GROWING up in an apartment in Brooklyn, I wore saddle shoes instead of topsiders, kerchiefs instead of sou'westers, and raincoats instead of foul-weather gear. (As a matter of fact, my mother wouldn't allow me out in foul weather.) My only experience with the ocean was swimming lessons at Coney Island, with my Aunt Rosie, and I never thought of myself as becoming a sailor. Without realizing it, however, I was preparing for the day, three years ago, when my husband and I sailed a 35-foot boat from the we s t coast of Florida home to Connecticut.
When we set out from Florida, I wasn't comfortable at the helm for longer than five or 10 minutes. And during our trip, especially the first part, I kept worrying about how I looked. Was I agile enough? Quick enough? Did I look as if I "belonged" on a boat? My insecurities clung to me like a second skin.
I especially felt like an outsider when we pulled into marinas for the night. This was a vastly different world. I met people who had sailed to Bermuda, the Caribbean, even around the world. There were permanent residents at some marinas, people who had sold everything and lived on board their boats. I felt more secure on a subway in Manhattan than I did discussing trans-Atlantic journeys. When one woman casually mentioned that she had learned to sail as a child, I just nodded and smiled. I tried not to
look awestruck when she added that the camp had been in Brittany, France.
Although I still wasn't comfortable exchanging small talk at marinas, I was becoming more proficient at sailing. The turning point was learning to handle our Loran, a computerized navigation system using radio beacons. I trusted it, too. Especially the time when it indicated that we should stay put when we were approaching Charleston Harbor in a fog. We quickly lowered our anchor and waited. At the first sign of dawn, the fog lifted and we saw how close we were to being aground.
Two weeks after leaving Florida we arrived in Oriental, N.C. Sunburned, tired, and in need of a good night's rest, we checked into an air-conditioned hotel. With an unsteadiness in my gait and a feeling of constant rocking in the shower, I was paying dearly for my sailing "lessons."
We got an early start the next morning, and after reaching Nags Head, N.C., we said goodbye to the narrow Inland Waterway and braved the open ocean. The caravan of boats going north for the summer was gone; it was just us and the sea. At that point, I no longer had the time, or the interest, to check out what people were wearing or what camps they had attended. I began to realize that it's a big ocean out there. And lonely. The amazing thing is, I wasn't afraid.
Later, as we plotted our route to New Jersey, we made a pivotal course change. We decided to bypass Montauk Point, as originally planned, and sail up the East River, which turned out to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I've ever had. Before we reached the river, however, we had to sail past Brooklyn, where I grew up.
As soon as I spotted the Coney Island parachute jump, I reminisced about my swimming lessons at Brighton Beach with my Aunt Rosie. I suddenly realized that she had been my role model. In fact, I can still remember the look of adventure on her face as she strode toward the ocean.
When we reached Manhattan, I smiled with recognition as we breezed past the South Street Seaport. I was also smiling at the fact that we hadn't checked the tide tables, yet the currents were with us anyway. The sun was shining, and the monoliths lining the shore didn't appear so ominous anymore.
When we finally pulled into our slip at Groton, Conn., our neighbors had a multitude of questions for us. That's when my feelings of being an outsider returned. I was convinced that it was because of my incomplete knowledge of sailing jargon. (The word rope slipped out sometimes instead of line or sheet.) And despite our lengthy trip, I still didn't have extensive sea stories to trade.
Now that I look back at my attempts, both verbal and physical, to look like an old pro, I have to laugh. After all, I wasn't a Girl Scout and knots were never my thing. What I lacked in mastery of knots or language, however, I made up for in sheer nerve. I loved the open ocean. The truth is I didn't want my fellow dock-mates in Groton, or elsewhere, to ask where I had sailed while I was growing up. I didn't want to admit that I had grown up in an apartment in Brooklyn, far from the world of sailboats an d
marinas. I didn't have the same points of reference as most sailors, but I desperately wanted to be able to say, "I summered in Maine; my family had a cottage on the ocean."
Ironically, nobody asked.