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By David Pendery
Sailing, like life, one man discovers, is a complex art that must be mastered step by difficult step.
umber three, lower your centerboard,” comes the sharp order across the water from the public address system on the dock.
The breeze whips sharply. I feel the mainsail of the 15’ Cape Cod Mercury sailboat swell. The
trailing edge of the sail flaps and then snaps briskly. The craft’s boom swings easily from port to starboard, across my vision, tightening the main sheet (the guyline snaking through a system of blocks that controls the boom and in turn the aspect of the mainsail) in my hand. Seated at the rear of the boat, fumbling with the sheet, trying to stabilize the boom, I reach forward to untie the line that lowers the centerboard—the sailboat’s tiny keel, a vertical, retractable metal plate in the center of the cockpit. The line is knotted around a cleat on the narrow, raised housing of the centerboard. Moving my body forward, I again feel the tug of the wind filling the mainsail. The sailboat, now unhindered by the centerboard’s countervailing force to the wind, lurches to starboard. With the centerboard raised, there is no underwater lateral support for the boat. The boat rocks unctuously in the breeze, and the threat of capsizing becomes acute. I grapple with the knot. Normally it would easily loosen, but the line has been soaked during the previous sailor’s sally onto the river. The wet rope is swollen, and it does not respond to my urgent probing. Now I lean forward clumsily, the long main sheet tangled at my feet. With the sheet gripped in my right hand, I can use only my left to work the centerboard cleat hitch. The wet
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rope trailing from the cleat is limp, foiling my attempts to grip it firmly and force the rope in on the knot. Yet the knot around the cleat seems hard as iron, defying my attempts to loosen it. I struggle quietly, plucking at the knot, my fingernails bending backward. Inanely I imagine gripping the main sheet in my teeth to free my right hand to loosen the crimped, whorled line. I keep one eye on the boom, which can swing dangerously at a moment’s notice across the stern of the boat with a change in the wind. The chop of water slapping against the boat’s hull is distracting. A puff of breeze heels the boat alarmingly. My feet slip across the smooth, damp fiberglass of the floor of the cockpit. I feel a prick of panic. “Number three, if you need help, signal,” orders the dockmaster over the public address system. Looping the main sheet around my right hand, tugging the boom toward the aft of the boat, I grasp the centerboard line with my left hand and wring it as you might a soaked beach towel. Drops of water ooze from the line. I note the line’s shrinking surface area. The tiny drama before me seems magnified one hundred times. Then the reduced circumference of the rope allows me to push the line back through itself; the knot loosens, and with a few twists the line is uncleated and I lower the centerboard, watching the plate disappear down into the water of the Charles River. I retire to the stern of the boat, organize the main sheet, trim the sail, and with a quick gesture assure the dockmaster that I have stabilized my position. With a gulping sigh of relief I head up into the wind and out onto the Charles River.
he summer I moved from San Francisco to Boston was a turbulent time for me. Although I had anticipated and attempted to prepare for the change in my physical and emotional
environments, I was nevertheless bewildered by the sweltering heat of summer on the Atlantic coast, the wooly sky that lacked the familiar bluerthanblue hue of the western U.S., Boston’s confined geographic area, and the surge and swell of the city’s kinetic, shifting population. I tried to ease my transition by plunging into the daytoday tasks of settling into a new home. I shopped for bedroom furniture, prepared my automobile for the New England winter, planned my routes into and out of the city, adjusted myself to Boston’s antiquated subway system and organized mundane tasks such as grocery shopping, banking and finding a barber. But I continued to feel I found myself roaming the streets of Boston in my free time, trying to absorb the city’s ambiance, to accord myself to the contours of the wider lay of the language as well as the
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specifics of the Boston brogue, to absorb by osmosis the comfortableness and control that eluded me. Paul Theroux once wrote, “If anyone wants to become a writer, if anyone wants to become a person, they have to go very far away.” I tried to couch my feelings in Theroux’s view. I was, after all, in Boston to become a writer. If, while I was there, I could also become a more complete person, so much the better. In any event, I indeed felt far away. In new homes and new surroundings our most important challenge may simply be learning a new language, a new idiom. With this essential ability, we can most confidently adapt and function in a new environment. While I had believed myself capable of ordering any new vo cabulary I encountered, I felt there was a steeper learning curve at work in my situation. Ernest Hemingway wrote:
There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things….
