Two years ago, standing on the beach in Bora Bora, I envied the few people, mostly men, who had enough sailing ability to take the hotel's catamaran out on the lagoon. They skimmed over the water with an ease that's often perceived when watching people do something you don't know how to do. Without knowing how to sail, I was relegated to either the two person peddle boats or the kayaks. "Water toys," I mumbled crankily from the sand. "Take the sailboat out," Kimi encouraged. She tends to think I can do anything I put my mind to, and if I can't, well, we'll deal with that later. I didn't have the courage, however, and instead settled for a kayak. We had fun paddling around our villa looking for rays and parrotfish, but I promised myself if I were to ever return, I would sail that boat. "Of course you will," said Kimi to which I rolled my eyes. I wasn't in the mood for eternal optimism.
Sailing was in my family at one time. When I was young, I sailed with my father on occasion. Mostly, on one occasion. He and my sister and I were invited by family friends to sail with them to an island on Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont. My dad managed to swindle his sister's Sunfish, a small boat with one sail, for the trip. An adventurer at heart, he said good bye to us on the morning of departure. My sister and I, we learned, were to sail with the friends on their boat; he would be taking the Sunfish. He would meet us on the island later in the day. With barely a thought given to the fact that he was about to take a 13 foot sailboat miles away from land in a time before cell phones and GPS devices, we said, "Sure, Dad, bye." He did things like that and we were used to it. Still, later in the day when we were moored in the deep water just off the island, my sister and I kept watch for him and were relieved when his red, white, and blue sail came over the horizon. We watched him with binoculars as he sliced towards us in Lake Champlain's choppy afternoon waters. He had had a good sail, he said giving us each a hug.
Because my father never acted with bravado, I never considered if he were brave. He just did things, sometimes crazy things, and didn't protect my sister and I from doing the same. Once, when I was perhaps ten, my sister eight, he took us camping on that same lake- Lake Champlain. He brought a two or three person blow up boat and some plastic yellow oars. You know the ones. He helped us get the thing inflated and down to the beach. Told us to have fun. He then lit a cigarette, watched us for awhile, and eventually returned to the tent for a nap.
Let me pause here to give you a few facts about Lake Champlain: it's big; it may be home to a lochness monster; and its most distant shores reach New York State.
When my sister and I got back to camp tired because the wind had picked up and pushed us further from the beach than we thought, he said, "Yeah, it looked like you guys were out there pretty far." That night, he read us bedtime stories until we fell asleep.
Another time we had the same blow up boat in one of Vermont's perfect backwoods swimming holes. This swimming hole had a waterfall. Unfortunately, we got a little too close when paddling around and ended up going over it. My sister and I, mind you, not our father. He was up on the rocks talking with his buddies. Although he asked us not to tell our mother about this particular event, there was something in his voice that said, "That's life, kids. Some days it takes you over a waterfall, some days it doesn't. Nothing to worry about." And so, we didn't. He was raising his daughters to take chances; an upbringing I'm forever thankful for.
That weekend, the one on the island, he tried to teach me to sail, but I didn't want to learn. Swimming and exploring the island were much more interesting to this 12 year old than knowing the direction of the wind. I didn't mind being out on the boat; I just didn't want to run it, which is how I came to stand on a beach in Bora Bora some twenty-odd years later having to decide between the peddle boats or the kayaks, and promising myself that next time the sailboat would be an option too.
Funny how life listens. This past summer, a Groupon came across my email advertising a three hour introductory sailing class for 50 dollars. I jumped on it. The fact that there was no wind the day we went out, and instead of instruction, received a motorized tour of the Willamette River seemed like minor details. After all, the captain passed out a sailing cheat sheet and when he wasn't sharing his vast knowledge of the Portland bridge system, he told us something about sailing. He explained how to tack and how to prevent uncontrolled gybes. He explained the purpose of the jib sail and how to read the direction of the wind (were there any). Of course, we couldn't practice any of this, but again, that seemed more nuisance than necessary. I took notes which I promptly stuffed in a drawer when I got home. Bora Bora was still six months away and there was a college football season to follow. One thing at a time, right?
A couple of nights before leaving for the trip, I pulled out my notes and watched a few youtube videos. I can't say I was confident in my ability to keep the boat from capsizing or even mildly controlled, but I was confident in my decision to give it a try. And yesterday, I was sure, was the day. I reviewed my sailing notes before breakfast and talked to my dad as I biked to the restaurant.
"I need you to help me with this today, Dad. Help me stay calm and remember how to tack. Let me know the direction of the wind, and if you could keep me from the irons and any uncontrolled gybes, that would be great too." A lot to ask before 9 am, but now you know something of my father's and my relationship, and maybe you understand that time, the hour on the clock, meant little. If we wanted to talk, we talked. All these years later, that still hasn't changed.
After breakfast, I asked the guy at the beach if I could take the sailboat out and told him I had very little, mostly no, experience. "Oui, madame" he said, and explained some things about the boat in French. I quickly regretted paying so little attention in high school French class. Sorry, Madame, I thought. I hope I wasn't too annoying, but before I could think too much more about my 11th grade curriculum, I was sailing. Slowly and without much propulsion, but I was moving. And mostly in a forward direction.
Kimi and I had talked earlier about me staying near the beach within the buoys. We agreed that was probably a good idea for my first time out, but good ideas aren't always fun ideas, so I pointed the bow of the boat beyond the buoys and sailed out past the beach and general swimming area. Nothing to worry about.
I tacked. I gybed, but with control. I sailed upwind, downwind, and across wind (there's probably a more technical term for that). I noticed the breeze at my back and on my shoulder, and steered the boat accordingly. I called hello to my father, thanked him, but sensed he wasn't with me. Maybe he knew I would be okay or perhaps there was too little wind, I thought later. Who knows the ways of the dead?
Back on the beach, Kimi asked how it was. "Great," I said, "but next time I could use more wind."
My uncle asked me recently if I dreamed of my father. No, I said feeling disappointed. I know he's had dreams of my dad that have helped him sort things out or understand things differently. I thought about it a little more. No, I said, I don't dream of him.
My father finds me when I'm awake, and maybe if the wind picks up, I will sail with the old man once again. This time, finally, his daughter at the helm, still taking chances and making the most of life.
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Location:Bora Bora, French Polynesia