Recently I was asked, in a sailing context, to write something about myself. Briefly. The bit that came to mind did not fit into two or three sentences, so now it’s a blog post instead…
Sailing and I really started early in high school. One year, before junior high, I had gone to a summer camp where they did some small boat sailing on Lake Champlain; the sailing part was great. Some time after that, my dad said that we should take a drive to Gloucester, and next thing you know we were coming home with an O’Day Widgeon in tow. This is a 12 foot fiberglass boat with a small foredeck and an enclosed storage cuddy underneath. We sailed this boat near the grandparents’ home in Long Island, and even more near the other grandparents, and cousins, in Connecticut. As I became more proficient, I got to sail by myself.
In Connecticut, in Stonington Harbor, the little boat went on a mooring. I would row the dinghy out, and be off. I think that I was 13 or 14 by this time. The amazing thing is that, as far as I remember, nobody ever told me, “When you’re sailing by yourself you have to stay in the harbor.” Or something about staying inside the inner breakwater, or even the outer one. I was a pretty obedient kid, not likely to stray where I was told I shouldn’t.
My dad and I, on special days with a good northwest wind, had at least twice sailed around Fishers Island, which is a couple of miles off the Connecticut shore and roughly 9 miles long, though only a mile or so across. My dad was the grownup after all, and could say that we could do such a thing, which was well beyond what I would consider on my own, rules or no rules. We did this motorless, with a canoe paddle in the cuddy… Nowadays that trip around Fishers Island is something that I would not undertake without more adjustment to that boat. I would like oars, for one thing, and a place to sit to use them. We did have a compass, a chart, and some tide tables, and I’m pretty sure that there were a couple of life jackets onboard. Off we’d go, blasting around the eastern end of Fishers Island to the open ocean outside, and eventually back in through The Race at the western end, tide rip and all. By the time we were halfway back down Fishers Island sound, with the sun getting low, the wind would slack off. Somehow we always made it back to the mooring before it was pitch dark. Afterwards we’d go to a restaurant over in Mystic, and each eat an entire pizza.
On my own, I had a few adventures (remember that part about no range restrictions.) Judgment, after all, is developed by experience, and how much of that have you got when you’re 14?? One time I sailed to the beach on the outside of Napatree Point, to wave to the aunt and uncle who were out with friends for lunch. This would have gone smoothly if the wind had not died, with the tide running out over the big reefs that extend between Watch Hill and Fishers Island. Headed alarmingly close to Catumb rocks, I had my paddle out, but it was not nearly up to the challenge of the current.
The good thing about a paddle on a sailboat in almost no wind is that you might as well be waving a flag, as far as your predicament. Kind folks in a big sailboat came along, under power, and gave me a tow away from the rocks. They offered to go further, but when things looked secure I said that it was fine, and away they went. As it turned out, it wasn’t exactly fine: the current was still moving the boat back toward the rocks. But in a kindness from the universe, I did not need a second tow – I don’t remember whether the wind picked up just then, or the current had run itself out for that round of tide, or both, but I did avoid the rocks, and got back around Napatree and into Stonington without further help.
The obvious question in this particular story has to do with whether there was an anchor on the boat. And there was, but I had had no experience whatsoever with it, and was hesitant to try, especially in that deeper water approaching the reef. Nowadays, when people tell me they are sailing and that they are unfamiliar with anchoring, I’m big on describing what to do. I also offer a lot of encouragement about practicing. It’s amazing what an impression one of those teenage experiences can make on a person; nowadays it’s a running joke around here, how many anchors I keep on hand.
There’s another one of these stories, to do with reefing. I’ll save that for another time, but you can guess where it’s headed…
With these for childhood experiences, out on the Atlantic swells, it’s no wonder that sailing the Chebacco all over the place – and before that the Peep Hen – feels something like normal. Things weren’t simple when I was growing up, and after that I was away from sailing for quite a while. But the gift that I was given in that time, knowing sailing, and knowing the salt water, has become a treasure. Coming back to it is one of the best things I’ve ever done.