Got to live another cliché on Sunday.
My dad had the boatyard near the causeway to West Island bottom paint his little sailboat and put it in the water for him again this year. After several successive years of trying to step the mast ourselves while the boat was on the beach, this is a decision I applaud with great verve.
A metal mast for a 16 foot boat is not terribly heavy, until you try and slowly raise it from parallel to the ground to perpendicular to the ground and thread it through a hole juuuuuuust big enough for it to fit. With exactly no margin for error.
The shakedown cruise is what you call the first time out for the season, or after re-rigging a boat. It is when you get to find out all the things that are wrong. Sometimes, the results are a little tough. One year it included having to be rescued. About twenty years ago, my father and I took what may have been a shakedown cruise from his mooring in Fairhaven to the mouth of Mattapoisett Harbor. I had just taken us about when I learned that the way we had rigged the stays (the wires that go from high on the mast to anchors in the hull for stability) made it inevitable that the tackle holding them to the boat would come loose.
The sound of the mast snapping in half and clanging off a human shoulder on its way to the water is not exactly a thing of beauty, but it is memorable. Okay, unforgettable. It might seem like exaggeration designed to juice the story, but there really was a thunder storm and heavy summer shower that came up as we worked to get the mast along the keel and fish the sail from the sea.
As bad as it all felt, a short mile or so from shore, to be adrift and wet, I distinctly remember laughing. There are some circumstances so obscenely absurd, there is no other choice.
None of that happened this weekend.
My dad and I were, however, towed out to a mooring offshore from the boatyard before we learned that the halyard (the line that lifts the sail) had been twisted, half-way up the mast, over something it shouldn’t by the marina. But with some physics and luck, we were able to swing the business end of the line over the needful bar and got it free without losing the hoisting end.
We were glad we had our necessities bag when we found a hasp that was held in place with a little cotter pin almost impossible to grip, and impossible to move with bare fingers. We were less glad to realize that we had checked the necessities bag before it went into the car that ferried us to West Island, and not after the pliers had tumbled out of the bag into the far reaches of the trunk. It is not easy to use a 15 pound anchor in place of a pair of pliers to remove a frozen cotter pin, but that is what we did.
One of the entries in a coffee table book my dad has called “The Quotable Sailor” is something to the effect of “A sailor is a useful man to have about the house.” I’ve always understood that to be a commentary on sailing making one resourceful; when you are afloat on the ocean, there is nowhere to retreat and no prospect of intervention. If the closest thing you have to a pair of pliers is an anchor, you use the anchor.
Our delay-of-game was probably only 45 minutes of poking and fighting and looking at one another with raised eyebrows and unspoken questions. I was with a friend on a boat twice our size some fifteen years ago when a warning siren on his inboard motor sounded after the first ten minutes of pushing us out from that other marina in that other bay. That captain had started to swing his boat around before it even registered in my mind what I was hearing, much less what it meant. By any measure, our delay this weekend was tame.
And then, the sail was picture perfect. The wind was at about 7 o’clock behind us. As is his new custom, my dad gave me the tiller of his boat for the first sail of the season. I would help him put his boats in and out of the water without such enticement or reward. But I am also not fool enough to pass it up. We had what is called a downhill run, where the wind pushes you from behind, effectively flattening the waves and creating a sensation not unlike snow skiing down a gentle slope. We did not even need to tack until I brought us about to put the pickup stick that marks the mooring into my father’s palm like a relay runner taking a baton.
Almost fifty years ago, when my dad was working as a consultant and too often glued – even then – to a phone, my mother bought him a little Sunfish sailboat to get him out on Lake Massapoag in Sharon and away from the same constant engagement that is now the plague of a generation, if not a hemisphere.
Sailing still affords us that. Neither of us even had a watch. In an essay a friend wrote me on my 30th birthday, he posited that I liked sailing not because it represented a past time, but because it represents all time. To this day I understand that line on a visceral level and think it is brilliant.
And I was very aware, as we made our way toward Pea Island, passing between Puppy Rock and White Rock , how very many times my father and I have done just that. We didn’t talk the entire time. There is much to be said for the sound of water moving across the hull of a motor-less boat. But we got to talk as father and son. No tasks calling us away. I’ve learned a lot about my father in the tight little belly of that boat.
We don’t go to sea together to talk. But we do.