Saturday, September 7, 2019

Sailing




My family kept places on the water. Dad taught me to sail. Kathy and I learned to swim well, doing flip turns against slippery planks fastened to the river pier. We became good fishers and crabbers, mostly at the docks and waters of Round Bay on the Severn River. Our place was 101 Edgehill in Sherwood Forest. The cottage sat rickety atop a cliff overlooking the main pier, a sand beach, and a small harbor aside Brewer Pond, a wildlife sanctuary. My parents bought the place when Kathy and I were in third- or fourth-grade, and they sold it when it came time to pay our college tuitions. As kids, we also spent time at Boundary Point, our maternal grandparent’s place on the eastern shore on the Tred Avon, which flows into the Choptank thence the Chesapeake Bay. Boundary Point had a dock, a narrow sand beach, and a saltwater swimming pool; the five-acre parcel was carved out of soy bean and corn fields, dotted with loblolly pine, grapevine, willow, and cattail. Whitetail deer filtered in from the woods to browse grasses and lick a salt block out front. Zinnia, marigold, mint, and pyracantha circled the home. After dinner — often striped bass with back fin, local corn, tomato, and cantaloupe — my grandmother Mom Gibbons and I would walk to the swale and toss food scraps to ducks and crabs. “Here ducky, ducky, ducky, quack-quack,” she’d call, her heavy arms and my skinny sticks lobbing bits of melon and corn onto still water. Mallards and mergansers glided in, bills dabbling soft bits, web feet churning up soft mud. We’d linger and watch crabs scuttle to grab the remains. Minnows, grass shrimp, and water scorpion scavenged motes. Dinner was complete. Mom and I held hands, and we walked back to the house, sometimes alarming a cottontail. My grandfather kept a fisherman’s work boat with an inboard motor, epoxy gray deck and floorboards, and white hull, cuddy cabin, and roof. A captain’s chair swiveled atop a metal post amidst a cluster of throttle and gear levers, gauges, buttons, compass, and horn. Red and green lights showed port and starboard; a white running light rose on a small mast amidships. We chuffed downriver, docked, and ate at a crab shack on the Oxford pier. Sometimes we’d pass fare more elegant at the Robert Morris. It was a lovely, watery-warm, and gentle life.

Later, after Kathy and I finished college, my parents had a five-acre plot on Cod Creek, a body that branches into the Potomac at its mouth with the western Chesapeake. The house was a three-bedroom rambler with a screen porch that overlooked water, dock, sand beach, and marsh. Dad built a tractor shed at the edge of the woods, which he later took as his writing den. Bald eagles, turkey, osprey, coons, deer and turtles habited Cod Creek — along with many thousand creatures neath water. Over the years, my family covered both sides of the Bay and many tributaries and refuges. These were fingers into adventures, real and imagined, times and dreams without finish.

Soot’s Pond itself is a first trickle of Goose Creek, which wanders east to the Potomac River, thence to the Chesapeake and Atlantic. As a teenager, I paddled lower Goose Creek, fished, and camped on the river. Mom and Dad loved the water. They grew up on the Jersey Shore. When he worked for the Newark News, Dad and his buddies owned a power boat named the “Alibi,” which speaks for itself, as in — “The boat broke down and I’ll be home late,” or “We caught more fish than expected,” or “I’m sleeping in the cuddy tonight.” Mom’s family had a cottage on the Metedeconk, aside Barnegat Bay in Ocean County. Mom, her mother and sister would summer there, while Mom’s father H.R. commuted from Chatham and New York City. When I was a kid, family vacations usually found us at raw and rugged places along the east coast, from Bar Harbor to Ocracoke. We often summered in a cottage beside the cliffs of Block Island, where Dad loved to surf-fish. At Black Rock, Mom caught a 42-pound striped bass on 12-pound test line, her cheap rod and push-button reel. It was a record.


Dad was larger than life. He was frequently on television. They made a play about his role in the Pentagon Papers. Sometimes people would stop and ask him for his autograph. It was tough to walk through an airport without a person recognizing Dad, and vice versa. He swelled in this context, and I had trouble relating to him, though I worked earnestly to understand his world. Dinner time was often a recitation of Dad’s daily interviewing on Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon; a phone call with Senator this or that, or a General or cabinet Secretary; or another headline-yielding exploration. He’d pause and ask Mom about her day. “Lesson-plans and two-variable equations,” she’d report, “X-times-Y.” Kathy or I would describe a geography project or the cafeteria lunch. I spoke of my second-base infield position where I’d knock down hits and tag outs; but I was embarrassed that I always struck out, and I said nothing of my batting. Dad’s follow-ups were mostly brief. He disliked math, was bad at it; and he tended to make fun of classroom education. His was a world of experience and grit, battlefield trenches, mud soldiers, and ship bellies, among those who suffered and made a difference. We felt what we did was small; indeed, we were lesser than Dad.