Daily, I ordered myself to stay the course, remembering that time is required to adjust to any new place and process. Time would surely loosen my tangled emotions, tied as they were, like a knot, its essentially simple composition complex and confusing only to the uninitiated. One hot Sunday morning in August I set out on one of my perambulations in Boston. I intended to seek some cool comfort along the banks of the Charles River. I took the subway into north Boston, where I disembarked near Massachusetts General Hospital, walked along the edge of the Beacon Hill district and then across a walkway above Storrow Drive. The Charles River and the hulking, dilapidated Longfellow Bridge came into my view. I scanned up along the reach of river toward the Harvard Bridge. Between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges lies the Charles River Basin, the end of the Charles River’s short, winding 60mile course. For most of its length between the two bridges, the river is about 2000’ wide. Though a substantial area, for much of Boston’s history this basin was much larger and wider than it is now. To make room for Boston’s burgeoning population in the 1800s, many of the swampy shallows, backwaters and mudflats of the basin were filled to create Boston’s Back Bay district. By filling the area, the Charles was narrowed and channeled more directly into Boston Inner Harbor. From there the freshwater currents of the Charles mingle with those of the Mystic River entering from the north, and then into Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Bay, and finally dispersing into the Atlantic Ocean. This August day the breeze is fresh, the river green and choppy. Across the expanse of river, toward the Harvard Bridge, I see a chaotic cluster of boats racing from one orange buoy to another. Each of the singlesailor boats in the jumbled mass heels precariously as the skippers shift their weight from port to starboard and back again. The masts of the small craft tip and sway wildly, at times dipping almost parallel to the water’s surface. That the sailors are actually in
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control of these heaving craft seems unbelievable, but I am to learn that these boats were designed in an MIT laboratory, and have unusual characteristics and capabilities, allowing their skippers to bully the boats into veering deviations. I note another armada of sailboats sailing serenely to and fro, quite opposed to the arrogant swagger of the MIT boats. For a long time when I lived in San Francisco, I had wanted to learn to sail, yet the sport always seemed out of reach, a pastime of the rich. The boats I note on this day are obviously not playthings of the rich. They are small and plain—some are sloops, rigged with a main and foresail, others are dinghies with mainsails only—and have big numbers printed on the sails indicating they all belong to a common sailing club. Below me and to my left I see a weath ered dock, teeming with activity, from which the boats are launching. At the far end of the dock, two manmade fingers of land—breakwaters protecting the dock, slip and a raft of moored sailboats and launches —constructed endtoend, slant away northeasterly from the shore into the river. I walk down the walkway steps toward a building that fronts the dock. Boston’s Community Boating, Inc. is housed in a buff and white brick building with oversized porthole windows, sailboats etched in relief along the outside walls, and a strip of wood along the eaves crafted in the shape of rolling river waves. In front of the building, some 50 yards from the river, is an improbably beached Cape Cod Mercury sailboat. Old and unused, it has been assigned the task of attracting customers, fashioned into a billboard with “Learn to Sail” garishly splashed across her mainsail. Like a grandparent, this old craft is most appreciated by the children, some who now blithely clamber on her creaking body. Of course, every old person and every old thing had a youth once, and I think that this vessel, though past her prime, was also once sleek and new, like the children playfully skippering her. With a little boy now standing in the boat’s cockpit, howling like Ahab into the wind, I can all the more easily imagine the craft smartly sailing down the blue river, skipping from wave to wave, heading up into the wind, her main and jib sails taut and gleaming, then bearing off and running down the Charles. Inside the building, I ask about the requirements to learn to sail and take out one of the boats. There are only three mandatory classes—orientation, rigging class and basic shore school. All can be completed in one day, if the eager newcomer desires. Onthewater training is accomplished through a “memberteachmember” system. Before taking out a boat “solo,” inexperienced sailors are expected to sail several times with either a “helmsman,” or an “advanced helmsmen.” (These ratings, among others, including the basic “solo” rating, allow a sailor to skipper faster and larger boats, and to take passengers.) On these excursions, the new sailor will practice with the jib sheets (the control lines of the jib or foresail), ask questions, take instruction from the experienced sailor, and eventually take the main sheets and rudder for the first time. I arrange with some other newcomers to attend the orientation and rigging class that morning. We pay our fees and receive purple membership cards, which will be punched when we pass our tests, indicating our rating
