I never wanted to be a sailor. Boats were risky, I thought, not dependable at all. They were never still, always bobbing around in the waves. Sometimes, they even tipped over, or worse, hit a rock and sank - and I didn't know how to swim.
So, I was shocked when my husband, Frank, announced one day that he had signed us up for sailing lessons.
"What? Why?" I gasped.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," he answered.
"Not me," I said.
"Come on," Frank said. "It'll be fun."
So, one month later, on a warm and breezy afternoon in July, just a few weeks shy of my 50th birthday, I stepped on board a sailboat for the first time. As I fastened my life jacket with shaking fingers, I never imagined that, in a few years, I would be spending whole summers at sea. I just wanted to survive the next few hours.
From the beginning, it was clear I was not a natural sailor. Oh, I did fine in the classroom when we studied theory. I could easily memorize the parts of the boat and the points of sail, and I aced the lessons on tides and currents. But once the boat left the dock, my brain turned to mush. I was so anxious that I couldn't understand, let alone remember, anything the instructor said.
I was also often seasick. Whenever a lesson was scheduled, I hoped desperately for a still day so the water would be calm and smooth. Frank would point out how irrational this was, since we needed wind to sail, but I didn't care if we just bobbed in one place, so long as we didn't bounce around wildly in the waves.
And I simply couldn't grasp the basic concepts of sailing.
"It's all a matter of physics," Frank said.
"I never studied physics," I reminded him.
"Then I think you should, maybe at night school," he said. "It will help."
"Why?" I asked. "We don't own a boat. We have no plans to buy one. When the lessons are over, that will be the end of it."
At the end of the course, Frank passed his practical exam with flying colours. Our instructor suggested that I not take the test.
"I don't think you're quite ready to captain a sailboat," he said. I didn't argue.
The next summer, we flew to the Queen Charlottes where we boarded a 52-foot [16 m] charter sailboat for a week's cruising in the sheltered passages of Gwaii Haanas National Park. We loved everything about that trip: the cool morning mists that drifted through the tall cedars and giant Sitka spruce. Also, the stillness that was interrupted only by the natural sounds of lapping waves and the cries of the seagulls and ravens, and the complete peace in the evening when we were anchored in a secluded cove; rocked to sleep by gentle ocean swells.
"If we had our own boat, we could spend every summer like this," Frank said. I didn't answer.
Another year passed. One day, Frank arrived home and said to me, "I want to talk to you about something, but you have to promise not to get upset and to listen to what I have to say."
I think I knew what was coming, but I kept calm and sat down.
"I've seen a boat that's for sale," he said, "and I'd like you to see it too. It's behind a house on Westminster Highway. I saw the sign and had a look. I think it would do us just fine."
At his words, I felt the familiar fear that the thought of being on the water in a small craft always aroused in me. I pushed it aside and remembered, instead, how much I had enjoyed our sailing trip in the Queen Charlottes.
I thought about how in a few years we planned to retire from our teaching jobs and would need new challenges to keep us involved with life.
Then, I looked at my husband, my best friend, and I thought about how badly he wanted to sail in his own boat, and how I didn't want to be the one responsible for denying him his dream just because I was afraid.
So, I said, "Okay, I'll look."
That afternoon, we inspected the boat as it rested quietly on its stands. Because of the keel, it towered into the air, and we had to climb a ladder to get on board.
I loved the interior of the cabin - the mahogany panelling, the maroon plush upholstery, the whole layout, in fact. The boat seemed so solid and safe. Of course it did. It was on land and immobile.
We bought the boat, named her *Zephyr* and berthed her at a marina not far from our home. Sometimes, we took her for a short trip on the river, maybe an hour or so, just to get used to the feel of her.
September came, school started and we knew if we wanted to get in one overnight trip before the weather turned, we had better do it soon. So we planned to take the *Zephyr* to English Bay and find a place to anchor for the night.
One Saturday morning, having provisioned the boat with fuel, food and bedding, we untied the lines and headed down the river to the Strait of Georgia. I found it a little worrying that the marine weather forecast called for a Small Craft Warning, but Frank assured me it would be fine.
"One of my students has sailed all his life and he says it's not worth putting up the sails for anything less," he said.
The trip down the river was great. The waves in the Fraser are never very high, even when the wind is strong. There isn't enough fetch.