Stripped naked of this, on the water in a small boat with a rising breeze, Dad and I found new geography, a place of tenderness and mutuality, a place we cherished, which I loved deeply. At Sherwood Forest, Dad gave me several sailing books which I read over-and-over, Aymar’s Start ‘Em Sailing, Manry’s Tinkerbell, and Royce’s Sailing Illustrated. Sherwood Forest had a junior sailing club that raced Penguins, an 11-foot five-inch dinghy class designed by Philip Rhodes in 1938. We scanned the papers for a wooden Penguin and brought one home on a rickety trailer. We paid $400 for the boat and $125 for the trailer. Dad and I stripped and polished the brightwork, and sanded and varnished the spars, gunwales, and ribbing. We pulled and sanded the centerboard, which would swell and get stuck in its well when wet. We replaced the wood centerboard with a composite. (I delighted in using the old board to skim atop shallow water along the beach.) Growing up, probably like any child, I felt over-powered by my parents and the adult world, and I sought a place I could own and care for by myself — whether that was a hutch under the attic eaves in DC, a private collection of baseball cards rubber-banded aside my bunk bed, or my boat — the Penguin. I savored every inch of “Cheetah,” the name we gave her. (“Cheetah” was a derivative of my and Kathy’s nicknames, “Che-Che” and “Tahzee,” the best our baby tongues could muster for one another — and not coincidently the world’s fastest land animal.) I coiled every sheet and line, waxed the chines, and carefully pulled Cheetah onto rollers out of the water so she would dry and get lighter before race day. Dad taught me to race, the secret of approaching the start line, turning about with one minute to go, clocking 25 seconds headed away on a stop watch, and turning about again to sail back, luff briefly upwind, and cross the start line beating at full speed, unshadowed by the fleet. Dad’s math skills and geometry were weak, but his essentials were strong. As I got better, Dad bought feathery green and red tell-tales that hung on Cheetah’s starboard and port stays. The feathers showed the direction of the wind and helped me to position the sail so that it spilled little propulsive air as the boat beat close-hauled to the wind, reached midway, or ran downwind. We learned to put our feet under straps and hiked out over the water to keep the boat as flat as possible, so the sail caught more air and beat faster. I loved doing this, a tiny stick extending from the tiller so I could hang out far. Sometimes a hard breeze hit and we were nearly knocked flat. One time Dad and I sailed from Round Bay up the Severn into the Chesapeake, around the Naval Academy, and docked in City Slip, the center of old town Annapolis. On our sail, we lacked a horn or whistle, so to open the low bridge over the Severn we cut back and forth while Dad waived his arms. He blew a lowing “train-whistle” through his cupped hands. The keeper eventually opened the bridge and we tacked up Spa Creek into the harbor. I was at the helm, and I felt king of the world. We grabbed cold-cut sandwiches, chips, and drinks from Rookie’s butcher shop, ate heartily, and sailed back. Dad gave me a few swigs from his beer. He said, “That-a-boy.” “I’m going to take a nap,” and he lay his frame over Cheetah’s mid-thwart, his head and feet dangling over water, long nose pointed to the sun. When the wind burst and Cheetah heeled sharply, Dad’s feet plunged into the Severn. He said, “Oooo … that’s my alarm!” and hiked over the windward side to make Cheetah more stable. I smiled endlessly on these journeys. At night I lay reading my sailing books, made lists, and packed my bags with pemmican, canteens, and compass. Like Manry, I dreamt of sailing my small boat across the Atlantic. I sketched my tiny, hooded focsle, provision bins, lifelines, lights, and radio. I plotted wind and currents. I gained Mom and Dad’s trust and they let me take Cheetah out by myself and for longer expeditions. I have good geometry and navigation skills, and I was able to sail Cheetah with her sail flat, without luff and speedy. I won the Round Bay junior sailing championship every summer. Kids complained about my unfairly "fast boat.” We traded. I beat everyone again. It was not the boat. I never took Cheetah to the ocean or attempted a crossing more ambitious than the coves about Round Bay. But later when I was 23 my skill showed-up for the Great Ocean Race, where I crewed for Team IBM.

One time I was sailing Cheetah downwind in a run but I incorrectly had the sail close-hauled. The boom beat from side-to-side as she jibed with wind blowing-in from the rear. I looked back at the dock and saw Dad waving his arms, his hands raising over his head and pushing forward. I thought this meant for me to keep going toward the duck blind, my turn-around point. It did not. He meant that I should let the sail out, so the boat would stop jibing and run with the wind. I did not. A heavy gust hit, and pushed Cheetah’s bow starboard, while the port chine and centerboard bit the salt water. Cheetah fully caught the wind, and went up high, sharply high; I was standing on the centerboard trunk and she went flat on the water. I fell in, in between the sunk port gunwale and the now floating boom. I paddled about, mostly calm. Dad was always there for me. He asked our friend Toby for a lift in Toby’s mahogany speedboat, and soon they were alongside. Dad jumped into the water and guided me to the Chris Craft, and I clambered aboard. We tied a line between the two boats and gently hauled the mostly submerged Penguin back to the pier and beach. Dad and I bailed and cleaned Cheetah. I coiled her ropes and fluffed the drying tell-tales. I took her sail home and hosed it with fresh water. That evening, Dad drew pictures on paper of the wind angle that caused my capsize, and he pulled out two rulers and an ice cube to demonstrate the angular physics of wind, sail, chine, and centerboard. Dad’s math was not that bad. His love was great.

1 comment:

Carol said...

Jim, that was great to read! I loved your description of Boundary Point...brought back memories! I’m sad that our family didn’t get the sailing experience that Loie and Joan had growing up.