My sailing savvy sinks me again

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Many activities are reputed to be "unforgettable," no matter how long you have been away from them. Riding a bike, for example. In fact, bicycling has given us the quintessential catchphrase for the staying power of certain ancient skills: "Of course you still know how to swing a golf club. It's just like riding a bike!"

Sailing is supposed to be another of these things. When I was in the Navy, there was a push by the higher-ups to encourage us young sailors to learn the basics of navigating small, wind-driven craft, as a means of putting us in touch with the very roots of the service.

It was a romantic notion, considering the big, gray, rather inhospitable steel hulks on which we lived and worked. Few sailors showed an interest.

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But I was captivated by the idea. A seasoned, taciturn chief petty officer - Chief Jordan - took me under his wing, taught me a few basics, and then hauled me off in his two-person Sunfish - a slip of a craft, little more than a surfboard with a single sail - for a go just off Virginia Beach.

From the very start, things were problematic. I liked the idiom of sailing well enough - "tacking," "reaching," and "running with the wind" - but I had a hard time acquiring a feel for these maneuvers. More than once, after the chief had given me control of the boat, I managed to flip us over, throwing us both into the drink.

Eventually, after many tribulations, the wind died. We were left bobbing and drifting, the sail as limp as a dishrag, which brought the chief to look up at the sky with quiet exasperation and murmur, "We are becalmed."

Isn't that lovely?

To this day, the only thing I remember about sailing a boat is that, when someone hollers "Coming about!" I am supposed to duck, in order to avoid getting hit in the head with the boom.

I paid sailing little mind until recently, when my high school freshman son, Alyosha, and I were invited by one of his classmates for an evening sail off the Maine coast.

This awakened something in me, something the Navy had tried to inculcate. I jumped at the opportunity.

Andrew, my son's friend and the skipper of his own twin-sailed sloop (a so-called Cape Dory Typhoon), was born to sail. His young life seemed to revolve around the history, the lore, the literature, and the architecture of sailing, not to mention the act itself. I am convinced that the first word out of his mouth had been not "mama" but "mizzen mast."

He had spent his entire summer living in the cramped cabin of his 18-foot "Queen Merry," sleeping curled-up to accommodate his strapping six-foot frame.

It was, truth to tell, a beautiful evening for a sail. The sun rode low behind some offshore islands, and a stiff westerly wind tossed modest whitecaps across the harbor.

Andrew was, in a word, elated to see me and Alyosha. We climbed aboard, and I watched as he skittered along the gunwales, loosing lines and tending to sails.

He paused only once to ask if I had ever sailed before.

"Are you kidding?" I asked, swelling with something resembling nostalgia. "I cut quite a figure when I was in the Navy."

Andrew's eyebrows took flight. "Did you?" he asked.

"Like Errol Flynn."

We motored out of the harbor, and Andrew directed me to take the tiller as he raised the jib and mainsail.

"Just keep us pointed toward that bridge," he directed as he signaled into the distance.

"Aye."

Two minutes later, Andrew looked back at me from the bow. "Toward the bridge," he reiterated.

Oh. I had already lost my bearings. Something about the rhythm of the waves, the gentle tossing of the boat, the occasional luffing of the mainsail.

I corrected our course and looked over at my son, who was relaxing with his arms stretched out along the gunwales. "Have you ever wanted to sail, Alyosha?" I asked, rather dreamily.

His reply was immediate: "Nope."

One of the great wonders and paradoxes of sailing is that one can actually sail into the wind. This is called "tacking." When I had attempted this on Chief Jordan's Sunfish, we had flopped over. I never could get the hang of it, perhaps because it seemed so counterintuitive. I mean, wasn't wind supposed to be behind the sail?

Despite my philosophical reservations, Andrew handed me the line to the mainsail and directed me to tack as part of our turning maneuver.

"That's it," he said as I pulled on the tiller and let out some line. "A little more," he encouraged. "Good."

And then, like an echo of the only sailing lesson I had ever learned, came the command - "Coming about!"

Reflexively, I ducked, just as the boom came swinging over my head.

The sail began to luff, and the boat was battered by oncoming wave crests, throwing us off our course.

My son shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Oh, Dad," he sighed.

Andrew diplomatically resumed control of the boat, and I watched with admiration as it came to heel like a living creature responding to the affections of its master.

AS WE turned toward the harbor, I decided that Alyosha had the right idea. Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride?

I did this, and then I recollected that sailing, for me, was indeed like riding a bike: I remembered every mistake I had made all those years ago with Chief Jordan, and I repeated them with seamless efficiency.

The sun was well down now, and the barest residual sky-glow guided us toward the dock. I considered that - like a gourmand who can't boil water - I might not ever sail my own boat, but I would always be one who would deeply enjoy the experience of sailing.

So long as I didn't get hit in the head with the boom. And thanks to Chief Jordan, so far so good.

He paused only once to ask if I had ever sailed before. 'Are you kidding?' I asked. 'I cut quite a figure when I was in the Navy.'

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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