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and experience. Outside, the summer sun beams down but the dock is shaded and cool. Adults and children alike purposefully move about with sails bundled in their arms and polished wooden rudders in their hands. Sailors raise their sails and then glide into the river, threading their ways between the other boats. A dockmaster in a raised dockhouse—a sort of kiosk—conducts the scene, simultaneously giving orders to other dock personnel, dispensing sailboat assignments and making various announcements into a microphone amplified by a small public address system. “Number 6, land at the high performance end of the dock and leave your sails up,” she informs an incoming sailor. “Number 37, lower your centerboard,” she reminds a careless novice. The slip is crowded with the homely Mercury sailboats, their bulletshaped fiberglass hulls dully colored white, sky blue, pale pink, yellow and aqua. Many boats have already sailed away. Those remaining in the slip are neatly, diagonally, berthed, their sterns strapped together with bungee cords, booms resting at angles along their transoms, sheets knotted into the deck cleats, mainmasts thrusting vertically skyward, halyards arcing down. The morning’s orientation is a brief affair, a quick walk through the facilities, including the main bay where highperformance equipment, kayaks, and windsurfing boards and sails are kept. There is a row of lockers used by the sailors. Shore school—which provides newcomers with their first serious training in navigating, points of sail, wind speed and direction, “rules of the road,” docking the boat and emergency procedures—is held in the main bay. Materials for the Cape Cod Mercuries are stored in bay 5. This highceilinged bay houses the equipment attached to and detached from the Mercuries with each use—the wood rudders with spindly metal tiller extensions, mainsails, storm sails (a smaller version of the mainsail, used in heavier weather) and jibs. The afternoon rigging demonstration is a few hours away. I walk out onto the dock, taking in the unfamiliar scenes. There are new processes going on all around me: mainsails are being rigged, jib sails are being clipped onto headstays, sheets are being knotted, booms are being elevated and secured, and always sailboats are gliding away from the dock, their skippers determining the wind direction, trimming their sails and navigating out of the protected bay and onto the Charles. From the outgoing boats I hear experienced sailors dispensing orders nonstop to their charges. “Shift your weight to the center some.” “Take the port sheet. Use the forward winch. Loop it clockwise.” After hesitating briefly amid this activity, I walk to the dockhouse, step onto the raised platform, nod to the dockmaster—she only a teenager with a pink, windwhipped complexion and sandy blonde hair—and lodge my membership card beneath a piece of heavy brass and into a
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slot labeled “Mercury Training.” I sit at a picnic table on the dock, and within minutes the dockmaster announces, “David Pendery, come to the dockhouse,” over the public address system. I trot out to receive my instructions.
here’s a view you don’t see often!” yells Greg as we hike precipitously over the elevated port rail of the gliding Mercury. With our feet lodged between the stranded liftwire and
top of the centerboard trunk, and our respective sheets (he mans the mainsail sheet, I control the jib sheets) gripped tightly in our hands, we lean over the side of the boat into space, our spines stiffly extended, our heads within inches of the water and with backward glances take in the upsidedown expanse of the Boston skyline. The Hancock Tower glittering in the afternoon sun and the Back Bay district, a melange of Federal, Victorian, Georgian and brownstone architecture, appear crazily counterpoised beneath the Charles River. On the dock I had been assigned to “crew” for Greg, a goldenhaired, hawkfeatured Bostonian with a helmsman’s rating. He has a crooked, easy grin and dark gray, mischievous eyes. “Ready?” he asked, as we faced each other and shook hands. “My first time,” I told him. “Let’s go over a few things.” We walked to the Mercury, already outfitted with its main and jib sails. Greg gave me a short explication of the physics of the flow of air across the sail’s surface, which creates lift similar to that of an airplane wing. The air flows more rapidly across the convex, bulging, leeward (pronounced "looerd") surface of the sail, and more slowly across the concave, windward side. According to Bernoulli’s principle, the pressure of a liquid or gas decreases as its velocity increases, and vice versa. Thus, the boat is “lifted” towards the area of lower pressure—towards the convex edge of the sail. Combined with the simple “push” of the wind, and moderated (in fact opposed) and controlled by the flow of water over the centerboard, the boat can scud into the wind at an oblique angle. Conversely, sailing with the wind behind the boat is rather easy to visualize—pushed along like a kite, the mainsail is fully eased out, approaching a 90º angle to the centerline, fore to aft, of the boat—though no less challenging to accomplish, and even more fraught with the danger of capsizing. After this instruction, we boarded the boat, Greg pushing us off and hopping onto the prow, gripping the main mast and then swinging himself into the cockpit, moving to the rear of the rocking craft, seating himself on the stern, and then taking the main sheets and tiller and stabilizing the boat.
