Category Archives: Sailing


Sailing season is over. It happens every fall, and not because of the change in weather but because of the dwindling daylight. We’ve got to have time to get through traffic (even if we cut out of work early, and we do cut out early), get the boat rigged, and finish a few races before dark.

With any luck, it will be snowboarding season soon and I’ll pick up my love/hate relationship where I left off last year. Maybe I’ll go back to yoga or I’ll make it to my aerobics class more often. I enjoy all of these activities but none of them are sailing.

One of the things I’ll miss most this winter is my team. Teamwork brings to mind all kinds of cheesy cliché’s, but there’s something so beautiful about a good team. When I raced in my twenties there was so much ego involved, so much self-definition. As a young woman people often assumed I didn’t know what I was doing, and I spent precious time and energy proving them wrong. Now, partly because I’ve been sailing with Doug on and off for twelve (twelve!) years, the definition and egos are gone (mostly), even when we add a third crewmember. There’s just the beauty of synchronization.

Our teamwork involves more than physical coordination, the logistics of who hoists the kite and when, or who will stay down on a roll tack in light air but also how the larger decisions are made: whether the shift is persistent or oscillating, where the next puff will appear, and where we want to place our boat on the course. We have intense conversations, debates, heated at times. We draw pictures with tiny pencils on the fiberglass seats to make a point. We go to restaurants and use cups, salt shakers and straws to illustrate the boat and the course and the wind direction in an effort to reach a consensus. On such occasions, some of us occasionally regret having a glass of sake, wishing we could focus better and keep our debating skills sharp. We do all this without having an individual member of the team, even the tipsy ones, lessened, weakened or belittled by the exercise.

We took first place in eight races in a row this summer. We started the season strong, sailing well but not placing well. Then it was like we couldn’t not win. Every move one of us made seemed to complement the others. Of course, eventually, the magic ended but for those races in late-July we were in a state of near perfection – blue sky, white sails, and Mt Baker glowing pink in the evening sun.

For now, I’ll put my bag of sailing gear in the garage and maybe I’ll buy a new pair of yoga pants. I won’t think about sailing too much until some gray February day when I’ll be on the freeway, driving over Portage Bay. I’ll remember those cold winter afternoons of college sailing where we raced right up to the decks of the houseboats and waved at the people sitting on their couches, sipping their hot beverages. I’ll think about the slide of the boat into a roll tack — when every person has their motion that must be perfectly synchronized with the others and adjusted to suit the conditions. I’ll crave that movement like a runner’s high or a hiker’s summit. I’ll go home and watch this video and think about my team and count the days until daylight savings time.

PS – The video starts pre-race and continues up the first leg almost to the first mark.

AND – In case you (or your spouse, mother, brother, friend) hasn’t voted already, the contest ends on Sunday. Last time I checked I was 1% out of first place. Thank you, thank you!

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I’ll Always Make Time

A few months ago I woke to reports of a storm blowing through town. Puffs to 40 knots expected.  Josie was sick. I was supposed to be leaving town in a few days. I did not have the time or energy to get beat up and dumped in the lake, but I would have for two reasons. First, my teammates would be there waiting for me. Second, I love it.

I love how it feels when the rigging groans and lurches in response to a puff, how the boat lifts off the water, popping onto a plane like a ski boat, how the water sprays directly out from the hull like a hose, how it skips over the water, how it feels to have your body extended, arched over the lake, how the boat hums, happy, how you realize, every time, that your fate is not your own – it’s all wind and sails and boat and all you can do is keep your body out and aft, and ignore the burning in your thighs and hang on to the vang, and be ready to throw your leg over the rail if and when the mast hits the water. I’ll always make time. 

But that afternoon my skipper calls. Our third teammate has thrown his back out, the boat needs re-rigging and, he’s also heard that it’s supposed to blow, hard. He thinks we should skip it. I’m both relieved and disappointed.

