I found out about boats at around age 8. Pum and her brother bought a flat-bottomed Dutch fishing vessel, a “Schokker,” traditional on the tiny island named Schokland. The brother had a family with three kids, she was single. Since she was my third parent, I went along as “her” kid.
It must have gone right the first couple of times, because soon there was little question: starting sometime in the spring until the fall, I was off with Pum to the boat every weekend the weather was halfway reasonable.
We simply called it de Schokker though it did have a name, and it was moored in a canal at a tiny piece of land with a greenhouse and a small orchard on it, owned by another friend of my parents with another kid, in a small town not far from The Hague. Other friends visited with their kids. We, depending on the size of the group, played up, around, over, in, and through the boat, the greenhouse, the ditch next to it, and the canal. We caught frogs, swam in the canal, dragged pieces of wood around and built forts, were pirates and robbers, played hide and seek.
In the evening we “barbecued,” which was something no one else had ever heard of but Pum’s brother had been across the pond for business and bought a BBQ in Chicago. And then we played hide and seek in the dark while the adults sat around and drank prodigious amounts of wine. Pum, and sometimes my mother when my units visited, smoked endless numbers of cigarettes. They discussed what was going on in the world, usually disagreeing vehemently and laughing up a storm in the process. One “uncle” had a guitar, and on very very special occasions we sat with him and sang. They had been through World War II and they knew how to celebrate life.
It was magical. I had no idea it was privileged, and compared to what privilege looks like now it wasn’t, but it was heaven to me as I was an awkward and slightly lonely child with one much younger sibling, growing up in a neighborhood largely without kids. A kid that did not fit in at school at all.
Sometimes the cup of magic was really full and we sailed. It was a bit of a production to get the boat out on Saturday, and the bridge that needed to be opened would do so once for us returning on Sunday, but only if it had been arranged well in advance. This was the sixties and Sunday was a rest day, also for the bridge keeper. Sailing was special.
But in the summers, we sailed across much of the Netherlands for weeks at a time, or so it seemed to me then. The ship was developed to sail the large rivers, coastal waters, and inland sea that form the characteristic shape of the Netherlands. We hit them all. We kids were the crew of the crew. Mostly, we managed the lee boards, side panels that keep flat-bottomed Dutch ships from drifting sideways in lieu of a keel, and that are hauled in and out of the water as needed. In heavy weather we wore oilskins with yellow Sou’Wester hats so familiar from old pictures of fishermen. We girls slept in bunks in the fo’scle with Pum.
We played in an out of the water everywhere, we put money in the wooden shoe the bridge and lock keepers swung out to us after helping us through, we handled boat fenders when we moored in a lock or at a quay. It was more heaven.
Soon there were more tasks and we became more independent at the same time. The boy became the master of the jib (the forward sail). The kids were given a little rowboat and we rowed about, picking berries off the next little island, hiding the treasure from the other pirates in the other rowboat behind the empty warehouse across the canal.
A small problem started that soon escalated. Unlike these kids, I had not grown up learning about sailing or life on the water, and lacked some skills the others took for granted. I was embarrassed to admit it, and too shy to ask. I was, like many an illiterate, a master at hiding my innocence of such knowledge, holding a fender while we were in in a lock rather than tying it off for want of a knot to do so with, spying on others to try to learn what they were doing. Somehow, I thought that not-knowing meant I fell short. I became fairly fearful of being found out and started a small hidden life of fear that I finally fought off with difficulty as an adult.
Closest in age to me was the boy, who soon also started to get some sailing lessons from Pa. Nothing was expected of me other than passivity and in this I excelled for it protected my secret incomptetence. Instead of hanging with him, I now played with his younger sister, dragging the largest fenders around like little dogs, taking mud baths, and driving everyone up a tree with our antics.
And I hid in books. But while I was reading I longed to also learn the things I could not manage to somehow find out on my own. To take over my friend’s task of moving the jib sheet (a sheet is the line that controls a sail) across when we tacked de Schokker; to start a teeny outboard motor, the kind where you have to wind the starter rope around the top in advance of pulling it; to learn more about sailing my pal’s new 12’ “Koralle” sailboat than simply managing the jib at his command and hanging overboard as far as I could yelling wheeee! when we were zooming across the water fast and furiously.