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* * * The brisk wind at our port side has the Mercury healing steeply, the starboard deck (I sometimes call it the gunnel) dipping low, nearly flush with the water’s surface. Although this familiar, electric scene (recall pictures of America’s Cup sailors leaning far over the sides of their boats) leads us to believe that this is when a boat is moving most rapidly, healing in fact diminishes a craft’s efficiency. When sailors find their boats healing this way, they move their weight to (and often over) the opposite side, not for the pure excitement of the ride, but to right the boat for optimally efficient use of the wind’s force. Efficiency is the name of the game, whether adjusting the ballast to keep the hull of the boat as flat as possible on the water’s surface, or trimming the sails to their finest points, the wind flowing evenly on the windward and leeward sides. “Telltales,” lengths of yarn taped to the forward edge (the luff) of the sail, are the sailor’s guide to whether the sail is trimmed properly. When the telltales flow evenly and uniformly, then the sail is trimmed properly and is most efficiently utilized. (There are also telltales attached to the shrouds angling out from the mainmast to determine apparent wind direction.) “Everything is in relation to the wind,” says Greg when we have settled the boat. “And the wind can be unpredictable on the Charles, because it blows through the buildings and skyscrapers on each side of the river.” He explains two broad points about the wind. First, there are three types of wind direction the sailor must interpret. “True” wind is simply the direction the wind is blowing as revealed by a fixed indicator such as a flag on shore, or windpushed ripples on the water. While important, true wind is only one aspect of the wind that a sailor must actually navigate in, which is called “apparent” wind. Apparent wind is created by the combination of true wind and “boatspeed” wind, which is caused by a boat’s movement through the air, and which exactly crosses a boat’s bow. True wind and boatspeed wind form an angle (unless the boat is traveling directly away from the wind), which can be viewed as two sides of a triangle. The apparent wind direction—the wind direction that the boat actually navigates in—forms the third side of the triangle in a geometric function I can explain no further. Second, Greg explains, the particular direction of the boat in relation to the wind is one of five “points of sail.” A “close haul” point of sail is the position in which a boat is sailing as closely as possible into the eye of the wind (you cannot effectively sail closer than 45º to the eye of the wind—the mainsail will go limp and you will find yourself stalled, “in irons”). Close hauling is the point of sail where the movement of the boat is likely to appear most vigorous, when in fact the boat is not moving at its fastest possible speed given the wind direction. This position of the boat is when one is most likely to see a team of sailors looming out over the rail of the boat. Sailing close hauled, the stem of the boat faces (and travels) at approximately 10 o’clock
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or 2 o’clock, if one thinks of the direction from which the wind blows as 12 o’clock. The other positions are: close reach, traveling between 9 and 10 or 2 and 3 o’clock; beam reach, with the wind blowing across the beam (the width of the boat), traveling at 3 or 9 o’clock; broad reach, when the boat is traveling between 4 and 5 o’clock, and “running” when the boat is traveling directly downwind. Curiously, at this point of sail, when the boat is most likely moving at its highest velocity, progress can seem lazy, because you are moving with the wind. The apparent wind can be zero, because the boatspeed wind and true wind in effect cancel each other. “Watch the wind, you can see it coming, Greg says. “It’s a dark cloud along the river. You can see it in the smallest ripples, only millimeters high, between the larger waves. The waves won’t tell you the direction of the wind—the small ripples will. Watch for puffs coming. “Here comes a puff.” And I just note the sinewy path of the wind, creasing along the water toward us, a shadowy, almost invisible presence on the surface of the water that moves deceptively slowly, then faster, then heavily striking the bow of the craft, filling the sails and heaving us. “There was a puff,” nods Greg. Now we are running down the Charles toward the Longfellow Bridge. Nearing the bridge, we bank to starboard and cruise toward the dock. We approach the dock and the dockmaster an nounces, “Number 25, land at the highperformance end of the dock and leave your sails up.” Greg docks the boat skillfully, and we clamber out of the boat and walk toward the bays. Greg tells me he works as a computer programmer only blocks from Community Boating and sails after work most days when the weather is fair and the breeze is up. “Oh yeah, I’ve got my priorities straight," he tells me with a crooked smile. * * * Two oldtimers are on the dock, one preparing to instruct newcomers about knots and rigging. “Here’s your figure 8 now, yah ready?” says one, and with a deft twirl of his hand he negotiates the knot. “You’re amazing,” says his colleague dryly. Looking on quietly I have to agree. I have never been handy with knots, surely one of sailing’s most arcane, if recognizable vocabularies. The rigging class is conducted using another beached Mercury, this one attached to the dock in front of the main bay. Three of us newcomers are milling around the boat. Then a burly sailor with a thick black beard approaches us. “Y’all here for the rigging class?” We nod. “Okay, let’s go. Somebody grab a sail.”
