Sailing Silliness

I suppose that some people get infected with the sailing bug slowly.  It is theoretically possible, but that's not how our story goes.

I actually sneered at the idea of sailing in general.  It sounded slow, boring, and antiquated.  In every realm where technology has made big advances there is a small group of hold-outs who stick to the old ways as a matter of principle.  Like blackpowder rifle clubs and photographers who use darkrooms and chemicals as the truest form of the art.  The Amish come to mind.

Sailors, I was sure, were cut from the same cloth.  Living in denial of the current progress that was sweeping them downstream, eccentric holdouts stuck in the past.

The Offer

When things got serious with Lisa, she was working in Juneau for the State Legislature.  Well, in Juneau for the Session and back in Anchorage for the interim months, May - December.

We were married in May and, by October, she had worked her network to find me a job there as well so moving to Juneau made economic sense.  Having always been interested in politics, and attracted to sausage making, it was a good fit.

Juneau was a weird environment.  Two hundred adults, moved from their home cities and crammed into a 100 year old building and forced to work long hours in close proximity.  It felt like a dorm in college, complete with music nights, potlucks and miniature golf in the hallways.  Since we had all shared the same weird experiences, each side fighting for truth, justice and more funding, camaraderie was strong.  In March, Ken, a friend from Lisa's previous years, asked us and a few others if we would be willing to go on a boat trip with him over the four day Easter break.  Ken invited us down to the Pier Restaurant for lunch to learn more.

You know how it is when you realize, after the fact, that it was a fateful day.  Now it's etched in my mind.  We sat by the windows with the ocean view as Ken made his pitch.  A 3-4 day bareboat sailboat charter, he's in charge, we split the cost, should be fun.

Inwardly, I scoffed at the "sailing" part, but getting out of town for a few days sounded good and Ken seemed like a interesting character – veteran sailor and legislative insider.  How bad could it be?

Well, being Southeast Alaska, it could be pretty bad, actually.  Chances are that it would rain the entire time.  We can always come back early if we want to, Ken countered.  Lisa and I talked about it that night.  Our share of the cost would be modest.  We emailed him the next day that we were in.

Great, he replied.  Now we need to divvy up the duties.  They are basically cooking, anchoring, sailing and repair of things that break.  Lisa chose anchoring, "It sounds interesting."  I chose repair of things that break – meaning plumbing potentially, meaning the toilet specifically.  "What are the chances?" I  thought inwardly.

Lisa and I went to the library that weekend and checked out a few books about boating, one being, "Sailing Basics".  I flipped through it once, glancing at the diagrams of wind direction and sail set.  I chortled at the silliness of using the wind to get anywhere.  If you want to go somewhere in the 20th century, you turn the key and shove the throttles forward.

The boat owner wanted to check Ken out on a test sail and Ken wanted to educate the sail crew.  So, on a decent (by Juneau standards) overcast Saturday I stayed home and frittered away the day on something trivial while Lisa, Ken and the other sail helper went for a test run.  Things went well and we were on for next Thursday.  As the week wore on, it was exciting to think about doing something new.

Lisa and I had had an ongoing debate about praying for good weather.  Her position is that you can, and perhaps should, pray about anything that concerns you.  My position is that praying for the weather was like asking God to override the forces of nature for your own personal benefit.  We agreed to disagree.

She prayed for good weather all week.  I didn't.  This is Juneau, after all, I mused.  It often rains for weeks at a time.  The year before, Lisa had kept track of the weather day by day – wet ruled 111 out of the 132 days of session. 

Well, it rained on all her prayers.  All week, actually.

At the time, I was convinced that the odds were transparent and severely against her.  Now, years later, I am not so sure.

Thursday morning broke.  We looked out the window to a bluebird day and pure sunshine.  Lisa was all smiles, but wisely didn't say much.  It was hard to be downcast when surrounded with such beauty, but inwardly I thought, just wait, there's no way we'll get three days of good weather.

We were already packed, so we headed towards the marina, which happened to be against the incoming commuter traffic.  There was something surreal about heading for an adventure in the face of thousands going to another day in the cubicle.  The remembrance of that impression would, in time, prove essential.

