David Sr.: Captain

How I Got Hooked on Sailing

I was 18 and a college freshman when I first began sailing. I was working a summer job in a medical research lab and the graduate student working with me was a friend of another graduate student who happened to be Ernest Hemingway's nephew and a sailor. Peter (Hemingway) helped Dan build a small plywood cat-boat - a 14-foot flat bottomed "rowboat" with a single mast and a single sail. Peter had just moved away and Dan was ready to launch the boat for her "sea trials" (on a local reservoir). He invited me to go along. Unfortunately neither of us knew anything about sailing.

We borrowed a trailer and bought a case of beer. On the beach, we assembled the pieces of the little boat - plywood daggerboard and rudder, aluminum pipe for a mast. Dan put on his life jacket (he said he was so afraid of water that he wore a life jacket when he drank a dry martini - go figure!). We stepped the mast, got the boat in the water, loaded the case of beer, got the sail up and away we went.

Fortunately - or unfortunately, as you will see - the wind was off the beach and we sailed off down wind, doing fine and boasting to each other that sailing was a piece of cake. A few beers later, when we tried to change direction, we discovered that it was a little harder than we first thought, but we figured out how to make her go across the wind and before long we were at the downstream end of the reservoir, at the concrete dam that formed the lake.

Now we were in trouble. We couldn't for the life of us figure out how to make that boat go against the wind, but go against the wind we must, or else go over the dam. We could make her go back and forth, but we kept drifting down on the dam. The spillway looked a long way down when we fetched up on the concrete lip with a crunch. I couldn't see any way to get out of there except to walk. Dan stayed in the boat, holding onto his life jacket with both hands, his lips moving in silent prayer. I got out of the boat with one end of a piece of rope (the mainsheet, I think) and carefully placed my bare feet on the slimy concrete lip of the dam, looking down at the spillway far below. Very cautiously, I shuffled my way toward the shore, pulling Dan and the boat, trying to hang on with my toes in the (fortunately very slight) current of water spilling over the lip. It was a long trip!

Once ashore, we both hauled the boat to a point where we thought we could get her sailing again and, sure enough, managed to make some progress against the wind.

This was my first experience with a lee shore and the danger of being embayed in a sailing vessel without an engine. I haven't forgotten it.

We got better (or maybe it was the effect of the beer) and before the day was over we had mastered the rudiments of sailing: sailing downwind, reaching, beating, tacking, jibing. We could make the boat go wherever we wanted, using only the wind as energy. I was hooked! The quiet of ghosting downwind, the excitement of beating to weather, the challenge of balancing rudder and sail, handling tiller and mainsheet - it was just plain fun. It was so much better than zooming around the lake attached to a roaring outboard motor. Somehow I felt connected to nature and to the history of human civilization. It was better than anything I had done except maybe backpacking in the Adirondacks or fly-fishing on a desolate stretch of wilderness river. I wanted more!

Dan let me sail his boat whenever I wanted and I did. It was even better all alone. I didn't take the beer. Sailing was its own intoxication.

I had to have a boat of my own.

Peter Hemingway had a boat for sale. It was a boat he had bought and restored before he moved away, an old sloop, white oak and Sitka spruce, 18-feet and massive. She was up on blocks, fully rigged, on display in front of a boat shop. I would stop and look at her whenever I could. I sat in the cockpit and looked out over the vast expanse of her deck. I rested my arm on her golden tiller. I dreamed of saling far away. She seemed so big, so intimidating. I couldn't imagine sailing such a monster, but I wanted to so badly.

I made an offer - $400. Incredibly, Peter took it. He was desperate. He even came to town and helped me move her to Skaneateles Lake, one of New York's Finger Lakes, where I lived. I put her on a mooring, an old Chevy 8-cylinder engine block to which I shackled a length of logging chain, a piece of nylon line and a covey of bleach bottles. I didn't have a dinghy, so whenever I wanted to sail I drove to the lake, striped and swam out to the boat, hauled myself aboard (boy, I wish I could do that nowadays!) and sailed her into shore (no motor, either) to get my clothes, picnic lunch and maybe some guests, though usually I sailed alone.

