beam reach

i distinctly remember the moment i fell in love with sailing. It was on a beam reach. But let’s start at the begining…
At th’time, i had been living in a cabin on a mountainside above Vancouver for a winter. If i trekked out to the lodge and up to the upper hut, i could catch a broad view of the Straight Of Georgia. It was my second attempt at living “at the coast”, and i’d gotten no closer to sailing in two years there than the previous twenty up north.
Still, i’d read my Hervey Garrett Smith, Herreshoff, Robin Lee Graham, and th’rest. i’d left tattered all the library back-issues of WoodenBoat from countless afternoons of flipping pages and memorizing details. i’d ordered in technical stability manuals and hydrodynamics texts from the university libraries (behold the power of a library card!). i studied relentlessly for almost 3 years, absorbing everything i could about sailing and the sea. Aside from a few jaunts on a friend’s Hobie 14 when i was 12 or so, i’d never been sailing, and had lived away from water my whole life.
Still, i could name and describe any style of sailboat or any detail of hull or rigging, and discuss in detail the handling of lines or theory of sailing, all before i actually went to work at sea. One of my early sailing mentors once described me as one of the most knowledgable persons she’d met in the field. Truth is, rather than reassured by this, i felt uneasy. i was moving in a small circle of folks who had sailed around the world on traditional craft, and who had earned their own knowledge and skills at sea. i knew everything that there was to learn from books, but little else.
i finally got on the water by curious chance. A fluke turn of conversation had led to my meeting Tom, a sailor himself, working on the mountain that winter while going to school ashore for his captain’s ticket. A month or so after meeting him, we got together for beers and slides, and there, projected on his livingroom wall, i saw images that i’d never seen in the books: the sailors, drunk and sober, high and low, the old men, the green hands, and the simple hard work of the sea. i saw places, before only reached by airplanes and money, now available by salt sweat and tarred labour. A week or so after that night, i got a call at work from Tommy.
“Are y’ready?” he cajoled, “I’ve volunteered ya to a boat on th’Island. They need y’there yesterday.” And so i went.
The boat was Duen, a right and proper 75-yr-old Norwegian gaff ketch, built like a brick shithouse, a survivor of service in WWII, a multiple circumnavigator, and a fine place for a green hand like me. I volunteered ashore for some weeks (quitting my job on the hill), lending a hand during their annual spring refit. The owners came to appreciate my carpentry, and hired me on to rebuild the skylights and rework many of the systems aboard. I was later to serve variously as cook, bosun, and mate, sometimes for pay, sometimes not. Hobbis was a kind man, but a stern taskmaster; in some ways, he’s spoiled me for other masters by making me into too much the perfectionist. It was under his tutelage that i transformed much of my book-learnin’ into hard skills.
But for the love… well, back to that one reach. It was a glorious spring day, wind to 15 on the starboard beam, the windwaves rising to slap the topsides and tumble spay onto th’student crew. We were setting the main, mizzen, stays’l, jib, an’ jibtop. As the wind gusted to 20, Hobbis sent me for’ard, out to the end of the 14′ fir ‘sprit, to claw down the jibtop. Down i took it, and brailed it up nice along the whisker-stay. i took a moment to stand up ‘pon the ‘sprit cap, leg braced against the taut jibstay, hands tight to the thrumming wire of the main topmast stay.
The sky a wild blue. The sea a foaming green. The jib an’ stays’l behind me crisp and unshaken. The water below me, one second naught but a foot away, then reeling so far below. I rested m’temple against the topmast stay. i felt, rather than heard, the motion and power of the sails, the mast, and the rig, transmitted through that narrow wire. 60 tons of Scandinavian Pitchpine, Douglas Fir, and Yellow Cedar shoved me through the atmosphere by the balls of my feet. i fell in love. That was the best sail of a season too-oft filled with motoring to meet a schedule, and too me, the first moment of real sailing i’d ever felt. Later that spring, there were a few other moments, but all too brief, and with none of that same energy.
Since then, still so early in m’seagoing career, i’ve served as bosun or mate aboard baltic traders, marconi ketches, schooners, and one nice little brig. I’ve manned rail, winch, and wheel alike on plastic raceboats and catamarans. i’ve deliverd yachts across the Leewards and dingies across the lake. i still have all that book-knowledge, but what fascinates me more is all the skills i have yet to learn, and all the boats i have yet to sail. And, more than anything, i look forward to falling in love with the sea, again and again and again.


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