I must down to the seas again ... sometime

The scent of the ocean rarely reaches this far inland, but this morning the tang of salt air greets me as I step outside. It's crept in from the harbor to the south and is held low over the wakening city by a blanket of fog.

I welcome both the damp air and the smell of the sea, embracing them as old companions I've unknowingly missed. In fact, they tell me why I've been neglecting the little sailboats down on the river; why I've felt no impulse to use the time I've paid for as sailing season ebbs away.

As I walk through the mists to work, I recall the words of a poem I learned in high school, words that tugged at me for years afterward. They are from the original opening stanza of "Sea Fever" by the English poet laureate John Masefield:

I must down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by.

Later versions have inserted an awkward "go" after the first line's "must," changing both the rhythm and the immediacy of the line. "Must" suffices for anyone who has taken the helm on a stormy day, when the wind whips your hair and salt air fills your nostrils. I must down to the sea...

After years of living beside the sea and watching sailboats on the horizon, I finally married a merchant seaman. Together, we faced the winds and waves of winter in a wooden sloop built for heavy weather. We were often the only ones out on Monterey Bay, daring a treacherous channel to return to our berth - chilled through, tired, and hungry, but wholly satisfied.

I remember, too, the well-earned pleasure of submerging myself in a hot bubble bath to get warm again, of leaning back - and feeling the tub rock; of waking in the night with the bed seeming to rock beneath me and having to confirm that I was in my bed and not in the boat.

While the sailing dinghies on the nearby river haven't left me rocking, the first one I stepped aboard - a frisky 15-footer with a centerboard - almost pitched me overboard. Hanging onto the 3/8-inch twisted wire of the mainstay, I regained my balance, and then sat down in the cockpit to contemplate what I was doing there.

I guess the instructor who fast-tracked me through the tests for rigging, points of sailing, and rules of the road summed it up: "Anyone can sail a keelboat; it takes a real sailor to handle a dinghy."

Something in me only reluctantly agrees.

When I finally get out on the river, the old coordination of pressure on sail and tug on tiller returns. But there is the added concern of where to place my weight, since only a thin wooden dagger steadies the boat below the waterline. With a ton of lead below, our own boat just bobbed courteously as we stepped aboard, and there was scant chance of a capsize. With the dinghies, however, capsizing seems almost a rite of passage.

Everything else comes back after all the years - the slippery feel of the nylon sail, the sturdy twist of the bolt rope as I feed it up the slot in the mast, the turn of the shackle pin on the halyard that hoists the sail, the pliant cotton braid of the mainsheet slipping through my hand as I let out the sail.

It was a sudden longing for these subtle pleasures that brought me back to sailing recently. During several days of late-summer rain, I had reread "The Glénans Sailing Manual" that I'd used during the summers when I taught sailing. Just retrieving the book - a witty blend of French humor and the "zen of sailing" - through an online search was an unexpected delight. And then, as I read it again, I'd found myself mentally feeling gear and rigging and wanting to handle them again.

And so, with summer having slipped away, I have satisfied that longing. And now it's the heavy, pervasive smell of the sea that awakens in me the urge to unfurl sails and head for the horizon. It's Masefield's "call of the running tide ... a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied." And - with a patience I never had before - I'm content to let it wait till spring.

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