The First Sail

We hauled our gear down the wharf and were underway within the hour.  As we motored down Gastineau Channel, the winds were light and variable.  Looking back at downtown Juneau in the golden morning light and leaving it behind was an exhilarating feeling.

As we crossed the mouth of Taku Inlet, the glacier-fed wind kicked in and the temperature dropped.  All the ladies who had done the sailing shakedown headed below to stay warm.  Ken, Cliff and I were left on deck in the now bracing breezes.

"Hmmm", Ken mused, "this is a perfect wind for a reach.  Should we put up the sails?"

"Whatever", I replied noncommittally. Inwardly I yawned.  A "reach," who cares?!

"OK," he said, "You just point the boat towards that big outcropping over there while I mess around with things."

I have always been bad at knots, lines and tangles, never getting the first, tripping over the second and creating the latter, so it was just fine with me if he did all the messy stuff.  After a few minutes and more than a grunt or two, he hollered back at me over sound of the wind and building waves, "Turn towards that island and hold it there."  Things were getting boisterous.

Having steered a car for years, how hard could this be?  But as we fell off the wind, the sails filled and a new sensation began to take over.  The wheel was alive, I could feel the very flicker of the wind changing the pressure. Steering "towards that island over there" became a three dimensional dynamic, a wordless conversation between the wind, the wheel and my hands. 

I don't think our track was particularly true, but when Ken came back and shut off the engine, a tremendous peacefulness transcended.  Instead of bobbing around, we were now cutting through and over the waves.  The sounds were natural.  Not quiet, but in sync with nature.  The breeze of the glacier whistled, calling us to go faster; the occasional rushing sound of a passing wave crest punctuated the soft gurgling of the sea rejoining itself again in our wake.

An occasional larger wave broke over the bow, sending a burst of spray aboard that added a sparkling, magical glisten to the deck and every fitting.  It left the sensation that we were sprinkled with fairy dust and about to take flight.

The Dream is Born

That morning in Taku inlet was a beautiful union of wind, water, machine and man.  Here I was – a comparable speck in a majestic, towering environment, yet somehow master of the elements – riding the waves with ease, leveraging wind and water to my advantage in an effortless, artful dance towards the unknown fjords ahead.  That night, we anchored in our own 20 square mile fjord, tucked under a little spit of misty forest.  We fished in the fading light of a sun that set across quiet ripples of polished bronze.

As I dinghied back for dinner, the little white speck of boat tucked under the sweeping mountain fortress struck me as not only inspiring, but right in an elemental sort of way.  For the first time, I had a strong sense of doing what I was born to do.

So this is what so many shadowless dreams of restless nights past were actually about.  It was a eureka moment, one that was powerful enough to sustain the dream over the years ahead.

When we returned from the trip I was haunted for weeks with those few days and the life they foretold as being possible.  Not knowing anyone who had done anything even remotely like sailing away from it all, I assumed I was the only one, a weird outcast of society.

I sought solace and company in a few books I found on the subject.  And then one day I picked up my first Cruising World magazine.  "Wow", I thought.  There's a magazine for weirdos like me.  About the second line I read said, "When my husband got bitten by the cruising bug...."

WHAT!  There were other aliens like me?  For a second, there was a letdown feeling, I guess I am not that unique, followed by a wave of relief.   Others had gone before, surely they left some pointers and surely this meant it was, in fact, possible.

The Dream Meets Reality

I bought the magazine, and the next, and the next and soon realized that everyone has the dream.

Well, not everyone, but millions, probably 40% or more of men harbor similar escapist/adventure fantasies, most of them involving boats.  Not only was I not unique, I was among a throng of others who read magazines and chit-chatted about "someday" casting off the lines for distant horizons.

And yet, nobody (I knew of anyway) had actually done it.

The dream, I soon realized, was a chimera: a vapor, half dream and half nightmare.  Half dream because is sounded so good, half nightmare because it never came true.

I know now that everyone has the dream, but few have the epiphany, and the first without the second really is nothing at all.