There is a moment in every sail, whether you’re in a ten-foot dinghy or in a fifty-foot-plus cruiser, when the physics of wind and water catch hold of you. You can feel it in the lift of the boat against your back and in the way the muscles of your legs involuntarily tighten to compensate for it.
In a small boat the tiller pulls at your hand, and the sail, as it fills, takes up the slack in the sheets, lifting the blocks, the single or double pulleys that let you control it, and tugs at your other hand. It is a
peculiar and ancient poise, both arms extended, your body stretched backward as the wind freshens. You are part of the boat’s ballast, what keeps it upright, so where you sit, how much you lean back, and how you move from one side to the other matter. Just in front of you, sometimes awkwardly so, is a well that holds the boat’s dagger board or center board, a flat wooden or metal surface that extends into the water and keeps the force of the wind moving the boat forward rather than let it slide sideways. As your speed increases, water gurgles at the back end of this well and begins to sigh along the boat’s sides. Because both boat and sail want to turn, like weather vanes, into the wind, the pressure on the rudder and the pull of the tiller against your hand increase. Let the sail play out and the pressure on the rudder eases. Let it out too far and the sail will lose its shape and flutter, and the boat will stall; so you look up as much as you look ahead, gauging the sail, the long, sweeping line of its trailing edge and the solid palm extended along the mast, the airfoil that pulls the boat forward. With enough speed, as the moving water eddies along its trailing edge, the rudder will begin to hum and the tiller will tremble like a plucked string. This is sailing in its simplest form—a small dinghy, a rowboat really, with a mast, one sail, a dagger board, and a rudder. Every small boat—from windsurfers to complexly tuned racers that can ride across the top of the water—is a variation on this simple design.
Bigger boats, with heavy, fixed keels and displacement hulls, have all the same sensations, though the touch is muted a bit by the effects of size and weight, and their motion is damped in complex arrays of lines and pulleys. Still, the effect of the wind on the sails is the same—the feel of the boat, however heavy, as it lifts under you, the double play of sail and rudder, the hum of the rigging, and the rush of water along the hull. Displacement boats do, however, have their own unique sensations. Their forward speed is limited by the potential speed in open water of the wave their hulls carve out of the sea. The longer the wave, the faster the boat’s theoretical hull speed. This limit creates another delight. As the boat approaches its hull speed, it seems to attempt to lift itself out of its own wave. There is a sense of forward surge, which in the best of conditions—good wind and calm water—has an archaic kind of magic, a motion you can easily suppose Odysseus felt as he left Troy, something that binds you to Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian, Viking, and Chinese sailors across time and geography.
There are more dramatic pleasures—the rise and fall of the bow into breaking waves, the strain of the windward rigging, sea froth flying against your face, hail, lightning, the faith you put in your boat’s ability to handle the stresses it’s subjected to, and a faith, sometimes misplaced, in your own instincts. Running down the face of waves, even a larger boat tends to surf, turning or at least tending to turn its side to the following wave, to broach, and in the worst conditions capsize. Keeping the stern behind you is a matter of concentration and instinct, a feel for the boat that lets you ease, then pull hard against the wheel or the tiller. Your hands grow stiff at it, and your arms ache. Even the best of boats in these conditions can begin what a very experienced sailor friend of mine calls “death rolls,” oscillations that seem to exaggerate each other in sequence and feel uncontrollable.
Like gardening, which exists between too little and too much rain, sailing occupies a narrow band of bliss between too little and too much wind, between dead calms and deadly storms. Both its variability and its inherent dangers are part of the appeal. Lake Michigan, where I sail, has all the sudden, violent weather of the Great Plains. Survive a serious storm with nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises and you’ve got a story that’ll last for years. I read just this afternoon an account of a sailboat going down—not just over but down—in a race for which I have sometimes officiated. I know the skipper, who is a very able racer, and his crew. They spent part of a dark and stormy night clinging to their overturned boat and watched it sink as they were being rescued. Was the boat overwhelmed by the storm that hit it? Did the skipper’s instincts fail him? Did the crew’s? Was it the wrong boat for the conditions? Back on dry land, one of the crew sent a text to a sailing Web site describing the ordeal, then saying that until the boat went over, it was the best ride of his life.
I started sailing when I was thirteen years old, before I had ever thought of anything as regular and straight as a Plan A, in an eight-foot, square-fronted pram we called a “dink,” that sailed backward far easier than it sailed forward. Then I sailed dinghies, scows, and X-boats, all on Carter Lake in Omaha, a muddy, leftover arc of the Missouri River that still marks part of the border between Nebraska and Iowa. I rode my bicycle to the lake in order to sail, sanded and varnished decks and hulls in rented garages through the winter to earn the right to sail in the summer, and one year worked hard, for no pay, for a retired Spanish-American War sailor (“wooden ships and iron men,” he said), who had a shade-tree business repairing wooden boats and splicing hemp ropes, just to learn more about boats. I traveled to regattas on Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake in Iowa and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. The desire to sail came from books I read long before I’d ever seen an actual sailboat—Captain Blood, Young Hornblower, and Southey’s biography of Nelson—and perhaps, as well, from the sheer antinautical nature of Nebraska itself, but the need—I was about to say impulse, but that doesn’t quite handle it—has never left me. I’ve sailed in the Atlantic, off the Bahamas, through the Caribbean, on Lake Erie, and once on the Niagara River, and still live on a sailboat for part of each year. Before I bought my first adult boat, I rented boats by the hour or the day on inland lakes, begged rides from friends, and became the faculty adviser to a university sailing club.
