A writer friend who I'd written songs for over our ten year history called me one day and asked if I'd join him for breakfast. There he told me he wanted a partner in his sailboat; not so much a financial partner as a workmate, someone willing to polish teak, strip paint and swab the decks. He barely got his speech out before I'd agreed, impulsive creature that I am; and once I had, it was time to learn to sail.
took to it as if it was riding a motorcycle, I seemed to have a knack
for seeing the invisible wind and for dead reckoning; the art of knowing
when to tack across and into the wind to reach maximum speed and
efficiency toward a single point on the horizon, without eliminating
comfort by having the boat at a 40 degree heel at all times.
sailed together for some time, a blessing for me as I was quite
unnerved by the possibility of making a major mistake with a huge piece
of fiberglass that might cost an enormous sum of cash to repair. But
then, Leo left town on a job for a few weeks, and the Never Again Two and I were left to our own devices.
I'd made the decision to take on my first solo one morning, and by midday my ex wife and I were sitting in the Harbor View restaurant in Pepin Wisconsin, psyching up for a day's adventure on the high seas.
Of course, high seas
is a minor exaggeration as Lake Pepin is really a wide spot in the
Mississippi, likely no more than 50 feet deep in its navigation channel
and about four miles across at it's widest. But to a novice Captain,
even a bathtub would have seemed an eighth sea, so I was still a mite
intimidated by the chores at hand.
Marie and I climbed aboard
the 28 foot Lancer and chucked our sodas and suntan oil into the hold
before de-docking. I can still smell the teak oil, the lemon
scented soap scum that remained after the boat's last cockpit wash and rinse, the new
canvas saddle that was firmly snapped over the mains'l which lay folded
neatly atop its boom.
Untied, cast off and adrift in the little
pristine harbor, I connected the gas tank to her outboard motor,
primed, and tugged a few pulls before the "Johnson" popped to life. And
then we were away, under power and pointed toward the breakwater that
would lead out to sea.
Strangers nodded and waved without fail
as we passed by slip after slip, whole families puttering aboard their
boats with no intent of actually sailing but only drinking in the
essence of what it is to be a sailor, to have a symbiotic connection to
the water and therefore to nature herself.
It's the same
emotional tug one gets deep within a forest or standing atop even a
middling mountain; that you are both at one with the universe, and in
command of your immediate destiny.
Once beyond the breakwater I turned into the
wind and had my true love of the moment hold our rudder that we might stay
the course. Unfurling the sail, I yanked the main sheet and pulled the
polyester triangle to the upright and locked position, its uncontrolled
flapping in the eye of the breeze nearly deafening but somehow,
titillating as well.
With a snap the wind
caught and we were away, being dragged through the muddy Mississippi at
speeds approaching 6 knots...almost what a grown man can walk if he
steps lightly and with malice toward his always expanding paunch.
If you've never been I might advise you that six knots on a giant craft
of steel and glass, iron and nylon rope is like 50 miles an hour in a
car cruising the back roads. It's smooth, clean and powerfully fast, and
when it's you in control, your heart races right
alongside the boat but can never seem to keep up.
The tighter you
get to the center of the wind, the tighter you pull your sail to the
center of the boat, the deeper you lean until the sea itself creeps up
your gunwales and nearly into the cockpit and cabin. I so loved tacking
hard that if the boat hadn't been self righting, (meaning that
eventually the rudder would come out of the water and once losing
steerage, the boat would stand up and straighten itself out) I'd have
sunk the poor thing near every time I sailed it.
It was a
glorious trip on a glorious day with a glorious crew and if it hadn't
been for the storm, I could have marked it down as one of a few perfect adventures I'd been party to.
as it was we found ourselves miles from port, lazing on the shallow,
sandy leeward side of a cove shaped peninsula sipping cokes and dangling
hot feet into lukewarm waters when the squall line made its first
appearance over the top of 400 foot tall sandstone bluffs
that stand guard over the river.
What little I knew told me that
riding out a storm at sea was preferable to being tossed ashore by an
errant wave, so we shoved off the sandbar and raced for open water as
damn near every other boat in sight raced for shore.
It was an
overwhelmingly beautiful sky, the roiling mammatus clouds in rich
purples and oranges, the cloud to ground lightning that ripped through
the ozone like fiery javelins pounding the earths crust, the swath of
opaque blackness that trailed the front as if a toddlers blanket hanging
off a clothesline.
I had Marie load up the cassette player,
something we'd ignored 'till now as it seemed almost sacrilegious to
play manmade music over the gentle sounds of surf and sail.
was aiming dead center, due south as the sun winked out and the far
reaching fingers of death's grip stroked the gooseflesh from beneath my
skin. It was cold, the wind howling and the skies a midnight blue as the
first of a thousand hailstones pelted my face and hands, the only two
body parts I'd not had the luck to get covered before hell started to yank on my chain.
The waves were suddenly six foot if an inch, the screaming
motor barely audible above the creaking of straining wood being tossed
to and fro by Neptune's hordes. And that's when I heard the trill of
violins, wafting loudly from the cabin below. Marie had switched on the
boom box and started my specially purchased tape just at the right
As I struggled to keep the 3 ton bobber afloat and my
wife and I safe from the iodine and pcb tainted carp that would surely
pick at our corpses should we capsize in this "midwester", the wind of
the opening bars of Wagner's Ride of the Valkieries oozed from the
weathered teak slats that comprised the door to the mate's cabin and
porta-potty berth. It was so fucking fun right at that moment I howled
my best wolfcall, taunting the Mother to have at me with her best as I
was in the zone and likely indestructible at that very moment.
Bum Bun tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaada-Bum tadadaaaaaaaaa.
God! It was indescribable handling 28 feet of floating hammer in the most
wicked of thunderstorms. In 30 years I'd not felt as omnipotent as this;
not flying, not climbing, nor sliding a motorcycle down a gravel road
toward a 400 foot mountainside cliff's edge brought me the same visceral
pleasure as that few minutes of rockin' the boat.
And then it
was past, in the same fashion as it had started; calm, warm, sticky and
only the ankle deep waters in the cockpit to prove I'd faced Satan and
booted his ass back to never never land.
I spose if I were a
cliché bitten man I'd say it was a "king-o-the-world" moment. But I
never saw Titanic, and besides...that ship sank didn't it? Perhaps they
needed a more weathered and fearless Captain. "King-o-the-world" indeed!