A Bad Sailor

I drifted awake to a soft buzzing sound this morning, like a bubble that wobbles to the surface of a summer pond released, perhaps by a foraging fish overturning a shell or rock.

The water was warm, the sun was still, and the peacefulness of the summer morning seeped into my bones. As imaginary ripples rolled toward the shore awareness crept toward the corners of my eyes. Fading into view came the somewhat harsher reality of the Hempstead Hilton in Hauppauge, Long Island.  The clock-radio that had started buzzing switched itself on, way too loud, and began its daily litany of traffic delays, airport disasters, and courtroom fiascos. As I reached for it, the telephone rang with the inevitable, cheerfully plastic voice… “This is your Wake up Call. It’s Seven Thirty AM. Good Morning!” With the swift moves of a professional traveler I silenced the all noisome electronics.

I looked around at today’s hotel room. A large TV screen faced the firm king sized bed. The artwork on the wall was plain enough to be considered almost invisible. I was surrounded by tastefully non-descript and totally predictable wallpaper and furniture.

I could be anywhere, I thought, and anytime in the last six months.

Routinely, I recalled what city I was in, giving the morning some context.

It was a pleasant morning. I half-expected that, if I were to open the blackout drapes over the window, warm summer sun would flood the room and fill me with cheerful light. I got up to open the shades. In fact, it wasn’t summer anymore. It was early fall and the day was bleak and cold. The summer had passed too quickly as I skipped around the country.

I realized then that the warmth I felt was not coming from the innocuous hotel room or the bleak day outside. It was warm inside.  It was my heart that was warm.

I had dreamt of Kate. I could picture her long blond hair and see the clarity of her gaze. The rest of the image remained fuzzy. I reached for the dream, sending my thoughts through images and associations hoping one of them would fit, like a piece in a puzzle, and bring forth the rest of the dream.

I remembered wind, water, then a boat. We were on a boat. I could feel the rocking and hear the waves… barely ripples… lapping against the sides. It was a sailboat and Kate was sitting at the back of the boat, holding the rudder, while I worked the sails, catching the occasional puff of wind. Kate was navigating. Her keen sense of direction served us well even in the ocean. Yes…we were in the ocean. Suddenly, the memories flooded back with a surprising clarity and completeness. Stranded. We were drifting at sea with almost no wind and we were uncomfortably far from shore.

The third day of our Caribbean vacation started out with my suggestion that we take a sail around the resort’s harbor. They had small sailboats for use by the guests. I was by no means an accomplished sailor, but I had assured her I knew enough to get by.  And so I did. Under my moderately skillful captainship, we tacked the boat through the calm waters of the harbor toward the peninsula at its mouth.

Kate stretched her firm, bikinied body across the back of the boat. The warm sun seemed to sparkle off the sunscreen that oiled her exposed skin. The water was smooth and the wind was steady. She seemed completely relaxed. She was beginning to doze. I thought about tying off the sail and offering to add another layer of sunscreen to her. But as we neared the area where the jutting land protected the harbor from the sea, I needed to pay attention to the wind.

I could tell from the way the water looked that the wind was stronger ahead. The sea was darker with small, choppy waves. I prepared for a change in wind direction by tightening the lines and assuring that Kate’s head was below the potentially wide-swinging boom. As we entered the darker water I was braced for a change. I was not ready, though, to be swept away.

That’s just the way it felt — all of a sudden the wind caught the drifting sail, puffed it to capacity with a loud thwack, and shoved us, full-speed into its current.

Kate sat up at the noise and abrupt motion, looking out to sea. At first everything seemed normal to her. We couldn’t feel the wind because we were moving with it and the motion wasn’t particularly obvious when she looked out to the empty sea.  As she turned, though, she simultaneously saw the look on my face, my white knuckles clutching the lines, and the land rushing by behind me.

“What are you doing!” she shouted, as if the wind was something I had called up. I didn’t have the time to tell her that I was struggling to keep the boat from being blown over.