Boat ownership deserves all the jokes made about it. It is costly and frustrating, but it has its own unique pleasures. Every sailboat is a miraculous nest of gadgets—ropes, blocks, winches, pumps, compasses, hand tools, radios, binoculars, knives of all sorts, radar screens, charts, chart plotters, in short, all the dreamt-of toys of boyhood in one small space and the chance, given any little problem or new project, to buy more. “There is NOTHING,” the Water Rat says in The Wind in the Willows, “—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” If you have your own boat, you can “mess about” in it. In the spring you can go to the boat yard, a wonderful maze of keels, rudders, jack stands, and cradles, and hang around with other people who are “messing about in boats,” cleaning, sanding, waxing, varnishing, and painting, and facing a long list of seemingly hopeless problems they are always willing to talk about at great length in a vocabulary only other sailors understand. In summer in the harbor, you can mess around some more in a slightly altered but equally loquacious community. You can find company—and advice—by merely changing a bulb in the bow running light. Disassemble something with a lot of small parts, like an outboard motor, and you’ll draw a crowd, a mix of well-wishers and disaster lovers. Eventually, you discover an odd contest between “messing about” and actually sailing, a conflict of complementary pleasures. Should you go sailing or mess about? The simple answer, of course, is that you mess about in order to go sailing, but genuine pleasures are never that simple in the demands they make on us.
So my Plan B would have involved living and making a living sailing and “messing about in boats.” Doing what? Working in a marina, doing boat deliveries, being a professional skipper on other people’s boats, a charter captain, itinerate varnishing, rigging? A recent sailing magazine had a feature on world-cruising hitchhikers, young people, lean and suitably sea-, salt-, and sun-hardened, who sign on as crew on oceangoing yachts just for the ride. A nice thought, full of its own uncertainties, but well out of reach. Plan Bs, often coincident with Fantasy As, thrive on less knowledge than I have of the sailing world. Professional skippers have to cope with nonprofessional owners. Marina work is skilled labor but labor nonetheless. Charter captains have to suffer charterers, and itinerate varnishing is a market cornered by Caribbean geniuses whose brushes don’t drip or leave streaks or stray hairs behind. My good fortune is that sailing and all of its delights are still there, however remote any version of Plan B might seem.
Michael Anania’s most recent books of poetry are In Natural Light and Heat Lines, both from Asphodel Press. A new collection of poetry, Continuous Showings, is due out later this year. His work is widely anthologized and has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Czech. His prose fiction has appeared in magazines and in the novel, The Red Menace (Avon Books), and a selection of his essays and reviews was published in In Plain Sight: Obsessions, Morals and Domestic Laughter (Moyer Bell). A second collection of essays, Rocks, Paper, Scissors, will appear in 2012. Anania has been an editor and taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He lives in Austin, Texas, and on Lake Michigan.
| Mike Bené Narrative Essay January 4, 2005|
|�I think we�re all going to die,� I thought to myself as the tiny fishing boat was tossed about on the waves. I think we have all had the feeling that things have turned terribly wrong. If you know the feeling I�m talking about, you know how it awful it is. I remember my muscles tensing up, my face turning pale, and getting that metallic taste in my mouth from the adrenaline that my body had released. The trip I took on a small boat out to a little island in Thailand was the scariest experience of my life.|
|The day actually started very pleasantly. My wife Pam and I rode a taxi from our hotel into town to catch the boat to an island called Koh Tao. After that, we went to the ticket office and bought our tickets. Then we went to get breakfast at a little restaurant near the pier. The weather was warm and sunny � it seemed like a perfect day for a boat trip, but things were about to change.|
|Maybe the first that went wrong that day was when the man on the pier told us that the usual ferry boat had an engine problem He told us not to worry though because a smaller fishing boat could take us to the island. Soon the fishing boat arrived and we got on with the other passengers. It seemed too small for all of us and there weren�t enough seats for everyone. Just before we left, I noticed that some clouds were moving in and the wind was starting to blow.|
|The trip to Koh Tao usually takes about 3 hours, but on this smaller boat they told us it would take a little longer. By the time we were out of view of the mainland the wind began to blow harder, and it the waves on the ocean began to get bigger and bigger. The passengers on the boat were all pretty scared, but the captain didn�t look very worried, so that made me feel better. Then the boat�s engine died. By that time, the captain looked worried. My wife began to cry and I felt like doing the same.|
|Then almost as fast as the wind had come up, it began to calm down. As the wind died down, the waves got smaller too. Soon the look of worry began to vanish from the captain�s face. I knew we were going to be OK if we could just get the engine going. One of the passengers was a mechanic, and he offered to help. Before long he and the captain got the engine started and all of the passengers let out a loud cheer!|
|That day of vacation started like a perfect day for us, but it soon turned into a terrible nightmare. We were all really scared during that storm, and I am sure that I was not the only one who thought he would die. So I guess I wasn�t that surprised about a year after my trip when I heard that a boat had sunk on that same trip.|
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