“Head up,” my father says softly as my eyes open. His dream-voice sounds just like his real voice did fifty-plus years ago. He’s not putting me on notice, giving me a heads-up; he’s telling me to sail the boat closer to the wind.
Dad had been a sailor since early adolescence. He’d raced small sailboats of the Star class from the time he was fifteen, and he’d taken first prize in one of these races at seventeen. When we lived in South Bend, Indiana for the first eight years of my life, he and my brother raced a fifteen-foot sailboat on Eagle Lake, just over the state line in Michigan. Eventually Dad would captain a thirty-two-foot craft with a wheel instead of a tiller; but in the early 1960s, his vehicle for traversing the waters of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay and the closer reaches of the Atlantic Ocean was a mint-green, twenty-six-foot Amphibi-con.
During the six years our family lived in Warwick, Rhode Island, we spent most of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons from late May through late September on that sailboat. Sometimes these sessions were rained out, but there was never a problem with insufficient wind—in contrast to the Chesapeake Bay, where we sailed after moving to Maryland when I was fourteen. It was easy to be becalmed, usually in oppressive heat and humidity, on the Chesapeake. There was always a good fresh breeze on the Narragansett.
On a typical weekend morning, Mom packed our lunch in a wicker basket and filled the squat pink-and-gray picnic jug with Kool-Aid. Dad gathered assorted sailing gear—winch handles, coils of rope, mysterious little packets of hardware, bits of slender nylon shock cord—into a couple of canvas tote bags. Our family of six then piled into the blue Ford station wagon and headed for the neighboring town of East Greenwich, where the boat was moored. We kids hauled the gear, including our own toys and books, down to the dock, where we were picked up by the yacht-club launch. Dad and the launch man exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the direction and quality of the wind while the rest of us settled into our seats and held on to the gunwales. Stepping from the launch onto the sailboat could be challenging, since both were moving targets. My fifteen-year-old brother, Phil, negotiated the transition with ease. At age nine, I required a good deal of hand holding to clamber onto the Amphibi-con deck. My sisters—Sarah, age seven, and three-year-old Mary Alyce—were often simply passed from one parent to the other.
Once we were aboard, preparations for the day’s sail began with life jackets—a haphazardly-applied safety measure except in the case of my sisters, who always wore them. My mother and I might put them on when the wind was especially brisk; Phil and Dad, hardly ever. These were not the rectangular vests with neat plastic closures that you see on ferries, cruise ships, and the like. No, they were bulbous things, often bright orange or vividly striped, resembling a buxom older woman’s pendulous breasts, secured by nylon straps that had to be threaded through metal D-rings—not conducive to speed or efficiency. Mary Alyce was so skinny that she would nearly slip out of even the smallest life vest, no matter how tightly our mother cinched the straps.
Next was the stowing of gear. Sandwiches went in the icebox, an insulated rectangular hole, perhaps a foot deep, with a lid the size of a legal pad. The picnic jug rode in the little stainless-steel sink to prevent it from sliding around when the boat heeled. The tiny galley kitchen also contained an alcohol stove, a dull gray two-burner affair that gave off a noxious chemical odor even when not in use, which was most of the time. Since the combination of stove-scent and gasoline fumes from the boat’s auxiliary motor nauseated me, I stayed above-decks as much as possible. While my mother seldom complained about spending every weekend afternoon on the boat, we all knew that sailing was Dad’s thing, not hers. She usually stayed below with my sisters, reading to them and holding Mary Alyce on her lap when the sea was especially rough. They preferred the fume-laden atmosphere of the cabin to being mere inches from the water when sitting on the lee side of the cockpit while under way.