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The art of rigging is in a way the most exact, uniform and predictable element of sailing. The methods and movements you employ in attaching and raising the sail—clipping the head of the sail to the halyard with a pin fitted into a small Ujoint, guiding the luff into the grooved mainmast, pulling the foot (base) of the sail along a similar crease in the boom, attaching the rear of the foot (the “clew”) to the rear of the boom, raising the sail, tying off the forward corner of the mainsail with a line called the Cunningham (frequently an optional part of the process, depending on wind velocity) and tensing the boom with a loop of blocked lines called the “boomvang”—are performed with a calming regularity before sailing. Not unlike sailing itself, every step in the process must be completed correctly for full safety and advantage on the water. Rigging the sailboat seemed straightforward enough—though the multiple steps required practice and several repetitions over the course of weeks before I could rig confidently—and after we newcomers, each performing a few steps of the process, had clumsily raised the bulky, billowing mainsail, our tutor turned our attention to knots. The ability to tie only a few knots is required to earn one’s solo rating: the figure 8, square knot, cleat hitch and bowline (“queen of the knots,” some say). Our instructor fluidly demonstrates each: “Square knot. Good allpurpose knot. Like so.” He scoops up a twofoot length of rope from a pile in the Mercury. ”Over right, under, over left, 'n there you have it. This knot can easily be loos ened.” He pushes the two identical looped clasps in on each other; they slide along their corresponding necks of line. “Bowline. Used to tie your boat to the dock. Like this. Make the line into a ‘6’…” He forms a figure 6 with a loop in the rope. We mimic his movements. “Okay. Now, watch closely. Rabbit goes in the 'ole…” and he pokes one end of the line into the “hole” of the “6.” We follow. “Rabbit goes behind the tree…” and he brings the end of the line around the stem of the “6.” We follow, but there is a trace of hesitation as the knot complicates. “Rabbit goes back in the 'ole,” and he completes the process by sending the line back into the “6” and tightening the knot. We compare our own creations. In spite or ourselves, and due to our instructor’s picturesque description, we have all knotted passable bowlines. “Figure 8. Used to knot the end of the jib sheet. Twist the rope once. Twist it twice. Bring the end through, 'n there you 'ave it.” We match his movements. The final knot we are to learn is the cleat hitch, an allpurpose knot used to tie off lines to any of the many Tshaped metal cleats located on the decks or in the cockpit of the boat. The knot loops around cleats forming a figureeight. In a manner similar to the square knot, the cleat hitch
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is designed for easy loosening. The loose end can be pushed back through the last loop exerting the force that keeps the whorls of rope tight against the metal. Because a line can be tied to a cleat from a variety of directions, there is less of a stepbystep feel to tying this knot. We practice the knot on cleats installed on one wall of the main bay. As the other newcomers disperse, I find myself repeating the processes, trying to absorb the simple intricacies of the knots. Twist the rope once. Twist it twice… Rabbit goes in the hole. Rabbit goes behind the tree. Rabbit goes back in the hole… Over right, under, over left… “That knot's not hard,” says the bearded sailor, suddenly looming above me, interrupting my efforts as I attempt to master the cleat hitch. “Oh, well, I’m not that handy with knots,” I say, perhaps carelessly. “Do it this way,” he says, gently as he can, but with an innate brusqueness, and he neatly loops the knot around the cleat and tightens it with a yank. I manage to knot a few cleat hitches to his approval. He drifts away as I continue to practice. Twist the rope once. Twist it twice… Over right, under, over left… Rabbit goes in the 'ole. Rabbit goes behind the tree. Rabbit goes back in the 'ole… 'n there you 'ave it. * * * This September day is clear and cool. The leaves on the canopy of trees across the Storrow walkway and in the riverfront park are just beginning to hint copper, brass and gold. The mainmasts of the Mercuries in the slips are bare and in sharp relief against the blue sky. A safety launch plods heavily out in the river. The sunlight slants across the seasoned wood of the dock and the sailboats glow softly. The river is slate green and smells sour but not unclean. I board a Mercury with two Bostonians, George and Peter. George and I man the jib sheets while Peter, the helmsman, takes the rudder and the mainsail. We closehaul into the wind up the Charles, sailing a lazy serpentine course, across the path of the careening MIT boats. Then we sail at a broad reach down the river with the wind behind us. Peter is demonstrating the details of gybing—bringing the stern of the boat across the eye of the wind—explaining the delicate threat of the maneuver. “An accidental or outofcontrol gybe can be hazardous,” he warns us. When traveling downwind, one can slip into a deceptive calm, the boat moving more rapidly than it seems to from one’s vantage within the cockpit, where the apparent wind can be zero. The main sail can be “eased” out to some 60–80º off the center line of the craft, harnessing the full