I learned by reading books, books by old-time authors like H.A. Callahan who sailed keel boats like the Star and talked about gaff rigs and mast hoops and slush and oakum and caulking irons, and I learned by trial and error. I would read about it and try it. Often it didn't work out the way the book said it should and then I learned a lot real fast.

Like the time I tried out the heavy weather techniques. I picked a day when the wind had been blowing hard from the south up the whole length of the lake and the waves were breaking on the shore. I needed wind and waves in order to learn how to handle the boat in rough weather. A friend was going with me. On the beach we met a kid, about 10 years old. He asked if he could go sailing and I said, "Sure." We all swam out to the boat because it was too rough to approach the beach. She was pitching and rolling on her mooring. We hauled ourselves aboard and I bent on the sails and got ready to leave the mooring. I wanted to do it all myself, for the practice, so I told them to stay out of the way, I would handle it. I hoisted the main and left it to luff, walked to the bow, uncleated the mooring line, held it, waiting for the right wind and wave, and walked the mooring line aft, throwing her bow away from the wind. The wind pushed the boom out farther and farther as she swung off the wind, and then . . . disaster! A kink in the mainsheet rode up to the first block on the boom and jammed there. The boom stopped swinging, the main stopped luffing and filled with wind, and my boat started sailing - straight for another moored boat. I raced back to the cockpit, grapped the tiller and pulled it up hard, sailing under the moored boat, just skimming by her stern. Now we were really moving! Unfortunately, we were really moving right toward another moored boat. I executed a quick tack and we thundered through the eye of the much more prodigious wind, back the way we had come, only too far into the harbor to make it past the breakwater. But the breakwater was not my immediate worry. Before the breakwater was a channel, but before the channel was a rocky shoal and we couldn't clear it with our centerboard down. I dashed down into the cabin (yes, she had a little cabin with two berths) to pull up the iron plate centerboard. Just in time! We scraped over the shoal, but without the board we were making leeway like crazy and the breakwater was coming up fast. Drop the centerboard. Back to the tiller. Tack in the channel. Back toward the shoal. Dive into the cabin. Pull up the centerboard again. Scrape back over the shoal. Dive into the cabin. Drop the board. Grab the tiller, steer around the same moored boat I had almost hit before, go under another boat, and another. Now we are way too far down the harbor and there wasn't enough room to tack out between all the moored boats. Dodging, weaving, narrowly missing boats' stems and sterns, pushed to leeward by wind and wave, we sagged further and further downwind, unable to make an offing, hemmed in by boats and weather, until eventually our masthead fouled the branches of an overhanging tree.

Somewhere along the way the kid jumped overboard. He shouted something like, "You're crazy!" and swam for shore. I was too busy to notice.

The tree did us in. I dropped the sail and jumped overboard myself, not to swim for shore but to wade among the slippery boulders, holding my boat off the rocks while the waves did their best to beat her to death.

Another lesson in the dangers of a lee shore and the importance of meticulous preparation.

I sold that boat four years later when I went off to graduate school and needed money for tuition. A piece of my heart went with her. She was a good teacher and a good friend.

Over the years the size and complexity of the vessels I sailed has increased - a Catalina 22, a Ranger 26, a Westsail 32, a Coronado 35, a 70-foot ketch-rigged aluminum catamarn and now a Cape Dory 36. I've sailed the Florida Keys, San Francisco Bay, the California coast, to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Chuuk, other islands of the Pacific. But I've never had more fun than during those early days in those little boats. The mystery of sailing still captivates me. The spiritual refreshment of sailing still renews me. The craft of sailing still challenges me. Sailing is a metaphor for life. It's far more than a sport. It's a religious experience.

When we moved to Ohio from California a few years ago, I thought I could live without sailing, now that I'm mature and in my fifties. I couldn't. Something inside of me dies when I can't get out on the water. We're back in the boat business again - broke, boat-poor, and happy as the proverbial clam. Right now I've got a bad case of cabin fever. Launch day is calling. The sky will be blue, the wind gentle or brisk, the water calm or lumpy. I don't care as long as I can be out there, learning how to turn wind into pleasure. Sailing! There's nothing else like it.

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