1. The act or practice of rowing or sailing, esp. as an amusement; carriage in boats.
2. In Persia, a punishment of capital offenders, by laying them on the back in a covered boat, where they are left to perish.
Please pardon me if any or all of the nautical terms I employ here I do so incorrectly. I am no sailor. Likewise, my brother is no sailor; and the both of us come from a long line of non-sailors which nearly ended on account of my father, who firmly believed that hubris and expendable income could fill the gaps left by skill and natural inclination. He bought a 34 foot O'Day sailboat to test this hypothesis, provided a slip for it in the harbor at New Buffalo on the waters of Lake Michigan, and insisted we all make the two hour drive from Chicago every possible weekend. My mother would suffer herself to be cajoled all the way to the dock, though absolutely no further.
"If God had wanted Man to sail," she would say, "Well. He didn't."
It would be more dramatic if the most terrifying experience of my life, short of the specter of marriage, occurred on our maiden voyage. But Fear is much smarter than that. The novice, the freshman--these scare too easily. These play it safely, stay well within sight of land, and do not dare to tempt the waters unless they are as glass. Nor does Terror want an expert, for capability is anathema to Panic. No. The sophomore makes the best target. Enough knowledge to take risks, not enough to navigate calmly through the consequences. At three months, this was us. My father had, by August 26th, 1993, sufficient confidence to board his children, kiss his wife goodbye, and power out beyond the breakwater into far too gray a morning.
The air had a chill in it, of course, but we were reassured by the presence of another few boats on the water with sails set. My father took the bridge--rather a grand term for the hole in the deck in which the great metal wheel stood, topped by a large black compass. My brother went forward to the winch controlling the main, and I, quite uselessly, remained aft, or lightly stepped below to the cabin wherein our provision of pretzels and very old soda rocked back and forth behind sliding doors of teak.
I brought up a can and a bag with the top rolled down and took a seat on one of the thin gray cushions of the cockpit. We were still under engine power, increasing our distance from the shore in search of an open tract of water. I squirmed away from one of the many spiders that made its home on the boat, this one apparently having come out of the dark to see what was disturbing his web. I desperately hate spiders.
My father handed back the Coke. "Ok. I'm gonna cut the engines. This looks good."
For my part, this was the best time to be aboard a sailboat. A powerful silence, silence without stillness. On a clear day it is very relaxing. That day, however, there was a different kind of beauty stretching out over the water. For there is beauty in great strength. We should have been more mindful.
"Go!" The distinctive sound of gears signaled the raising of the mainsail by my brother. He looked at me through his grunts, a clear message. Dead weight. I grinned, availed myself of a pretzel, and leaned back to put my feet up in a supine pose of ostentatious leisure. My father's eyes were forward and up, minding the sail's progress on the mast. "All the way! Keep going! All the way!" The ratcheting continued until the tell-tale thunk stopped his efforts, and the sail quickly bloomed--billowed--jerking the boat very slightly and sending a loud metallic rattle through the boom. I leapt a space within my skin, evidenced by the sharp bending of my knees, but that was all I could allow. My brother was still watching.
"OK," my father said. "OK, here we go."
Great speeds are not achieved in sailboats, relative to land or massive horsepower. But ten knots on thirty-four feet of unstable wood and fiberglass gives the approximate sensation of flight, and for all intents and purposes turns water into stone should it and flesh connect. With one half the boat tipped so close this seems a likely prospect, and it is the brave soul indeed who will stand in the pulpit to watch the waves rise and fall before the bow. Such a one was I this present.
The ancient, undeveloped corner of the mind responsible for self-preservation recognizes the unsuitability of its carrying case to these circumstances. It is the educated, sophisticated, modern part of ourselves we must rely upon to counteract the survival instinct, to permit our willing placement in harm's way. This, you see, is progress.
And so I stuck my legs out above the blackening water, cold and angry, excitedly and brazenly offering myself as a toy for Death to bat around, self-assured She would not keep me. It was wonderful; a quickening, and no mistake. If you get close enough, you can take some of Her stength.
"OK! Let's let the jib out!" The call from far behind. My brother had retreated from amidships; I would do the jib. One hand for me, one for the boat, I thought, reaching for the appropriate line and winch. It took a bit more time than perhaps it should have. My fingers had numbed from the spray, and I fumbled with the lines. It also seemed the boat was pitching to significantly greater angles, frustrating my hands as well as my footing. Fuck. I looked up to see my father abandoning the helm to my brother, whose face now wore even greater contempt, coming forward to see what foul business his landlubber of a second son had visited upon the rigging. But his explanation and assistance were patient, so I calmed despite the difficulty.