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force of the wind. If the boat turns (gybes) such that the windward rear corner of the vessel angles away from the wind and the leeward corner comes into the eye of the wind, then a loss of control is disquietingly and unsuspectedly near at hand. The boom, formerly on the leeward side of the boat can suddenly react to the new wind direction, and hurtle like a cudgel across the cockpit of the craft to the new windward side. At this point, the aspect of the boat seems to want to change of its own volition, turning its beam to the wind, the stern swinging away from the wind, the mainsail now catching the force of the wind at broadsides, and given that at least one of the sailors could now be on the heeling leeward side of the boat (if he or she has failed to move to the opposite side during the gybe), capsizing can be imminent. All of the sailing literature warns that this loss of control is easy to blunder into, even for experienced sailors. The maneuver must be practiced and learned slowly and carefully. Peter guides us through the process. “Prepare to gybe!” he barks. George and I grip the jib sheets (we each control one side), and eye each other with a touch of trepidation. The wind is bulging the jib on the starboard side. George controls the starboard jib sheet. “Ready!” we shout in unison. Peter gently eases the rudder away from the mainsail. The aft of the boat curls into the eye of the wind. The boom stirs petulantly, tensing like a cat ready to pounce. Peter stands in the cockpit and tugs at his main sheets, guiding the complaining boom closer toward the starboard deck of the craft. “Gybe ho!” “Duck!” The angry boom barrels across the cockpit of the boat as the aft swings across the eye of the wind. George and I hunch our necks into our shoulders. Peter ducks and shifts his weight to the new windward side. He straightens the rudder immediately (an essential task after the gybe is complete) as I reel in my jib sheet (George’s sheet has loosened, the wind all out of it), tightening the sail, my eyes on the telltales, looking for them to harmonize, to stream evenly across the jib. Then we are broad reaching, calmly, the prow of the craft at about 5 o’clock to the eye of the wind. “Good!” encourages Peter. “Good. We’re in control!” * * * “It’s a beautiful town, isn’t it?” said George later, eyeing the Boston skyline appreciatively as we eased toward the dock. Beacon Hill, all bricked Federal architecture and verdigriscoated church
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spires, and the flat riverfront reach of the Back Bay district curling west, were in the foreground. Behind them rose Boston’s jumbled downtown skyscrapers, the gold dome of the Massachusetts statehouse, the ugly Prudential Building, and the soaring, pencilthin, aquagreen, smooth, glass fronted Hancock tower. “Yes it is,” I agreed, and then added, “I’m from San Francisco.” “Boston’s a little like San Francisco,” George said earnestly. “So I’ve heard,” I said. “But in what way do you think?” “Well, it’s a small town,” George drawled. “Very liberal. And very cosmopolitan. There are few natives in Boston.” “Just like San Francisco,” I admitted. “You know, I met my wife here,” George said dreamily. “She has that Boston accent. I love that accent.” “Oops, were gybing,” interrupted Peter, and George and I snapped to attend our jib sheets. We slowed, head to wind. Peter steered us toward the dock. We docked and unrigged and berthed the boat. We folded the two sails and stowed them and then I walked out along the dock across the faded remnant of a compass rose, painted red, blue and black on the planks in front of the dockhouse. The evening sun shone glassy, silvery black off the Charles. Dostoevsky wrote that the things a man fears most are the simplest things—taking a first step, uttering a new word. A first step may be the beginning of a tremendous journey; a new word may be the first of a new language. Seen in their entirety, journeys and languages can appear huge, complex and frightening. Yet first steps and first words themselves are never huge, complex or frightening. They are always simple. Undertaking the very complex begins with learning the very simple. I turned, walked back along the dock and out of the building toward the subway and home. * * * I only got a glimpse of Juan the day we sailed. The wind was up, stiff, unpredictable and I was absorbed with manning the jib sheets, looping the lines around the forward winch, muscling the junior sail into position, assiduously eyeing the fluttering telltales, striving to maintain them in a smoothly congruent pair. Juan skippered the boat, performing ten functions at once—adjusting the rudder, interpreting the whipping wind, trimming the mainsail, issuing orders, guiding the boom port and starboard and back again, surveying the river and other sailors—as the wind rocked us heavily. Through all of this, from behind me, Juan’s calm, sweet Colombian accent flowed friendly and reassuring. He took responsibility for every heaving pulse of wind that pushed the boat to the
