Marooned Sailor’s Lament

The following is a guest post. The author is my past self.

In many ways this essay was the first Tidal Life post, though years passed between writing it and beginning to publish this blog. I share it now because in it I wrote about my hope for the future – and the future has arrived.

a row boat passes a waterfront home

It’s eight o’clock on an August morning. I’m lying on the secluded deck of my waterfront home; skin exposed to the sun’s rays. The calm harbor below undulates as if breathing. Soon the north wind will come, as it does every summer day, but for now I sweat. For a few moments this feels like vacation.

A couple of kids row by in a yellow, rubber raft. At first I assume they’re off the Hunter 45 that’s been here all weekend. But no, the Hunter is gone, pulled up anchor and slipped away while I was watching the water. That means the breeze has come up and will soon reach me. Sure enough, a breath touches a spot on the glassy surface of the water, momentarily fracturing the sun’s reflection, then lifts a strand of hair and tickles my shoulder.

Idly, I wonder where the kids in the raft came from. Are they landlubbers from one of the houses down the beach taking a first look at the world from a small craft? Or are they marooned sailors like me?

I began bobbing around Seattle’s Green Lake in battered rental rowboats before I could toddle. Engulfed in a puffy, orange lifejacket I clutched a cork handled fishing pole while Grandpa strung bright yellow pearls on my hook. Every snapshot in which my very young self appears also features a small, shiny fish. Trout was my first solid food.

When I got my legs under me, I stood in Dad’s speedboat as it flew across Puget Sound. Hair whipping, eyes scrunched and watering, I loved being on the water but hated the way that boat pounded over the chop. I was convinced the hull would smash apart with each impact. The varnished mahogany combing probably still carries the imprint of my tiny fingernails.

By the time I was eight, we were taking summer vacations aboard Tempest, a 26 foot Thunderbird. I loved every minute of those trips, the sedate and the exciting. Simultaneously thrilled and anxious, I held my breath when she heeled far enough to wash the cabin ports. Later, a long string of ski boats and their ropes stitched the summers of my adolescence together.

When we married, Tom and I planned from the start to get a sailboat of our own. For a while we went to every boat show, scoured the want ads and visited people who were building boats. Our favorite hangout was a small, downscale brokerage on Seattle’s Lake Union. We read books about living aboard, books about every landfall in the world. We know, in theory, all about celestial navigation, provisioning and splicing. But aside from a rubber raft, no boat has yet tacked into our lives. Eventually, we chose instead to spend our time and funds building this house, where I lay in the sun and watch the harbor.

Now and then one of us will look out at the year-round craft moored in front of our house, some of which never move from their buoys, and say, “He doesn’t deserve her, never sails. Let’s see if he’ll sell.” Each time we end up admitting that we couldn’t take the time to sail her either, so we continue to rely on the kindness of friends who invite us aboard for an afternoon cruise or a weekend of water skiing.

After porthole shopping for years, living on the waterfront is like having a nautical fashion show at our door. A yacht sails in, turns like a runway model, displays her sails, her bow, her sheer, her stern and then drops anchor. We grab the binoculars and try to figure out the length, designer and builder of each. By looking at the way she’s equipped, we guess at where she’s been or where she’s going.

My boating is now vicarious and voyeuristic. I feel a bit guilty when I watch what goes on aboard visiting boats. There’s a barrier between residents and boaters in an anchorage. Boaters gaze up at the houses, imagining the idyllic life of those who can live permanently at the water’s edge, while we on the shore watch them pass and yearn to get away.

Occasionally we make the attempt to meet our visitors. One summer my neighbor, a chef at a local restaurant, toyed with the idea of going from boat to boat delivering pastries and coffee on Sundays, sort of a non-continental breakfast service. It was a romantic notion for a sunny, summer morning. I don’t know for sure what stopped her from giving it a try but I can think of several daunting points, the most immediate being the amount of rowing required. Sailors in an anchorage don’t always raft up conveniently and the use of an outboard early in the morning would have doused enthusiasm for her offerings.