Then I learned that six unobservant minutes aboard a boat are six too many.
The Gemini. At least twice our size in all dimensions. Three decks, four engines, a massive white prow glittering spikes of silver on either side at the anchor wells. Rows of black windows angling downward from the bridge. It looked like a stormtrooper, running at great speed, and showing no signs of a turn. I saw it first, over my father's shoulder. Facing away, he had not noticed it. Nor had my brother, whose attentions must have been on the two of us, or somewhere else entirely. It was not headed directly toward us. There would be no danger there, for we too were moving steadily. But its bearing intersected ours, and our paths were holding fast at ninety degrees. We were going to meet at the common point.
He saw my face, and looked around. Then he turned white.
"Blow the horn! Blow the horn!" He yelled at my brother, dropping the line of the unreleased jib and scrambling down the deck. At six foot two, and having ankles with the structural integrity of toothpicks, he was not a man fit for speed on slippery decks, rolling waves, and an obstacle course of winches, coils, and lines. He struggled. I froze, fixed on the Gemini. Our horn blasted out, restoring my power of movement, and I turned to see my brother's face now entirely devoid of anything but fear. After several shrill soundings--he leaned against the button with all his weight--the Gemini still did not appear to alter course. It did not hear, and was not watching.
"Shit. Shit." My father ran afoul of a line, and bounced off the steel cables of the railing. What should he have done? What was the order to give? Was ten knots enough to slip us safely by, or were we at collision speed? He could have dropped the main. How then could we maneuver?
My brother covered his eyes.
"Hands on the fucking wheel! Hands on the fucking wheel!" My father yelled, hopping now--something had taken a chunk out of his calf--toward the cockpit. "Fuck! Hard to starboard! Hard to starboard!"
But we are not sailors. My brother turned to port.
The sail began to luff. Then we tacked, and came about.
My father was a step away from the cockpit when the boom caught him. It simply, and without a pause in its stroke from the weight of his body, picked him off his feet and blew him into the water.
I very nearly went in after him. All concern for the Gemini fell away. I could see him in the water, no lifejacket, but conscious and sputtering. I did not see much else, just my father getting smaller as the boat turned away. If he had not waved, though I saw him wince for it--I don't think I would have moved until the larger ship wrecked us on its hull.
My brother made a move for the rail. "No," I yelled, quite suddenly, and suprisingly, "You stay on that fucking horn!" He leaned into it again, and I leapt atop the cabin, rolled on my side under the sail, and started to drop it. My only thought was to stop; everything had to stop, and be resumed from a place of stillness. I could not calibrate my mind to so many moving objects. I spun the winch with all the strength I had. I pulled. I pulled hard. I pulled until the sail began to break and fold. I pulled until I felt my shoulder tear. Then I couldn't pull any more.
I was leaning over the port railing when the Gemini blew its horn and turned away. At some point it had begun to rain, the promise of the gray skies kept. We rocked heavily, but remained more or less in place as we completed the turn. My brother did what little was possible via the helm to keep us still. I stood above the edge, and cast a cleated line to my father.
My brother had to pull him back. He could hardly swim, and my shoulder had a knife in it. I sat down cross-legged on the deck with my head in my hands as my father struggled back aboard. He was bleeding from the forehead, and one of his fingers had paled with the beginnings of frostbite, to which it had long been highly susceptible. He touched me lightly on the head, and went aft. "I'm going to kill that man," he said, and I believed him.
The captain of the Gemini had literally fallen asleep at the wheel, a habit made most dangerous by ships equipped with autopilot and lakes unequipped, quite necessarily, with rumble strips. We suspect he had partaken too amply of the beer appropriate to a boat of that calibre. He offered his apologies, and nothing more.
My father suffered a lacerated calf and forehead, a sprained wrist, and a cracked rib. There was no concussion, and shockingly, no damage to his ankles.
My brother was unhurt, but greatly shaken, and vowed to at some point track the offending yachtsman down and "crack his fucking head open with a rock."
I dislocated my shoulder, and was able for some time afterwards to dislocate it again at will. No longer.
My mother told us so.
With that exception, we all sailed again within a month.
For the Quest