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point of capsize. There were several such occasions on this particularly breezy day. “That was my fault,” said Juan each time we found ourselves hanging in free space over the rail, river water sluicing up in a smooth rooster tail, the opposite edge of the Merc thrusting lower, lower, water gushing over the side and into the boat, then the wind easing and we shifting our weight toward the center of the cockpit, lowering ourselves bodily, and then the harsh luffing of the sails before we trimmed our charges, and the water flowing in the bottom of the boat, splashing our feet and ankles. At one calm juncture I asked Juan how to best determine wind direction, as I had difficulty with this subtle art that seemed to me a sort of alchemy, searching the dark water for the telltale black streams slipping across the river, sinuous as desert sidewinders. “Just look at the telltales,” said Juan simply, his eyes looking over my shoulder and downriver, anticipating our next course, and there was no hint of condescension in his voice. I found that I liked Juan a great deal. ”Ready to gybe!?” “Ready!” “Gybe ho!” As we scudded at a broad reach toward the Longfellow Bridge (with its rusting, arched undergirdings, rotted green, fleurdelys iron railings and four central, sculpted granite towers darkly rising, imposing, with blindeyed, slit windows on each side, and gulls perched atop each balled peak), then turned into the bruising wind, we felt the rich heave of the sails filling, and I heard the whine and clatter of the main sheet's tackle assembly as Juan trimmed his mainsail, and my jib bulging, the jib sheets straining like wielding the reins of an unbroken pony, burning across the fleshy parts of the palm and chafing the insides of my middle fingers. Then we were racing, close hauled. Then the boat careened alarmingly, we heeled sharply and Juan and I pushed ourselves over the starboard side, our bodies projected over the water, our sheets so taut that drops of water squeezed and sprang from the lines. My hands ached and the jib sail stiffly opposed my effort. Then the port side descended sharply and water gushed over the rail as we teetered on the verge of capsizing. “Oh yeah!” I shouted, and I found myself looking forward to a flip into the cold water, craving the hanging milliseconds in midair as the boat rolled into the water, and then my own plunge into the river, sinking, flailing and then rising to the surface, sputtering, laughing and swimming toward the capsized boat, there waiting for the arrival of the safety launch. My hunger for the water’s embrace was nothing so much as a longing for ablution, for renewal. The Charles, I felt perversely, would be my Jordan, and in it I would be born again. "Oh yeah!" “My fault!” clipped Juan, but he sounded as sweet and calm as if we were stalled, dead in
© David Pendery
irons. Then, as suddenly as our emergency had started, we heeled to starboard, the Mercury righted, and the water flowed evenly, eight inches deep over the floor of the boat, submerging our legs halfway up our shins. Juan was disappointed that we had nearly capsized. “I neglected to put the centerboard down,” he lamented as we approached the dock, our bow into the wind, slowing, the jib flapping softly. We had raised the centerboard to wring a little more speed, a little more efficiency by removing the little keel’s friction against the water from beneath the hull when we were running downwind before our nearcatastrophe. At the dock we emptied the water from the boat. I scooped out half gallons at a time with an empty plastic bleach bottle, its bottom cut off, the cap sealed. Juan used a hand pump to transfer water from the bottom of the Mercury back into the Charles. With an inch or two of water remaining in the craft, we turned it over to a waiting skipper and his crew. “At least we didn’t have to unrig it!” I said gleefully to Juan as we walked toward the main bay, where his pretty wife sat waiting. But Juan was morose and shook his head sadly. “It was my fault,” he said.
he breeze is blowing lightly, irregularly. From the walkway overlooking the dock and river I hear the halyards beat regularly across the main masts of the Mercuries, sounding a tinny,
percussive music, like the sweet clinking of claves in a calypso band. The muffled thud of the hulls of the sailboats clunking against one another and groaning against the dock provides a basso counterpoint. The Charles glitters ebony and turquoise, the October sun reflecting off the river’s surface in starry explosions of light. I feel a hot anxiety and at the same time a cool clarity as I walk down the stairs leading to the riverfront esplanade. I glance over toward the boathouse. It is a green day. Community Boating employs a simple threeflag communication system. On one side of a rising facsimile of a ship’s mast (complete with crow’s nest), an American flag flies at all times, except in inclement weather or during emergencies, when the flag is lowered to summon in all boaters. On the other side of the mast, either a green or red flag is flown. A red flag signifies higher winds, and only helmsman or higher ratings are permitted to sail. On green days, when the breeze is mild (five knots or less) all sailors are free to launch, including those with the lowest “solo” rating (which I had achieved after passing my orals, along the edge of the dock, under the supervision of the same blonde dockmaster I had seen managing traffic on my first
© David Pendery