While my sisters helped Mom stow the lunch things and stashed their books and toys in the small hammocks on the sides of the cabin, my brother and I helped Dad with the sails. The mainsail remained fastened to the boom for the entire season, covered with a canvas sleeve, which was removed for hoisting the sail up the mast. The jib was stowed below-decks in its own canvas bag between outings. This sail had to be fastened to the forestay by small brass fittings from bottom to top, which was a bit tricky. More than once, I was embarrassed to discover that I’d managed to rig the jib upside down and had to start over.
Now the mainsail cover was off. The jib, newly attached to its halyard and the forestay, lay crouched in the bow. The main- and jib-sheets were coiled and waiting on the deck. My brother stood at attention at the bow, boathook in hand, looking like a tiger about to pounce as he waited for the command to cast off. When Dad started the motor, he yelled to Phil, who released the rope attaching the boat to the large, bobbing buoy. Dad threaded his way carefully among the other boats, his shoulders hunched, his attention laser-focused.
Once we were out of the cove, it was time to hoist the sails. Several moments of confusion ensued, often accompanied by shouting, in which sailcloth snapped like gunshots and ropes undulated on the deck like agitated snakes. The halyards sounded like giant zippers as Dad and Phil hurriedly raised the sails. The boom swung wildly for a few moments until Dad secured the mainsheets to their cleats in the stern of the boat while restraining the flailing tiller with his knees. My brother and I wrapped the jib-sheets around their winches, one on each side of the cockpit, and Phil pulled on the leeward jib-sheet until the mighty flapping stopped. Dad shut the motor off. We were under way.
With the help of a wet finger and a bit of shock cord fluttering from the aft mainstay, Dad discerned the direction of the wind. Then, consulting the compass, he guided the bow of the boat to within about forty-five degrees of it. The tension began to drain from his shoulders as the routine of sailing brought him into his element. The pressure of his work as an engineer—carried out while still recovering from a toxic liver injury several years earlier that left him with persistent fatigue—finally began to ease.
Phil and I, his crew, were tasked with making sure the sails billowed just the right amount: if their free edges started to luff, one of us pulled on the leeward sheet to tighten it up while the other loosened the windward one, smoothly coordinating our efforts. The wind shifted constantly, at least by a few degrees, so the fine-tuning of the interplay among tiller, sails, and sheets never stopped. Sitting on the windward side of the cockpit—the high side of the heeling craft—we braced ourselves with our feet against the leeward side. I reveled in the sensation of the wind in my hair.
When you’re sailing close-hauled, you need to change direction frequently, which is known as tacking. The process of switching to a different tack—coming about—is a wild, potentially hazardous, few moments. Being hit by an uncontrolled boom can cause a nasty head bump or, as I discovered years later when Dad and I had a close call together, a cracked rib (cracked rib, Dad’s; remorse, mine).
“Ready about, hard-a-lee,” Dad called. We quickly unwound the jib sheet from the leeward winch and released the main sheet from its cleat. Sails flapped like a flock of albatrosses, we all ducked to avoid being hit by the boom, and the main- and jib-sheets were swiftly secured and tightened. The boat was now pointed a few degrees to the other side of the wind’s frontal assault. We reversed our places in the cockpit—the starboard side was now to leeward rather than to windward. What had been up was now, abruptly, down.
The hours passed, with several repetitions of the above procedure. There wasn’t much conversation; but once Dad relaxed, he would point out the cryptic numbers and symbols near the tops of the mainsails of the boats we encountered, which identified their class and length. When he was really feeling mellow, he lit his pipe and told us tales of other boats he’d skippered and crewed on, of races and regattas. When it was time to head home, the sails were let out at wider angles to the mast; with the wind mostly behind us, they bellied out as they filled with bracing sea air. Now that we were sailing on a broad reach, things were calmer, with less heeling of the boat and less coming about. This gave Phil and me time to brace ourselves for the final challenge—bringing the boat back into the cove.