And it was still heaven. I am not sure what would have happened had it not all come to an rough halt in September when I was 12. I was a guest in all this of course, even though for me it was life, and my new middle school turned out to be the last in the Netherlands to have Saturday morning school.
My life has not led me into the world of yachting, and I do not wish that it had. But I have missed the sea and the “whee” of sailing terribly ever since I lost them. At first I didn’t know that, as I became a wild child, but later I sailed when I had a chance. Those chances don’t come around very often when you are not in the world of yachting and you live in a landlocked forest.
So when I got onto the launch to be taken to the Quite, moored at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club last Tuesday on the first day of my first sailing class, I had sailed fewer than a dozen times since that Saturday in 1970 when I went to school rather than the boat. All of those times, I’d been handling a jib, making peanut butter sandwiches, or simply throwing my weight around at the command of an experienced guy sailor (okay, I was in a trapeze, but still…)
Soon instructor Jeff and I were cutting through the bay in the Quite, with me sailing, no clue what to do, heart in my mouth, and the gunwales rushing through the water, the boat heeling over as far as, I was sure, it could go (keeled boats can go way farther over than flat-bottomed ships, but that’s not in my blood). It had been 25 years since I was even out on a sailboat. I was absolutely sure I’d tip it over, I was sure I would drown, whimpered like a little girl.
Whimpering? WTF? Where was the “whee?” Does “whee” go after 50? I wanted to let go of the sails desperately.
I am proud to say I did not. I did the next best thing which I somehow managed to remember even as my brain turned to liquid along with everything else, I steered a bit into the wind so the boat would come back a bit to horizontal and did not tighten the sail, the edges of which started flapping as ineffectively as my whimpering, heart-in-mouth anxiety, my avoiding facing that I didn’t know how to tie a knot when little. Girl stuff, really. Well trained, even after driving a truck and years of carpentry.
“Stop luffing,” said Jeff, he not one to bark like most captains. I obediently steered a bit more downwind, which stopped the sails from flapping but got us back towards “whee” a bit. But I didn’t pull them in all the way, which is how you go fast like a rocket and “whee” down the bay. Luffing is when the leading edge of the sail, the “luff,” starts flapping in the wind because the sail is not pulled in tightly enough for it to stream in front of and behind is like it does for a wing, creating forward motion. When a sail luffs, it isn’t powered optimally. When a kite luffs, it dives down to earth. Not a good thing, that. Imagine what it does to a person.
Two days later, “whee” was no longer a problem, the enjoyment was back, and I was sailing happily, rails in the water, when going straight or simply tacking (going back and forth and moving the sails from one side to the other). But Jeff was exasperated at times, “if you don’t stop luffing, I don’t know what I will do.”
The poor man didn’t know what was still coming as his least star-pupil (why on earth did I think while lying in bed that I knew in my bones how to handle a boat?) tried to pass the final skills test, which is to catch a mooring in the middle of the water. I won’t bore you landlubbers with the details, suffice it to say that I could not get it right, stopped being able to tell where the not inconsiderable wind came from, and fumbled and fluffed and luffed about trying to sail exactly to a large yellow ball anchored in the middle of the water, stopping right at the ball without crushing boat or ball. You do need to know that it involved a maneuver called a “Chicken Jibe.”
I survived. I learned sailing in English. I learned the rules of right of way on the water. I even learned to tie a knot tor two. I semi-started learning the skills of maneuvering a boat around under wind power. And now I have a diploma. Hail to the Jeff.
Wanna go sailing? I could use the practice. I even semi-passed the “man overboard” drills though busting a rib in the process. I bet I could get you out if you fell in. Trust me.
Pum and I had our last great adventure together in 1998. She died ten years ago. Her brother passed away last year. I miss her every day and I think of them both very often, as I keep working to stay true to the freedom and adventure they showed me was possible, without luffing this time.
Meanwhile, check out some water pics from Maine.