The sky over Georgia Strait is a threatening canopy of black and gray as the wind suddenly picks up, pushing my sailboat faster and faster towards Bowen Island. It’s 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in late April and I’m alone on the water, no boats in sight in any direction.
The boat groans and tilts closer to the water. The sails protest. I struggle to stay on course because there’s so much pressure on the wheel. I curse the wind and I think for a moment I’m doomed because the mast will break and the boat will sink and I will die a watery death less than a mile from my marina.
Nothing of the sort happens of course. As I get closer to Bowen, the wind drops and the sky brightens. I furl the jib and the boat immediately straightens up. The pressure on the wheel lightens and I relax. Ahead I can finally see Seymour Bay, a tiny notch where I know I can find shelter from the wind if I need it.
But I don’t need shelter now. The boat is moving perfectly under my control. I’m in love with the wind again and happy as a lark. What could be finer than sailing on the ocean on such a fine spring day?
This swing from joy to terror and terror to joy is one of the things I love about sailing. I mostly single-hand, meaning I sail alone, so I have no one to help me handle the boat when conditions get rough. And when conditions get rough I get scared.
This must sound a little strange. I’m a 65-year-old man who’s been a sailor off and on for most of his life. I know what to do, how to handle the boat, and I always come back alive.
I can’t explain the scary part. Sailing makes me feel alive, and fear is part of that feeling.
There’s more to it than that, of course. Sailing has tremendous intensity and immediacy. You sail with your body and your mind, in perfect partnership. You escape your life. You are simplified. You meditate on the horizon line. And you solve problems.
Once, halfway across the strait in big wind, I watched the furled jib at the bow of the boat come loose, flapping madly in the wind. Too much of that and it would shred. I had to leave the cockpit and make my way to the bow, which was bouncing with every pulse of the metre-high waves.
Then I noticed another problem – the lines attached to the sail were tangled. That took five very long minutes to fix. I tied off the jib and finally made my way back to the safety of the cockpit.
In a situation like that you are so intensely focused that you feel no fear, no emotion at all. You are pure Solution addressing the Problem, and afterwards you’re pleased because you didn’t fall in the water, sprain your ankle, or wreck the boat.
Sailing creates a powerful dance between humility and pride. Learn to do something well, like docking in reverse in a crosswind, and you feel a genuine sense of accomplishment.
But at the same time the weather and wind and waves constantly remind you of who is in charge. Alone on the ocean in a 28-foot sailboat you can curse the wind all you want but nothing will get you home again except your own wits. The ocean cares nothing about you and never will.
I don’t mind that. I hope it keeps me humble.
Sailing never fails to remind me that every decision has consequences, and consequences can never be ignored. Anchor in the wrong place, or ignore the tide tables, and you will be up at 3 am correcting your error when the wind pipes up or the keel touches bottom. You can curse your own incompetence but you cannot ignore the hard-knock reality of your situation.
On another trip, in a smaller boat, I’m trying to get back to Vancouver. A feeble dawn has revealed a colourless sky, but the wind is full of passion and fury.
The small bay of an island protected me overnight, but to get home I must leave that protection and sail down the strait, into the wind, while the boat shudders beneath me and the rigging and sails raise a terrible racket. As soon as I clear the island, the waves turn to whitecaps and the wind is howling.
The boat is strong and hobbles along, into one wave, spraying me with water, and then veering away, rolling off the next, and then heeling in a sudden gust, going over so far that I can barely, just barely hold the tiller with two hands and continue to steer. I’m soaked and my arms are aching. It’s impossible to imagine sailing like this for the ten hours it would take to get home.
I give up. I turn the boat around and sail back towards the bay of the island that sheltered me. As I reach the lee of the island, the wind finally loses force.
I enter the bay and the water flattens and the wind falters, allowing me to drop the sails, start the engine, and find my anchorage again. I drop the anchor and put the engine into reverse. The anchor catches, the bow swings once to the right, and once to the left, and I know I’m safe for the night.
(This piece appeared in the Globe and Mail on July 9, 2017, under the title “Come sail away”.)