Since my parents took me sailing almost before I could walk, being able to sail is like being able to breathe. It’s more than second nature — maybe more like a second set of senses.
I can tell right away if someone is a sailor — there’s just something about them — the way they walk, the look in their eyes, the trace of wind on their skin, the strength in their backs. And how they watch the water, if we’re near a harbor or ocean.
You can shrug and say, “Eh! No big deal — it’s just a skill!”
But sailing is more than ‘just a skill.’ It’s a life-and-death adventure every time you go out, and if you have even one smidgen of smarts in your head, you know you have to be prepared every time you go out onto the water. Even if you’re simply going out for an afternoon cruise around the harbor.
Prepping for your adventure starts way before you start to go out — what are you wearing in order to stay cool, dry or warm? Did you bring a second set of clothes in case of a sudden squall or a fall overboard?
Are you wearing the right footwear so you don’t slip and fall on wet decks, or burn your feet on hot ones?
Is your hair secured so it doesn’t blow in your face and obscure your vision at a critical moment of decision?
Do you have a slicker jacket in case of sudden rain or hail?
Do you have some way to get dry if you get soaked by spraying waves so you don’t end up with hypothermia?
What food did you bring in case you get caught outside the harbor and the wind dies? Did you bring water? Do you have a safe place to stash your goodies so they don’t get wet or be in the way?
Do you have a knife and a fire kit attached to you with a strong lanyard?
Your boat — is it clean so you don’t slip on past messes? Do you have all your ropes (called lines, in sailing lingo) — neatly stowed and ready for use instead of lying on deck, tangled nests of tripping danger?
Are your sails clean and ready to slide onto the boom or raise from the deck at a moment’s pull of the halyard?
Is the hull clean of barnacles and seaweed or other marine debris that could slow it down, or even eat into your hull?
Is it painted a color easily seen by others who are on the water, in a rescue boat or in the air, in case you capsize?
I could go on, but you can see how you need to be ready for all things to go wrong. Sailing — even the shortest jaunt — can turn from fun to catastrophe in the span of milli-seconds.
At 13 years old, I had sailed for years with my folks or older brothers as their crew, or supervised as I practiced being skipper.
One fine Saturday, I prepped our boat for the first race of the day. My older brother was to be my crew this time!
But when all was ready and I had hand on tiller poised to steer away from the docks, he laughed, and pushed the boat away — and didn’t hop on! I was suddenly going solo in our little 15′ single-sail boat.
I was stunned. Terrified. But somehow I got the sail up and secured. I clumsily jumped back to the tiller so I could steer away from crashing into the rocks at each side of the passage out to the harbor.
Despite my terror and the ripping tension zinging through me, I made it out to the starting line just fine. I began to breathe a bit easier.
In each race, there were usually from five to twenty boats participating.
This time, there were around fifteen. Every last skipper was an adult. With crews. I was the lone solo. At 13.
What was my brother thinking?
I got mad.
OK, so here I am in a round-the-harbor race, all by my crazy self, in the midst of a horde of seasoned grownups. I just knew they were all wondering what I was doing there without a crew — even though it was a perfect day with a very fine, steady little breeze. I knew they were laughing and joking about me, and thinking I’d fail in a big way.
Am I going to freak out and give up?
Or get out there and try to win?
And I did it! I got through the entire race all by myself — and didn’t even come in last! My first race!
I felt like a conqueror! I was almost dizzy, my blood racing through my veins, my grin ear-to-ear, trying to split my head in half.
Then, as I sailed through the harbor back to the docks, the wind picked up.
I might have been young, but by then I was good at reading the wind’s writing on the surface of the water, telling me what it was going to do. It could ripple or crash across the water, howl in the stays that hold the mast up, or gently flutter the sail on soft days. And, fickle, it can rip that stout sail into shreds in seconds as a storm strikes.
Its song was getting shrill, tense: a squall was coming, and I was directly in its path. I could see the line of darkness coming on the silver surface of the water, the lowering clouds above turning black.
