My sister's sloop

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IT was no coincidence that my sister in Maine called me right in the middle of my reverie about her sailboat. She could hardly have missed calling me in the middle of my reverie, because I'd been revving along on the same lines for several days. Landlocked in California, I resembled no one so much as old Thales the philosopher, who fell down a well because he had better things to do than think about where he was going. Saved from the well by modern plumbing, I nevertheless stumbled across the asphalt ridges and cracked sidewalks of my day, dreaming of sailing.

I was the one trimming the sail and coiling the jib sheet as my sister and I set a heading out of Burnt Coat Harbor for Gooseberry Island or Marshall Island. The Atlantic curled sharply past the chipped bow of her old 20-foot Day Sailor, and spray flecked the faded blue cubby cabin.

Even as I dreamed, however, I was behind the times; my sister's call brought enlightenment.

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``So how's the Day Sailor?'' I asked. ``I'm ready for a cruise anytime you send me a plane ticket.''

``Don't get your hopes up,'' she said. ``And anyway, you should forget about the Day Sailor. I'm getting a new boat pretty soon -- a 19-foot sloop. It's already here in the harbor. It's got a fixed keel, so it'll be more stable in rough seas.''

We talked a little longer about other things, but my mind somehow stuck on the new boat.

Late fall is a kind of dividing line for boat buyers: It separates the dabblers from the real sailors. To buy a boat now is to affirm the serious pleasures of boating in the face of all the winter's negations.

I'd always known my sister to be a serious sailor at heart, so her late-season purchase didn't really surprise me. What kept tugging at me, though, was the fixed keel.

A congenial sailboat like my sister's Day Sailor can tuck its centerboard up into its hull and slide onto an ordinary trailer as easily as any motorboat; it can be pulled in and out of the water on a whim, and it travels almost as lightly as a digital alarm clock in an overnight bag. Why, then, would any reasonable person give up such convenience?

I had always been a centerboard man myself, yanking the family boat out of the water at the end of the vacation and plopping it on the trailer for the trip home. I had taken my sister for a kindred spirit in this sense; neither of us liked being tied to things we couldn't carry on our backs or pull with a compact car.

Obviously I was wrong -- or, more precisely, I really was behind the times: At some point in one's life one wants something more than convenience and caprice, and my sister seemed suddenly to have crossed that divide. For a fixed keel is to a sailboat what a green card is to a foreigner or tenure is to a university professor -- a sign of a serious passage from point to point, a kind of commitment.

Fixed keels cannot be hauled back up into the hull. Weighing anywhere from several hundred pounds to a ton or more, they have a degree of purposefulness that centerboards lack. A fixed-keel sloop is supposed to carve its way to its destination, come rain or shine; it is not a fair-weather friend.

From start to finish, a fixed-keel sloop is trustworthily, stubbornly assertive: It needs what it needs, and if you comply it will give you what you need. Its launching abides no caprice: It requires either a trailer as tall as a bungalow or a hoist with slings strong enough to pull down Caerphilly Castle. Once in the water, the sloop stays there until its bottom needs scraping or until its owner coughs up enough cash to pay for storage ashore. In between, however, it gives some recompense: It takes on rough seas with as much intrepidness as the skipper can muster, and snarls and rattles its way through the young gale to the rain-swept haven.

To trade a centerboard for a fixed keel in late fall is to manifest a kind of rootedness, a long-term forecast of rough seas and skillful voyages. This could hardly seem more ironic, since a sailboat remains for many people the epitome of rootlessness and whimsy. A house has a cellar, but a sailboat can go anywhere, free of obligations and encumbrances. This is a cheerful myth, as accommodating as a Day Sailor. But, after awhile, it is not enough -- not enough, at least, for my sister, and perhaps not enough for me as well, as I shift my dreams to reflect a new reality. The voyage becomes serious; joy is earned as often as discovered, earned with determination and forethought and commitment.

A fixed-keel sloop, in fact, shows nothing so clearly as the false equation of rootedness and encumbrance. From the encumbrances of debt and pain and longing and lovelessness anyone would seek release; but these are not evidence of rootedness. To be rooted is to choose among the voyages the one most resonant, the one with the high-pitched whine in the halyards; and to settle into that voyage, keel fixed against the heavy seas.

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