But when we reached the Strait, all hell broke loose. We were too inexperienced to know that when a strong northwest wind meets the current at the river's mouth, extreme turbulence is the result. Suddenly, we were being tossed around like a beach ball.
"Let's go back!" I screamed.
"Look. It's calmer up there," Frank shouted, pointing some distance ahead.
We battled our way past the shallows near Wreck Beach and out into open water, but it didn't seem any quieter to me. The high waves continued to have their way with us, and it took exactly five minutes for me to become more seasick than I have ever been in my life, before or since. That was when Frank told me to take the tiller and hold the boat steady (steady!) while he went up on deck and raised the foresail.
There we were, me holding on to the tiller with both hands, the boat bucking like a bronco, and Frank on deck, wrestling with the sail and shouting at me to keep the boat pointed into the wind. I was terrified, convinced that, at any moment, he would lose his grip and pitch into the water. But, finally, he had the sail up and was back in the cockpit.
He shut off the engine.
Then throwing his arms wide, he shouted exultantly, "Mary Anne, we're sailing!"
I leaned over the side and threw up.
Somehow, we made our way across English Bay to Caulfield Cove, a little anchorage next to Lighthouse Park. We tied up to a mooring buoy (not realizing they were private; nobody chased us away, thank goodness), and picked up the books, charts, cushions, CDs and all the other items that had been thrown around in the cabin during our tumultuous passage.
In the calmer water, my stomach returned to normal. We ate our lunch, napped and read our books. We grilled steaks for supper, opened a bottle of wine and watched the sun set in the west and the lights come on in the city. It was a perfect evening.
It was not a perfect night. Having gallantly offered me the most comfortable berth, Frank made up a bed for himself in the cabin. Unfortunately, his head was above the holding tank where the sewage is collected until it can be disposed of properly, and it sloshed back and forth with the swells, keeping him awake. Luckily, towards morning, the water in the bay became completely calm, and we were able to get a few hours sleep.
Inconsiderate seagulls woke us at about 7 a.m. Still tired and longing for coffee, we discovered that the water in our "fresh" water tank tasted like dirty socks. What to do? Frank took the kettle and rowed our dinghy to the dock. Once ashore, he wandered up the road until he met a friendly lady who let him fill the kettle at her outside tap.
Finally, with cups of drinkable coffee in hand, we could relax in the cockpit and appreciate the glorious morning. The tide had gone out, leaving the nearby rocks uncovered. They were festooned with starfish, and we watched, fascinated, as hungry gulls wolfed them down.
We spent the morning ashore, exploring Lighthouse Park. Then, after lunch, we motored back across English Bay to the mouth of the Fraser and upriver. The wind had died, and the sun shone down on smooth blue water that perfectly reflected every tree on the shore, and fluffy white cloud in the sky.
"This is what it's all about," I thought, completely forgetting my terror of the day before.
That winter, we both took the basic boating course offered by the Canadian Power Squadron, earning our Pleasure Craft Operator's Cards. We also took their course on weather, where we learned that when there's a Small Craft Wind Warning in effect, it's definitely not the best time for beginners to be leaving shore. And we both earned our licenses to operate the VHF radio, so we now know how to call for help, if needed.
Frank has spent a lot of his spare time making the *Zephyr* comfortable - an ongoing process. We have sorted out comfortable sleeping arrangements. The galley has been improved with a new stove and a small fridge that even sports a small freezing compartment, so we eat well on board. A clear, removable plastic enclosure allows us to spend time comfortably in the cockpit, even when the weather is miserable.
Frank has improved the rigging so he seldom has to go on deck to raise and lower sails. If he should need to go up in rough weather, he attaches himself to a safety line. And he keeps the engine in tip-top running order.
We have made our share of mistakes: run aground, wandered into a reef (and out again, unscathed), and both snagged and dragged our anchor. We have, at separate times, lost engine power and our dinghy, but, with a little effort, regained both.
We have found ourselves surrounded by killer whales and porpoises and watched eagles snatch their supper just off our bow. We have woken in the morning to the twittering of hundreds of swallows perched in our rigging, and watched the sun set and the moon rise at the end of many glorious days on the water.
The little bays, coves, settlements and towns of the southwest coast of British Columbia are now as familiar to us as our own neighbourhood.
We have felt fear and worked through it, learning to trust our boat and ourselves, and in doing so, enriched our lives immeasurably.
JUNE 2009 - SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
JUNE 2009 - SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER
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