obviously wondering why he had wanted to be there. By then, however, we were underway.

The breeze was southerly, five to eight miles per hour, maybe ten. It was enough to heel the boat with me sitting to weather in the stronger puffs, but in the average wind I had to sit inboard, even prejudiced to leeward.

We headed out toward the mouth of Winter Harbor on a long port-tack reach that varied from close hauled to having the wind abeam. A couple or three motor boats buzzed around the fringes of the bay. Then an old classic wooden one began to overtake me. I heard a woman’s voice say, with some excitement, “that’s a Snipe!”

The woodie, “Clair de Loon,” came close enough to hail, more or less. I could hear them better than they could hear me. The woman, who did not give her name, had sailed Snipes years ago. She said her sail number had been 2677. She’d been looking for a wooden Snipe, but had to settle for a 23000 glass boat she’d purchased down at Buzzards Bay.

Because of the engine noise the conversation gave way to smiling and waving. Cordially, we parted.

Lee, while he did not become enthusiastic, did stoically stand in the cockpit for the outward passage. I had no clear plan, just a vague idea to get out to the open lake and see what we might find.

The boat had taken on a great deal of water. This was not surprising, since she’d been dry for years. I didn’t discover until later that the centerboard trunk was severely delaminated and slightly sprung. Unfortunately, only twice in the whole voyage did we hit a speed that made the suction bailers work. I kept having to burrow down in the bilges with a sponge. That made me less attentive to the constant wind shifts, so then I would have to focus on sailing for a while.

I also noticed things I hadn’t adjusted properly, or suddenly remembered to operate one control or another, like jib cloth, mast benders or jib halyard tension.

My emotions flashed up and down. This was not a triumphant culmination or a total joy. I thought about my father and our disappointing career in racing. I experienced now, alone with the boat and responsible for everything, how it must have been for him, trying to keep the boat in good repair and the control systems up to date, trying to remember all the gear and get it together before trips with so little involvement from me.

I enjoyed the trips, but I always hovered before one, wondering if I was ready physically, mentally, emotionally and in equipment. I did not embrace and merge with the world of sailboat racing. I knew a few names, but had no heroes. To a non-sailor I looked like a total disciple, but I knew the difference. If I had a hero at all it was my own father, who could get a boat into and out of anywhere, and got my vote as most likely to come safely through any situation we might encounter. Beyond that I didn’t care much who was whom. I would seldom go out with anyone else.

Not that service in the fo’c’sle of 11900 was a constant flow of fatherly wisdom and reassurance. Sometimes it felt a bit like the Eighteenth Century and I’d been snatched off a British street and come to my senses far offshore, with a raging hangover and a nasty bosun standing over me. But it can’t have been too easy for him, either. A complex man with many conflicting ambitions, he made the best he could of the brew he got by mixing them.

I should have guessed the boat would be saturated with the emotions that had soaked into her over the years of father and son racing. No surprise, either, that these should call forth many reflections on the years that had passed since, the many failures and few successes, the debatable achievement of 41 thoughtful years.

11900 is herself but a year younger than I am. She was 11 when we got her as a used boat, just as the class was about to undergo rule changes that would put her at a disadvantage for most of her remaining competitive years. As a vehicle for reclaiming my father’s considerable past glory she would present a challenge that would be exacerbated by his choice to use family members to crew.

None of this formed into words as I sailed out to the lake. I enjoyed the breeze, which just touched the top end of my ability to keep the boat upright with the full rig, but mostly blew much more softly. The sky was full of cumulus clouds, as a front seemed to try to pass. The sun settled toward the western horizon.

I felt more aware of the factors that shape a breeze than I had even been. I looked at the clouds, the land, and saw a map on the water before me. I’d wondered how great a time I could have with this poor, dried-out boat I’d resuscitated, and my own stale skills. But here I was, despite 40 gallons of water in the bilges and a dog who clearly wished he was somewhere else, slipping along through the fluky evening breeze, having a transformational experience.

Motorboats passed at a polite distance out on the open broads. The breeze had its most uninterrupted sweep there, too. I actually got to hike out a few times. Intoxicated by wind, wave and my interaction with them, I steered up close-hauled and even tacked a couple of times, edging toward Wolfeboro Bay.

Lee spoke up with a piteous howl. “That’s enough,” he seemed to say. “Take me home!”

In my terror-stricken early childhood I always howled much louder, much sooner.

He was right on one count. We had to head back to get to the launching ramp by dark. I had brought no lights and the breeze was getting fitful.

I bore off, pulled the centerboard up to three notches and tweaked what things I could to improve reaching. I’d left the whisker pole at home, because I figured it would be too much trouble singlehanding, but now I was broad reaching in light air and it would have been perfect. Fortunately, the wind shifted and the need passed.

I aimed to miss the wind shadow of Wolfeboro Neck, but the wind was dying even as I headed for the sheltered bight that leads to the inner lobe of Winter Harbor. The whole area turned into a wind shadow. What breeze there was came from a different direction each time and died out before I’d trimmed the sails to it.

I began to paddle. To keep going straight, I lashed the tiller a bit to starboard to compensate for my paddle strokes to port. As we gathered way, the apparent wind would back the jib. After twenty to forty paddle strokes I would stop, trim to the apparent wind and the boat would coast slowly to a near halt, the sails falling limp, fluttering indecisively.

The sun was sinking and so was the boat. I was getting chilly, since I was mostly wet. Darkness fell as the water in the bilges rose. I sponged some water at intervals, but didn’t really seem to gain.

A quarter moon hung in the sky behind me. Stars circled above the mast tip. A breeze whispered in. It was light but steady. I secured from paddling, unlashed the tiller and set about stalking it.

I sat to leeward with Lee’s head jammed into me, because he was cuddling for comfort. I watched the luff of main and jib. The breeze was still so light that mosquitoes and gnats could reach me from shore.

The boat undeniably moved smoothly and steadily through the deep dusk. This was artistic and satisfying. Loons I’d seen earlier called now. Bats flitted past me, snapping up the insects. I could hear the bats’ chirping navigational calls as they avoided my vessel, ghosting in the moonlight.

All the rigamarole of getting there had been worth it for that delicate close reach in the dark. I remembered night sailing in 420s with my younger brother and my friend Jim. I felt melancholy for the companions lost, but exhilarated by the artistry itself. Our launching point loomed suddenly near. What we had been so desperate to reach, and still wanted and needed to reach, was here, now, to end the magic flight on silent breeze.

I needed three tacks to gain the pier. Would a better sailor have done it in two? No matter. They were good tacks. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. We nestled beside the pier and I lifted my long-suffering canine back onto solid ground.