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After Work: I Flaked The Sails Years Ago

…Now it’s starting to drizzle. It’s one of those chilly autumn days that raise the annual question: Should boat owners coil the lines, take down sail and put away their beloved toys until next season? Or will there be one last glorious golden weekend when the Northeast skies are startlingly blue, the winds are fresh and nary a storm forecast?...

Dona Gibbs, an inland creature, would prefer not have a life on the ocean wave.

To read more of Dona’s delicious columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/after_work/

Ever-enthusiastic Husband looks out to the East River. The sky is silver, the clouds scuttling above are puffs of smoky grey, and the water of the river is tarnished pewter and moving swiftly.

He towels himself off after his hot shower, enthusiastically of course,

“Don’t you wish you were out there on a sailboat?” He laughs, knowing my answer.

Now it’s starting to drizzle. It’s one of those chilly autumn days that raise the annual question: Should boat owners coil the lines, take down sail and put away their beloved toys until next season? Or will there be one last glorious golden weekend when the Northeast skies are startlingly blue, the winds are fresh and nary a storm forecast?

Then it’s to haul or not to haul? Sand the bottom now? Sand in the spring? Cover in blue plastic tarp or not? Does the motor need a tune-up?

I remember all these boaty concerns as if it were yesterday and not close to twenty years ago.

Ever-enthusiastic Husband grew up near the water, the south shore of Long Island. He’s comfortable around water. His mother took him at every opportunity down to the water’s edge, where he reports he built sand castles and made moats endlessly. Observing his low threshold of boredom now, I would guess he could be occupied this way for about fifteen minutes. He learned to swim early and held the exalted position of camp waterfront counselor as a teenager.

Me, I grew up inland. Three hours or so away from the beach. Polio was a fear and public swimming pools were considered a Petri dish of viruses and bacteria.

I learned to doggie paddle at Y camp in a fresh water lake. I struggled to keep afloat, mainly because I didn’t want to touch bottom and put my feet down into the black oozy
mud – or even worse – nothingness.

So in short, let’s just say I never took to water like a duck.

But it was me who bought Ever-enthusiastic Husband a Sunfish, a wonderful little sailing craft for near the water’s edge adventures. He quickly grew bored of the toy.

Much to my amazement, I found myself urging, no make that – demanding—he buy a real sailboat.

We did. It was an almost pristine 27-foot sailboat made by a Canadian company known for its no-nonsense quality. It had all the essentials of a 1974 cruising sailboat. Nothing was automatic. If we wanted the main up, we hoisted it. If we wanted to change sails, I wrestled with them on the foredeck. Anchor up, anchor down, it was done by muscles. No electronic winches, no self-furling anything, except me when I self-furled myself into the forward vee berth in terror or boredom.

Today cruising sailboats have all kind of electronic navigational equipment. There’s GPS so you know exactly where you are. There are accurate depth finders. There’s radar showing you exactly where other boats are. All kind of gadgets.

We had a depth finder, which always quit as we left the mooring. We had a compass, which we found needed to be “swung” more often than you’d think necessary. We had a radio. And we had a foldout aluminum foil coated thing that we ran up the mast when it was foggy. It was supposed to prevent other boats from hitting us. Those boats, being probably commercial vessels, would be larger than us by many, many feet. If they saw a little radar blip, how soon would it take them to turn? I would run it up, laugh with a sneer, calling it “the Christmas tree ornament.”

Summer after summer, we cruised the northeast coast from Mamaroneck Harbor, New York to Block Island, Rhode Island to Martha’s Vineyard, to Nantucket, to Cutty Hunk and back again.

Having no onboard shower, we learned what harbors had clean ones. Having only a dollhouse propane cook top and an icebox, we learned where we could chow down.

More importantly, we learned how to plot a course with a paper chart and dead reckoning, although I’ve always been more than a little leery of the “dead” part.

We took our stalwart son along from the time he was turning five. He loved the water. He loved swimming. He loved sailing. He loved riding behind the boat in the dinghy we towed. Why with the wisdom of old age, I ever allowed this is beyond me now.

Together we sailed. We ducked a hurricane. We hit rocks that we were towed from by the Coast Guard. We got lost in the fog.

I shouted a lot at Ever-enthusiastic husband. I thought we were all going to die. When I first faced being out of the sight of land, I swung out from the forestays. I was terrified. I thought I was going to have a slow death. It would be best I thought just to get it over, without the intervening terror.

My husband and my son looked on in horror. Ashamed, I then crept into the cockpit and then to the tiny galley where I made sandwiches.

Note: Ever-enthusiastic husband sold the sturdy cruising boat and bought an around the buoys racing boat. Stalwart son became an excellent sailor. Electronics have improved, but I have not.

Also for more positive experiences of sailing in the very same waters, please read the accounts of my fellow columnist John Merchant.


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