“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain
Sailing has always appealed to me. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in boats– canoes, kayaks, motor boats– and sail boats seemed to be the only kind I was missing. Or maybe because experienced it in books like Moby Dick, The Wanderer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan, and therefore, associated sailing with adventure. In recent years, I think my desire to sail has grown because of the symbolism of sailing: the idea that we can make choices about where we would like to go and how we would like to get there, but, ultimately, it is out of our control if we make it there. The wind chooses our path and our speed and, sometimes, we must concede to travel a journey we did not originally plan to take.
It was by a stroke of serendipity that I was able to accomplish this goal.
In the summer of 2014, I was in a performance group based on Cape Cod (Cape Harmony, if you’re interested). As part of my introduction at a show, I announced to the audience that I had always wanted to try sailing and was shocked I had not yet had the opportunity, even after previous summers on the Cape. After the show, a kind and enthusiastic audience member, Chris, approached me. Having lived in Cotuit for years, she told me she knew many sailors and she was going to make it her mission to help me achieve my goal. Now, Chris seemed very genuine, and I am fairly trusting as far as people go, but I did not get my hopes up about sailing. Things come up. People forget conversations; it’s understandable. And Chris didn’t owe me anything.
But Chris did not forget.
A week later I listened to a voicemail from a soft voice, relaying to me the number of a neighbor’s apprentice, Nelson, who agreed to take me sailing. Needless to say, I was beside myself with shock and excitement. I called the number and was even more surprised to hear a young male voice on the other end, sounding cool and fluid. Yes, it’s true, I was stereotyping. I was expecting a sailor to be either some gruff old man with a shaggy white beard and leathery skin, or some rich guy with combed hair, khaki pants, and a white sweater or polo. Nelson was neither of those things.
When Sailing Day came, I showed up at a strange-looking house that overlooked the harbor. Beside the house– which was made entirely of glass, wood, and an orange plastic that probably dates back to the 70’s– was a beautiful, solar-powered shed. Nelson emerged from this shed, barefoot and slightly dusty, explaining that he also builds the sailboats. He wore jeans-cut-into-shorts and had long dark hair pulled back in a knot. He brought me inside the shed to see the boat he was working on. The room was dark, but in the streams of sunlight through the windows, you could see dust sparkling. The room smelled like wood and potent lacquer. The boat, sitting overturned on its stand in the middle of the room, gleamed in the hazy light.
We walked down to the harbor while Nelson explained the boat we would be sailing is called a skiff, characterized by its small size, which enhances its speed and its ability to navigate shallow waters. We waded into the water and climbed into the beautiful little boat. Nelson pointed out the mainmast and the boom– the horizontal beam that swings back and forth as you steer. Appropriately named, by the way. Ideally, you duck and you don’t get hit in the head! Easier said than done… The acts of tacking and jibing consist of azig-zagging path either into or out of the wind, accordingly, to reach your destination. Either direction requires copious amounts of ducking under the boom. Anyway, before I could really wrap my head around this concepts of zig-zagging and ducking and switching, we had pushed off.
Fortunately for me, the wind was mostly still when we started. We moved very slowly through the harbor and I watched as Nelson adjusted the sail and the tiller, explaining how you can watch the sail slacken and tighten according to your angle in the wind. There was a lot of discussion of the physics of the wind and the sail, and I was secretly thankful the wind was so slow– considering physics had always been one of my worst subjects!
Once we got further out, though, the wind picked up and I was thrilled by how fast our little boat could go! We weaved through other boats and buoys–still ducking in the shallow hull beneath the boom. I loved the feelings of riding practically sideways in the ocean and tipping over the waves, water splashing our hands. Much to my surprise, it was at this point that Nelson pushed the tiller over to me and handed me the sail’s ropes. Now, again, I had only grasped the surface of Nelson’s physics explanation earlier and I felt totally unprepared, but, when else would I have this opportunity? I actually thought of Mark Twain’s quote at this point, as I took the soggy ropes in my hand.
It took me a while to find the balance between how far to push or pull the tiller and how much to tighten the sail. Many times we had to tack just to avoid sitting idly. But I found the less I tried to analyze the physics of the boat, and the more I tried to just feel the tension of the sail and the pull of the wind, the easier it became.
I should emphasize: I was by no means good at sailing, but I enjoyed the feeling that I was somehow involved in a conversation between the skiff and the wind and the ocean. I would “listen” to what the boat was trying to tell me– as if it were translating for me, telling me through gentle tugs and turns what the breeze and water were saying. A bit too poetic maybe. Anyone watching me would not have described the scene so poetically!
When storm clouds began to roll in, we began our winding journey back home. Nelson– thankfully– took over steering again and we managed to pull in the sail just as the sky opened up. Rain drops splattered on the shiny wood, the wind pushed up waves that rocked the hull from side to side, and the sky turned an intimidating shade of purple-gray. Honestly, it was a beautiful storm, but I was relieved we made it to shore before I also had to learn how to escape from and flip an overturned boat!
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I am pleased to say that sailing is every bit as adventurous, magical, and mysterious as I envisioned it. It requires both patience and fast reactions, the ability to respect natural forces and also the desire to control them, and both a sense of adventure and a sense of calm.
Lessons learned with this goal:
- When someone yells duck, DUCK!
- Don’t over-analyze. Sometimes it’s ok just to feel it.
- Nature is a powerful force and always gets the final say.
- The journey to your final destination is never straight; enjoy the tacking and jibing along the way.
- Tell people your goals! Ask and you shall receive. (By the way, you can tell me!)