Later that afternoon, I watch the southerly blow up the lake, filling in at 5:00 pm – going from 0 to 15 knots in a few minutes’ time. I’m in the kitchen making soup for my mother and I take a second to write on his wall: “It’s here! 0 to 15 in just a few minutes.” A mutual friend I sailed with in college comments Oh you guys are going to have so much fun tonight!

In college we practiced every Tuesday, Thursday, some Fridays and anytime the wind was blowing more than 20 knots. The impromptu practices were never coordinated, we just showed up, simultaneously abandoning the warm libraries and lecture halls for the ice cold excitement of a fall, winter or spring afternoon sail.  

I have fond memories of those days. I remember my skipper missing his hiking strap and rolling right over the side of the boat into the water on a frigid March day. I remember being so hypothermic that I couldn’t get out of my gear – a friend had to pull off my neoprene and gortex spray top so I could get into the sauna. I remember being rescued from the icy water of Long Island Sound. I remember watching my fellow sailors finish a race sitting on top of their overturned boat. I remember sitting on top of my overturned boat while my skipper swam after our rudder which had broken loose and was floating away. I remember a non-sailor friend asking me at what point we cancelled practice or racing because there was too much wind. I remember not understanding the question.

My college friend who commented doesn’t race much these days. She remembers what it used to be, like the friend that moves out of town in her late twenties, before everyone has kids, and thinks life is the way it was before she left. Like you’re still seeing each other every weekend, going out when really you’re putting the babies to bed, watching Mad Men on DVD in your respective houses and falling asleep by 10:00.

I comment back to my friend that we aren’t going out sailing, bad backs, sick babies and mothers, bags to be packed, dinners to be made and, besides, it’s supposed to be too windy. She says “too windy, what do you mean?”

On Not Being Shipwrecked

Stuff that grows on docks part V.

Doug and I have been racing small sailboats on and off together for about twelve years, since right after I moved back from Chicago, a punk kid talking trash about roll tacks and gybe angles. (No, you don’t need to know what these things mean to understand this post, just appreciate how those words sound together.)

We went through a period where we bickered like teenage sisters – yelling at each other at starts and mark roundings, anytime things got a little stressy. Then something happened. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe we’d learned how to communicate from our significant others. Maybe we started talking to each other on and off the water. Maybe it was all of these things.

He’d tell me what he expected as the skipper, the decisions I should make, the information he needed about wind shifts, compass headings and fleet position. I told him how much notice I needed and the tone of voice I required.

We’d just started the sailing season five years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer. My oncologist told me I should try to keep doing things that brought me joy, even while (especially while) I was in chemo. Since I sailed every Tuesday night, I scheduled chemo for Wednesday mornings so Tuesdays would be my best, strongest, least nauseous day. I marched through the summer, a freaked-out skeleton, covered in sun screen and topped with a wide-brimmed hat. Sailing was, and has always been, my thing. It was one of the few things I held on to.

I don’t remember talking about cancer on the boat. I couldn’t. I had to sail. When we’re on the boat it’s all about wind pressure, sail trim and right of way. It‘s complete immersion that demands physical and mental devotion. It was my only escape, the only time when my long-term survival drifted to the back of my mind. I didn’t miss a single night that season.

I happened to be having coffee with Doug this winter when his doctor called to tell him he had Medullary Thyroid Cancer. We talked and emailed over the following weeks and months through his surgery and follow up scans and blood work, about the world of cancer in general and his cancer in particular. Our diseases were different but the ever-present fear of recurrence is now something we share.

The 2010 season started a few weeks ago. Doug is through with treatment and cancer-free. He’s light a thyroid now, his upper body strength isn’t what it used to be, and his vocal cords were jimmied enough during surgery that he has a hard time speaking loudly, but we were out there. We didn’t talk at all about tumor markers, scans or surgeons, only about lifts and headers, lay lines and mark roundings. We spent some time working on the coordination of our roll tacks – pushing all our combined weight to one rail to turn the boat then jumping to the other side to flatten as the boat accelerated. Even when our coordination was completely off, everything felt right. We were doing exactly what we should be doing, watching the wind move across the water, and holding down the rail of that boat.

Too pretty for just one picture.