The Light Touch / Death by sailing
Water sports and I are a lethal combination. I am not, even by novice standards, a sailor. I flunked Row Boating 101 at camp, and once when I stepped into a canoe, it capsized because my purse was so full of junk the boat couldn't stay steady. And yet, I can't escape. That's because I come from a long line of family sailors who take to the water with a kind of gusto that makes me instantaneously sea-sick. They never give up. Once a year, someone invariably invites me out on their boat, and once a year, despite my intense horror at the thought, I acquiesce.
Last week, my cousin Dan phoned.
"Would you like to go for a sunset sail?" he asked. A sunset sail sounded peaceful, calm and relatively safe even to me. I agreed to set sail with Dan, who brought along his girlfriend, Tiffany, to experience the beauty of the sea.
There is nothing like the feel of salt spray in your face. Nothing like the wind in your hair as you stand on a dock, looking out at the water with only one thought in mind: I think I'm going to throw up. "This time it will be different," Dan explained. "You'll see."
And he was right: It was different. It was worse than I remembered. I changed color within 15 minutes, going from a nice shade of rosy-pink to a Brussels sprout green. While Dan and his girl sat on deck sipping their Scotch and eating calamari dip, I turned my gaze toward the horizon and prayed for rain so we could turn back. Much to my amazement, as though God himself had answered my prayer, it started to drizzle. "Oh, too bad," I said. "I guess that's it for our sail."
Instead, Dan tossed me some foul-weather gear, and told me he was going to slacken the mainsheet while I manned the tiller.
"Manning the tiller is my raison d'etre, Dan," I said. And right there in the middle of Long Island Sound, feeling exactly like Captain Ahab, I took charge of the boat while Dan and Tiffany, high on booze, couldn't care less what I was doing.
Here are two sailing tips: 1. Never take charge of a boat unless you've taken at least a beginner sailing course. 2. Never take charge when you're about to take leave of your lunch.
"Just steer a straight course and adjust the angles of the sails in relation to the wind," Dan cheered me on. "Let's keep it on the fore-and-aft."
Was he serious? Did he really believe I spoke this language? The only thing I could guarantee for sure was that, if I took the helm, we were either going to capsize or go into the rocks. But this was my lucky day: there weren't any rocks. There weren't any other boats. There was no sign of land. There was only deep aquamarine water spreading out for miles with no obstacles in my way.
"Where should I go?" I asked Dan, who was refilling his Scotch glass. "There are no markings, no one to ask directions, no gas stations, no McDonald's." And cousin Dan in a typical Captain Bly kind of way, said, "Not to worry, dear. We don't need directions, just intuition."
It was at that moment that I realized that Dan wasn't dealing with a full deck. He obviously hated his relatives so much that his secret ambition was to send me to a watery grave while he turned his attention to Tiffany.
"If the boat leans too much," he continued, "move starboard and make sure you don't come about until I get back from the head." Then, he sauntered off to stare into Tiffany's baby blues.
It was this same cousin Dan who had taught me how to drive a car years before I was old enough to legally get behind a wheel. "All you need to do is keep you eyes on the road and steer," he had said. "That's all there is to it." And although I was only 14, I knew in my heart if we got caught, I would never be allowed to drive for the rest of my life. Now, Dan had rekindled the memory. I began steering the boat, except this time, instead of traffic lights to guide me, I had only the open sea. There was no cop to pull me over and hand me a ticket.
I kept my cool and approached this like a reasonably intelligent sailor. After all, I told myself, a sailboat is only a machine for turning the force of the wind into forward motion through the water. My job was to simply make sure that all parts of the boat, of which I knew zilch, were functioning properly enabling us to get back to shore without the United States Coast Guard sending out a search team to find us clinging to our life preservers.
While it is possible to sail a boat without understanding all of its components, it does help to have an inkling of the terminology. It was then that cousin Dan shouted: "Head to the wind. We're going about."
"About where?" I asked.
"Quick, goose-wing the jib and make sure not to luff while we're on the port tack."
"I've never goosed a jib before," I shouted to Dan.
I made a few sudden gut-reaction maneuvers, nearly smacking Tiffany in the head with the tiller, almost throwing her off the side and causing half the ocean to fall into Dan's mouth.
"Easy does it," Dan said, grabbing the ropes. "You've gibed the sails too much. You'd be better off going to the fore deck and getting control of yourself while I get us on a leeward course."
And so I was banished as a member of the crew. Even worse, I wasn't sure where the fore deck was. The rain was coming down in buckets and I was getting dirty looks from Tiffany. I stood on the bow, breathing in the salt air and feeling what many sailors before me have felt at a time like this: nauseated. I pretended not to care that I could possibly die. By now, Tiffany was crying, and cousin Dan was sweating profusely as he tried grabbing the reefing claw, which caused the mainsail to go awry. The boat went out of control and tossed us about the deck. Screams filled the air as Tiffany lost her contact lens, reached for a pill and hovered below.
And then, miraculously, the rain stopped and the sun came out just in time for the promised sunset. A panoramic landscape dotted the horizon. Once again, the sailboat rocked gently in the water. Tiffany, now on what must have been a Valium high, came up for air.
When we pulled into the dock, I was the first one off the boat. Tiffany looked pale and resembled a wet dog. She had broken two nails, ruined her pedicure and was mumbling obscenities under her breath.
"You know," she turned toward me, "you really have no business being on a boat."
"You know," I said. "You really have no business dating my cousin Dan."
Then, I turned on my heels, walked away ... and threw up.
Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views every Wednesday in the Westport News. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.judithmarks-white.com