encounter with Community Boating). On green days, new sailors can practice navigating their crafts in figureeights and serpentine movements up and down the Charles in order to master the five points of sail, tacking, and the allimportant gybe. Today is a green day. A mild breeze ruffles the surface of the Charles. The season is late, the autumn air chill. There are only a few boaters out on the fine afternoon. The summer novelty has worn off, and these sailors know they are getting in their last days on the river before sailing becomes restricted in November and ceases for the season in December. Out on the dock is the usual crew of sailors, mechanics and dock personnel. Some boats are being brought onto the dock and repaired and lashed down for winter storage. I approach the boathouse and flash my purple membership card. “I’d like to take one out, please.” “Grab you a sail, take that one,” says the dockmaster with a glance at my membership card. He points to an unrigged Mercury berthed at the dock. I fetch a sail and a rudder. I rig the sailboat, smoothly practiced now, enjoying the regularity of the process. With a hint of excitement, my eyes surveying the river, I unknot the cleat hitch securing the boom to the Mercury's rail, raise the mainsail, cinch the halyard to the mainmast cleat, tighten the loosened boomvang, lock the line into the forward pulley, slide the rudder into the steel grooves on the transom and with a last glance at the dock, push myself off gingerly. The Mercury slips across the surface; the breeze bulges the thick sailcloth. I glide out across the sheltered bay toward the Charles proper. Seated on the aft of the boat, I grip the smooth helm of the rudder. Then the breeze lifts, the main sheets tense and the Mercury heels to starboard. “Number three, lower your centerboard,” comes the sharp order across the water from the public address system on the dock…. * * * Then I was out on the river. I headed up into the wind. A powerboat shot across the water ahead of me, beneath the Longfellow Bridge and out into Boston Harbor. The swelling waves in its wake traveled across the surface and forced their way beneath my Mercury, beating sloppily against the hull. The wind was coming downriver, and I came about through the eye of the wind and felt the heave of the sail and the brisk clip and pull of sailing at a close haul. The telltales streamed diagonally, the wind at 2 o’clock across my bow. I thought that I would head upriver, traveling zigzag, beating crisply at 2 o’clock, coming about, feeling the weak flutter of the mainsail as I passed through the eye of the wind, filling the sail at 10 o’clock, and then tacking up the river again, repeating the process over and over.
© David Pendery
The MIT boats were out. I sailed toward them and the Harvard Bridge. Gulls bobbed on the river's surface. My eyes were everywhere at once, looking at the telltales, across the water for rip ples to discern the wind speed and direction, watching for other boats, checking for proper trim of the mainsail. But the wind was down and I remembered the words of our trainer, Tim Mahoney, in basic shore school. (He wiry, with a thatch of gray hair and a bristly gray mustache. His transparent blue eyes fluctuating, peering from narrow slits one moment, and then suddenly gazing widely, seeming to take in all around him, as a pond’s surface reflects all within its scope.) “Take it easy,” Mahoney had urged. “You’re thinking, ‘My god, I’ve gotta watch the sails, I’ve gotta watch the telltales, I’ve gotta watch the powerboats—’ “—take it easy, just practice.” The breeze was mild, and with Mahoney’s words in mind I realized my challenge was less to control a threatening environment than to embody myself within an inviting one. This is the only way I will get anywhere, I thought, when sailing, or any time I find myself in a new place, surrounded by new processes, challenged with a new idiom. I continued downriver. In living we will embark on new journeys that will take us far away from home and require of us the mastery of new languages—first learning the simple specifics of the vocabulary and then, gradually, the complexity of the wider lay of the language, and then, finally, according ourselves within the complete structure of our new surroundings. Because our interior life and exterior de meanor will be a little remade with each new step we take and each new word we utter, we may hesitate. Immersed in our new environment we may at first feel foundered, capsized, but time is perhaps all that is needed to right ourselves and navigate to calm. I tacked along, close hauling, pushed the tiller toward the sail, pulled the boom across the aft, switched hands on the rudder while moving to the opposite side of the boat, felt the swell of the mainsail, straightened the rudder, tacked in the opposite direction, moved ably ahead into the wind. Up near the Harvard Bridge (I had navigated through the darting MIT boats, or more likely, they had navigated around the little dinghy with the unknown sailor who had brashly tacked along the perimeter of their racing course), I bore off the eye of the wind, gradually eased out the boom until the mainsail was nearly perpendicular to the Mercury’s centerline, and then glided serenely down the Charles in a run away from the wind and felt like I was hardly moving at all. The apparent wind was almost nothing, and the scenes around me seemed to drift past in slow motion. I neared the breakwaters shielding the dock and angled away and into the middle of the Charles and then looped widely away, gingerly gybed, sailed parallel to the Longfellow Bridge and approached the dock, moving at a slow close haul, the wind mild in the protected bay.
© David Pendery
* * * “Number three, land at the highperformance end of the dock. Leave your sails up.” I eased the boat to the dock, moved to the front of the cockpit, swung myself onto the prow of the Mercury as the boat thumped against the rubber bumper, and stepped onto the planks of the dock. As a pair of sailors approached to claim the boat I looped the bow line through one of the metal rings attached to the pilings, tugged the line to give myself a usable length of rope, and with the familiar instructions— Rabbit goes in the 'ole. Rabbit goes behind the tree. Rabbit goes back in the 'ole… —secured the sailboat to the dock with a bowline knot.
© David Pendery
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