The other subtle knot in the sheet of her ambition was the fact that such a business would have required actual contact between sailors and locals, contact that the barrier discourages. The two groups have vastly different visions of what this place they’re in is all about. Privacy issues nag at both. Residents think, “they came here to get away from it all, don’t bother them,” while most, not all, boaters are wary of property rights. Carried along under these concerns of the modern era is a cargo of history lessons we share featuring stories of sailing ships and natives at odds in paradise. Will the locals paddle out with leis and coconuts, or war clubs and flaming arrows? Will the ship bring wealth or pestilence?

There was one sailing couple we never actually met, but felt like we knew. Careful seamen, they moored their heavy-duty cruiser off our beach for a number of months, anchoring her bow and stern. Echipee never moved in even the roughest weather. She sat there as if built on a concrete foundation. Once she was secure, her owners proceeded to spend the summer shuttling busily between shore and boat, their tiny dinghy nearly swamping under loads of lumber, and once, a table saw. What they built turned out to be a serviceable looking shelter for the helmsman. We surmised that they were headed north, seriously north.

Summer weekdays when the builders weren’t hard at work, we swam out to Echipee and hung from her anchor chain. There’s a special appeal to swimming with boats. Swimming not to scuba dive or to chase after the water ski your joker friend heaved a hundred feet away, but just going for a swim when they happen to be floating in your pool. Boats feel alive. You can pat their glossy bellies. I like to dive down the anchor chain, check out the shape of the keel, swim right under, port to starboard, playing marine biologist, with this beast the subject of my study. Treading water at the surface, I listen to the slap of the waves against the hull and feel those same waves slapping me. I don’t think I could live without the sound of waves on hulls. I would wake at night wondering, what is that silence?

One chilly evening I looked up from some bookwork just in time to see a catamaran slide past. I’d never seen a cat underway before. The thing seemed to skate across the surface as if on ice. All told, from the time I noticed her passing our windows, to the time she pivoted in her own shadow, dropped anchor and gulped the crew down her companionway, less than ten minutes passed. It was not a ten minutes filled with activity either. Though a storm threatened, the skipper and mate didn’t appear frantic. They were excellent sailors.

I stood in the doorway early the next day gazing out at the cat, thinking back to how it feels to stand on a sailboat’s deck first thing in the morning and comparing the memory to how it felt here on shore. I tried to imagine that the air here, right on the edge of the water felt the same. But it simply didn’t, because it was not accompanied by the tiny shudder that each wave’s slap against the hull sends through me, a bone deep message. In a similar attempt to evoke the spirit of life aboard, Tom sometimes jumps up and makes another cup of coffee because he’s thinking about morning on a sailboat and knows it will feel more real with a mug to hold near his chest.

The breeze has intensified, but shifted direction, so that I’m sheltered from it and getting hot again. That microscopic film of sweat has broken out on my skin. Here, on my deck, concealed from all but the occasional yacht that moors directly in front of the house, I stand and let the breeze dry my moist skin then slip into my clothes to begin my day.

I’ve wondered idly, while aboard a boat, what the people in the houses thought of our antics on deck. A boat is a private world or a time warp; you forget to care who’s watching. There’s a sort of ‘what you can’t see isn’t really there’ feeling. But here on my land bound deck I don’t really care what the sailors think. If they don’t like my behavior they can weigh anchor and sail on. They are the lucky ones.

I’ll sail on one day too. But for now I’m here, a citizen of this paradise.

As I mentioned at the start, the future has arrived.

We’ve finally got our boat. We’re moving aboard and easing toward the cruising life. That means there’s a shift coming for Tidal Life. Much more movement, adventure and travel. Along with more about sailboats. Thanks for reading all these years and I hope you’ll join me for the coming journey.

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