Sailing

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The closest thing I’ve ever found to magic is sailing. Not in giant plastic bottle, high above the waves, but in a little wooden boat. Only there can you feel the kind of rush you get in a only a few planks separating you from the turbulent singing water, the tiller humming under one hand and the main sheet thrumming in the other. There is something incredibly empowering about feeling two of the strongest forces on earth, wind and water, and bending them to my will with wood and canvas.

I’m a Mainer, I grew up on the ocean. It’s no exaggeration to say I was in a boat before I was born. I have many fond memories of multi-week cruises in our sturdy Saber 38’,  and less pleasant ones of enforced sailing lessons at the local yacht club. Yet it wasn’t until I had my very own boat that I experienced the true allure of sailing. We’d had a little Chinese junk, very pretty, which sailed like a tub and had a propensity for snapping masts like toothpicks. I valiantly took her out for cruises around the harbor, but she was hardly the ideal sailing vessel and when I entered high school Daddy decided it was time I had my own boat, a proper boat. My contribution to the decision was insisting it be wood. I wanted an attractive boat that would turn heads and that I’d feel special steering. 

We found a poor wreck of a sloop in one of the neighboring towns. It hadn’t been in the water in ten years and was dirt cheap. It was hardly my dream boat, all peeling paint and gray boards, but I trusted Daddy when he said she would clean up pretty, and such an amount of cleaning did she need. The first year we sailed her as is, but the next summer we worked on that boat together for what felt like forever to my 15 year old self. I came to understand why boats command the feminine pronoun and aren’t just referred to as things. Sailors are typically male and after all the hours of working over every inch of her form, my Ino did indeed feel as intimate to me as a lover. Committing to her was to this day probably also the most demanding relationship of my life, she was like the needy girlfriend portrayed in countless films and books, always wanting or needing me to buy her something. All that sanding, varnishing, caulking and scraping barnacles was a bonding experience that made me think of the Ino as more than just at thing. At the end of it we were a team, my Ino and I, ready to take on the elements together.

There are many How To books on sailing, cluttered with technical chatter about wind angles, geometry and other math I probably would fail a test on, but at the heart of it, sailing is something you learn best by doing and internalize in a way that can never be broken down onto pages of print. The ship itself will teach you. The mainsheet is your connection to the wind. The tiller is your connection to the water. By having a hand on both, you have all the information you really need to steer a good course. Pulling the sail in and out in small increments will tell you what the optimal point is to cleat off the main, some adjustments to the tiller will teach you how best to capture the wind and the combination of the two will provide the best course to take. Of course you have to learn what ropes to pull to capture the wind at all, how to move the tiller properly and watch out for rocks at low tide, but beyond such fundamentals everything else just comes naturally.

The very beginning can be stressful, but once you feel more comfortable teaming up with your boat to take on the elements, the swell of triumph is exhilarating. This is what power feels like, with the hot sun beating on your face and the breeze wicking away the sweat as soon as it forms, and it’s addictive. All winter long I dream about sailing and in the summer, when the first licks of the 3 o’clock breeze tickles my hair, my heart thrills for the adventure I know will be there for the taking. All I have to do is row out to my Ino and hoist the sails.

It’s not always the perfect sail though. Before I became more careful about gauging weather conditions, there were times I would head out in the Ino and the wind doctor would never grace us with his presence. At best this means slowly tooling around the harbor, the boat perfectly upright, each tack a sluggish indecisive exercise that may involve sculling the tiller or even pushing the boom over to the other side. At worst, the outgoing tide can catch you and start to drag you out to the middle of the bay. I can remember more than once paddling back to the harbor with use of a floor board, cursing the fact that Daddy refused to buy me an engine, because 200 years ago they didn’t have them and 200 years ago people were better sailors. He was right, not having an engine made me a better sailor, but I can’t say it always made the experience more enjoyable. When a boat is moving at speed, it seems effortless and light, when you’re fighting the current and the weight of all that waterlogged wood, it seems like it’s not just the ballast that is made of lead.

The other extreme is high winds. Usually the white caps in the bay will give a clear signal not to go out, but there are times that the wind comes up unexpectedly. There was one time in particular Daddy and I were sailing around the island, moving the Ino from the boatyard to her usual mooring. The wind on one side of the island was brisk, but manageable. It made for a fast, pulse racing ride that quickly turned into heart stopping terror as we rounded the curve of the island and were hit with a full on storm gale. The waves were whipped into ten foot undulating mountains and the wind blowing from just the wrong angle seemed intent on capsizing us. Every time we tried to tack, the boom would get caught mid rotation and the ship would be in irons, great waves threatening to swamp us as they crashed over the low freeboard. Now that was a time I really wished I had a motor, a time when I thought about how 200 years ago a lot more people died at sea. In the end we took down the mainsail and scudded along on the jib. The tiny sail caught the huge wind with as much power as the mainsail usually harnessed and we made it to port with no further incident.

I’ve since graduated from college, lived abroad and sold the boat to another family on the island. They’ve outrigged her with the electric pump I wasn’t allowed and the forbidden motor. For the first summer they had the boat, I went with them every time. The kids thought I was part of the deal, that their parents had purchased a boat and captain, I was along that often. They weren’t very good sailors at first, they improved quickly. The Ino, she’s teaching them the way she taught me. I still dream of sailing and of having my own boat once again. I dream of feeling the tingle of power in my hands and through my body as I take on nature and make her my mercurial ally for an afternoon of salty sea spray and adventure. It’s the sort of thing that once you’ve tasted, you will always crave. The sea is calling.