Long before I stepped on a sailboat, I was in love with the water.
My first memories start with my parents piling us into the car for weekend trips up north to Bear Lake. The sandy beach extends in a slow gradient, allowing little tots like me to explore the depths inch by inch without the need to tread water. My great grandparents often sat in their rocker swing as lifeguards while my sister and I crafted water aerobics routines. Dad drove the speedboat named R Toy around the bear-shaped lake, with my sister and I squealing on the intertube behind. In the lulls between loops, he or my mom might yell, “watch out for sturgeon!”, invoking another few squeaks of terror and wonder at the depths below. Mom usually took the last run of the day on her slalom waterski, letting go as we neared the cottage and gliding to the dock under her own steerage. On other days, we tooled around on Granny and Papa’s pontoon. I remember the novelty of swimming underneath and ganging together to push Grandpa overboard. As clear as day, I can see him shouting, “my billfold!” and artfully lobbing his wallet onto the dry boat. On longer trips, we trekked to Chicagon Lake in the Upper Peninsula and snorkeled off Grandma and Grandpa’s dock for crayfish and sunken bottles.
Back at home, we dipped in chlorinated waters regularly. Some back-of-the-napkin math suggests thousands of rides to swimming practice over the years (thanks Mom!).
In fifth grade, we moved from our log cabin to a new house on top of a giant hill with a lake at the bottom. It was a bit more like a pond, but the surface area dictated this classification. Dad got a little hull and trolling motor and taught me the art of messing around on boats. We had our favorite highlighter yellow Gary Yamamoto brand bait, my very own tackle box, and lots of long summer afternoons. I learned how the blue gill enjoyed living under shady branches and how to detangle my fishing line from an overzealous cast into the trees. Many hours were spent delighting in singlehanding that vessel, with a book and fishing pole in tow. A few snapping turtles lived in the lake and Dad often put up wagers for friends to swim across in the dark, but I don’t recall anyone up for the challenge.
I remember the preparations for time on the water being just about as fun as the event itself. Taking trips to the Saddle Up grocery to pack the cooler, attaching the trailer and hitting the road, even the more stoic operations at the boat launch felt like a unique kind of fun.
Nana and Grandpa had a debate that spanned decades on the superiority of the Atlantic or Lake Michigan. I like to think they are still volleying the issue, somewhere somehow. Despite his side of the argument, I recall Grandpa teaching this freshwater gal to love the salt. He gently lectured about the undertow off Juno Beach, and snatched me out of it once. Nana swam most every day, always in her signature style that avoided dunking her hair. We played ring toss in the pool with our numerous cousins and Mom taught us to do flipturns and back dives. One night we all went down to the beach with flashlights and saw sea turtles return to lay eggs.
As we got older, we rented canoes for treks down the Rogue River, perhaps practice for the infamous high school swim team’s paddling trip. My sister and I became lifeguards and taught numerous kids to jump in and swim fast. My love for playing catch with Dad cross-pollinated with all this and I gave water polo a try too. These days my parents live further up north and they can see salmon running through the river nearby.
Dad often says that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate attire, and we embrace outdoor time year round. He has a strong knack for good gear, and even though ocean sailing isn’t his forte, he outfitted me in my first (and so far only) pair of foulies. Another birthday added an auto-inflate life jacket to my kit and it accompanies me on all my watches.
Spending time in and on the water can be hard to get into without someone to show you the way. Over 50% of people in the US don’t know how to swim. Boats are tippy and come with particular and sometimes peculiar ways of operating, plus they have a knack for absorbing expendable income. These experience gaps are entirely understandable, and my gratitude for my mentors grows each year.
These days we have been meeting lots of guests of the eco-retreat and explaining how we came to be here in Panama. People commonly ask how we learned to sail, and for brevity I say that Scott taught me. While this is technically the case, I think my process began much sooner under the tutelage of family. From my first sail, I recognized the kind of fun we had years ago on all those lakes and the skills and wonder picked up along the way.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. I’m lucky to be loved by this one!
How to Read Water, Tristan Gooley
The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson
Blue Mind, Wallace J Nichols
Sea Change, Sylvia Earle
The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, John Edward Huth