First the sails were taken down and secured—again with much flapping of fabric and swinging of the boom—while Dad started the outboard motor. Phil and I exchanged glances—his said, “Here we go” and mine said, “Better you than me!”—and he took up his post on the bow with the boathook. When the big moment came, he usually managed to grab the line on the first try. In later years in Maryland, when Sarah and I crewed for Dad without our brother and the boat had to be nudged into a dock slip, Dad had to maneuver the boat between two wooden platforms without banging into either of them. Sarah and I struggled to fasten the foam fenders to each side of the boat; then Sarah pushed against the dock with all her might while I scrambled to secure the lines that tethered the boat to the dock. Cries of “Fend off!” and the occasional “Goddammit!” would ring out from the back of the cockpit.
After our first few years in Rhode Island, my brother started college and spent his summers elsewhere. Now a teenager, I became Dad’s first mate for those last summers on the Narragansett Bay. By now I’d finally figured out how to put the jib back in the bag in such a way that I could attach it to the forestay right side up. Being taller made it easier to negotiate the transition between launch and sailboat; being stronger made it easier to trim the jib. Best of all, to my delight, Dad eventually allowed me to do some of the sailing.
Taking the tiller for the first time, I felt a mixture of pride and awe: Dad was trusting me to sail the boat! He was still in charge, of course, which was fine with me. He showed me how to line up a landmark with a point on the compass.
“The wind’s coming from 45 degrees to the north of that building with the tower, see?” he said with a gentle puff on his pipe. “Head for that.”
I operated the tiller with frequent glances at the shoreline, the compass, and the condition of the sails, while Dad gave instructions and did the sail-trimming. “Head down,” he said, when the sails began to flutter too much; or “Head up,” when I wasn’t taking full advantage of the wind and deviating too far off course. At first, Dad told me when it was time to come about. As I became more proficient at the tiller, he asked me if I thought it was time yet and then talked me through the preparations. There was that moment of sail-snapping, boom-thrashing chaos; and then I was steering toward my original landmark from the other direction.
I began to understand why Dad loved sailing so much. It’s an activity performed solely for its own sake. There’s nothing special about the landmark you pick to sail towards; there’s no real goal or purpose to any of it, other than to be out on the water, sailing. The rhythm of guiding the boat, maintaining the optimal tautness of the sails, is inherently soothing; your mind is fully occupied and fully in the moment. No past, no future, just the sea and the sky, the boat and the wind. And there’s nothing like the sound of a sailboat slicing through water in a good breeze: the hissing of wave against hull; the whisper of bubbles in the boat’s wake; the creak of a sail taking in more wind, or that light fluttering when it’s in need of trimming; the metallic screech-groan of the winch when you trim the jib. There’s the pull of the water against the rudder as you move the tiller; the taste and smell of the salt spray, the feel of it on your lips. And the sensation of the wind: brisk as a massage when you’re sailing close to the wind, and gentle as a caress when it’s a zephyr coming from behind and the sails are splayed wide to catch every hint of a breeze.
Fifty years after our family moved away and more than forty years after our mother died, my siblings and I revisit the Narragansett Bay to scatter our father’s ashes. As custodian of Dad’s cremains, I made the arrangements for our reunion, including the rental of a boat for a few hours. My brother, a lifelong sailor with a boat pilot’s license and the only one of us who still takes to the water regularly, is our captain. Our craft is a lovely, nearly-new 24-foot powerboat, or “stinkpot,” as our father would have called it. We carry the ashes concealed in beach-bags, since we’re not following Coast Guard protocol. Dad’s four offspring are accompanied by one son-in-law and most of his grandchildren. The summer day couldn’t be more beautiful: cloudless sky, brisk breeze, not too hot or humid—the kind of day Dad would have loved. Mary Alyce, who never got over her antipathy for boating but wouldn’t miss this for the world, is the only one wearing a life jacket. To the strains of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” emanating from my niece’s I-phone, and Sarah’s lovely a capella version of “Crossing the Bar,” we consign Dad’s ashes to his native element as we navigate, one last time, the waters of our childhood.