In order to get my boat back to its dock, I still had to maneuver through the fleet of moored yachts — boats that were too big to go in the little harbor where my boat lived. They were all thirty or more feet long, situated as close as they could get without smashing each other with changes in wind and water current. It was a nightmare navigating through there on a calm day, but now, as each one swung around its mooring?
Fear started trickling down my spine. I felt my eyes turn into saucers as I tried to be aware of all the hazards. I sat up straighter, and perched on the upwind railing.
The wind shifted and picked up. My shrouds — the tightly-wound guy wires that held the mast steady — started humming. I could feel the hum in my bones.
We picked up more speed. I pushed my butt all the way out past the rails to try to keep my boat more even in the water.
As I zoomed through the first part of the fleet, I suddenly found myself headed at top speed right into the sleek side of one of those yachts.
No matter what I tried — head upwind and go to the left? Nope. Couldn’t get enough momentum. Head to the right and go around the stern of the boat? Nope, too late!
Still on the rail, trying with my small body to keep from capsizing, I’m gripping one hand white-knuckled on the tiller, the other grasping the line that controlled the sail.
I look aft and my wake is a heaving trail of spitting froth on the rough dark blue water.
The white of my sail glares against the unholy dusky blue of the squally air.
The scent of wet, briny salt and the subtle musk of seaweed and shells fills my nostrils.
I’m getting closer and closer to the yacht.
My heart is in my throat, choking me. I’m almost puking with fear.
30 feet. 20, 15…
Suddenly, less than ten feet away from smacking into the yacht full broadside, terror swamped me, engulfed me.
I gave up.
I threw the line to the sail up in the air, covered my eyes and waited for the crash, waited for the splintering of teak decks and shards of bright red fiberglass hull, waited for fraying wire stays no longer holding my mast up, flailing around like metal snakes, slashing everything in their path — waited for my body’s flight into the frigid water from my perch atop the rails . . . .
My little boat just … stopped.
It bobbed up and down on the waves like an innocent rubber ducky.
I’d utterly forgotten one of the most basic rules you learn the first times you ever go out.
Let go of the sail, and you stop.
The wind can’t fill the sail if you don’t hold it tight. It just sits there, patiently waiting. Flapping uselessly in the air. Your boat will go nowhere.
I fell into the cockpit and collapsed in sobs. I was shivering so hard I felt as if my bones would break.
Somehow through my grief and relief, I heard the low hum of the launch coming out to see if I was OK.
I got up and tried to straighten myself up, to look like I’d done it on purpose. Pride, you know?
Ralph, the assistant commodore, could hardly keep from laughing. To my 13-year old self, still terrified of authority, his crimson face looked like he was about to blow up at me. But as I look back, I realize it was the sheer effort to keep from breaking out in peals of laughter.
Later, I found out that the entire sailing club had gathered on the front lawn to watch the unfolding drama, and had cheered in howls and laughter at my spectacular victory.
I never heard them. My ears were still roaring from the fear. All I wanted was to sink into the water and die of embarrassment.
But the lesson — to let go, to give it up, when I’ve done every last thing I could and there is not one thing more I can do, and let the Mystery reach in and give me a hand — that has stuck with me like fresh sap on clean pants.
There’s a keen distinction, though, between ‘giving up,’ and ‘giving it up.’
One is defeat, failure, despair.
The other is a claim and a gift.
When you ‘give it up,’ you’re claiming that you’ve done your best, but you don’t know what else to do, and you’re now declaring your direct connection to That, the Mysteriousness — maybe you call it god or spirit or whatever. I like to call it the Mystery, because that’s what It is to me.
When you ‘give it up,’ you gift your skills, knowledge and expertise, your willingness to create even in the face of fear, and your love of life, to the Thatness.
You’re saying, here I Am, here is what I have tried to do, I can’t go an inch further, YOU take it now.
In my experience, It does.
And there is a surprising, amazing solution, every single time.
GIVE IT UP
text and image © Angela Treat Lyon 2023
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