Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Sensual Sailor

Years crept by as I lived inland. Then one day I drove to the coast. Long before I saw the water, I smelled it.

Lakes, even Great Lakes, can't equal the bewitching fertility of the sea. The wind carries the scent of life miles inland. I homed on it as if seeking the waters of my birth.

The water had been an arena of fear. When first I floated on it in a small boat, I felt my helplessness. Terror gripped me and jerked me in its claws faster than any rational thought could overtake it. I had wanted to be there, but visceral panic overwhelmed me, followed by shame and a sense of failure.

Just so you know where I came from. For some reason, I felt the water's deadly potential as if I'd experienced it before. At age six or seven, I had no thoughts of reincarnation. I just knew I had no control, strapped into a bulky kapok life jacket that felt like it would drag me to the bottom, stuffed down beside the daggerboard trunk of an eight-foot pram.

Later, larger, though still small, alone in the same boat, I stared into the green depths as the bottom dropped out of sight in Camden Harbor, and felt again that I was tempting the forces of nature to punish my impudence for daring to stick a spar and sail up into the fretful wind that swirled beneath steely clouds on what was supposed to be a summer day.

Still, something kept me coming back.

With so much clutter in my mind, I had difficulty absorbing the subtleties of racing. Junior programs were built around racing. Victory at sea was the goal.

I raced. I grew. I learned how to operate the boat, and some of the strategy and tactics. But mostly I relaxed in my growing confidence and absorbed the sensations of sailing and observed the environment as an object of technical interest and a work of art. Our finish placings suffered accordingly.

While many race days stand out, so do the other experiences, seeing Portuguese men-o-war floating in Biscayne Bay and catching glimpses of wild dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, or surfing across the sand bar into Dunedin Pass while all the other boats wended their way around a serpentine channel in careful single file. Indeed, from a lifetime on the water I have countless memories, and few of them are of glorious victory. They are of glorious existence.

Racing got me out there in conditions I might not have tackled. It was a bit like having a job. My skipper wanted to be in the event and I wanted to help him be there. I wouldn't mind a good performance, either. But there were so many distractions in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and various estuarine waters. We also sailed in lakes.

I love the lift and drive when we capture a puff of wind and hike out over the rail. I love the more violent acceleration downwind on a reach, catching waves that throw the boat ahead. Are we winning? I don't know. But we're moving right along.

One day, in strong winds, we rounded our leeward mark, which was also the starting line pin, just as the whole fleet of Flying Dutchmen got the gun. We came up to the wind and had to throw an instant tack as the surging flotilla leaped toward us all together on starboard tack.

Another day, not racing, I saw a Star coming out of Annapolis. We were well out toward the open bay. The Star was on starboard tack. We held course until we were right under the Star's bow and tacked at the perfect time, but the bigger boat's large and powerful rig overrode us like we weren't even there. I was laughing like a maniac the whole time, because I knew it was probably hopeless. The Star crew was laughing too, because they knew I was joking just for trying it.

All the stories would make a book. I could find enough gripping excitement to scare at least the inexperienced reader. And sometimes it's just nice to remember a good day on the water.