“Hold the rudder straight!” I shot at her.

“No!” she said, “I want to go back to shore. I’m turning us around.”

She started to turn the rudder and the boat moved sideways into the wind. The sail was instantly pushed aside and the boat canted crazily. She gasped and pulled the rudder back to its original position. Spray, picked up by the wind flew into our faces. We tasted salt. I let out the sail to compensate for the change and our ride seemed to calm for a moment.

“Kate, we need to turn slowly. Move the rudder slightly to the left as I let the sail out.” I said, without all the calm that usually resides in my voice.

“But that will point us out to sea!” She said.

“Kate!” Now there was an angry urgency in my voice. “If you don’t do exactly as I say, we’re going to be swimming in a minute.”

“But you don’t know what you’re doing!” She shouted. She was frustrated, confused, and scared. But she was also right, I did not know what I was doing, and my comment about swimming didn’t help.

I explained, as quickly as I could, what I was trying to do. We were barreling along with the wind at a forty-five degree angle away from the land at full wind speed. If we tried to turn sideways to the wind to tack back, we would flip over. Our only course was to turn directly into the wind so that the sail fluttered back and forth, in ‘irons’. Unfortunately, this pointed directly away from land, out to the open sea. It would prevent us from capsizing, but it might also take us slowly further away from shore. Kate, knowing my inexperience, was reluctant to follow my lead… but each moment that we delayed, we were getting further and further away from the land and the harbor mouth.

She wanted to discuss it and figure out what to do. As a pilot, she felt she had some skill with navigation and, even though she felt inadequate at sea, thought that she might be better qualified to decide what to do next. She was afraid that trusting an unskilled sailor would be a terrible, maybe even deadly mistake. She didn’t know what to do.

“Kate!” I startled her out of her circular thoughts. I tried to speak firmly but patiently. “Pull the rudder toward you, I’ll pull the sail in and we’ll head into the wind. I know what to do. If you don’t do this now, we’ll be miles away from shore.”

She wanted to argue. She wanted to completely understand my plan before adopting it. If I had been a competent sailor, she would be glad to adopt the role of co-pilot. But she saw that we were getting farther away by the moment and did as I suggested.

Kate’s previous relationship had been with slightly famous, insecure and egotistical man who insisted on complete control over both of their lives. Because she was a beautiful woman, he needed to possess and control her. She was his trophy as they paraded through the finest restaurants and theaters in the city. For her part, being with him made her feel important, valuable, and worth more than her small-town high school classmates of fifteen years ago ever imagined she would be.  As time passed, Kate developed a strong sense of self-worth and rebelled against the crush of his ego. They separated, but not before his wounded pride lashed back at her.

This relationship with me was a reversal for her. Kate was aware of her own value and began to understand the dynamics that had failed her in the past. She didn’t need a man in order to prove anything, nor did she want to be dominated by an arrogant ego. She was looking to be loved, cherished, and treated for the equal (at least) that she knew she was. The man she found was, for the most part, interested in the same kind of partnership.

Now we were stuck… going virtually nowhere and unsure of what to do next. Because we weren’t traveling with the wind, it no longer felt calm. Gusts of wind blew sprays of stinging salt water. It was cold, wet and choppy. I looked at Kate. She was angry and scared.

“I thought you knew how to sail!” she said. Her words accused me of reckless deceit.

“The problem isn’t my sailing, it’s the wind.” I was worried, too. The wind was blowing hard, straight out from shore. A sailboat, by nature, doesn’t sail well into the wind. It was very possible that we were going to be blown out to sea no matter what I did. “I want to take a tight tack along the shoreline. It’s possible that the wind will subside once we get in front of that mountain to the north.”

“That’s ridiculous!” she was shouting now. The wind blew another spray of water into her face. She was beginning to panic. “We’ll be blown out to sea by the time we get there!”

It’s possible that she was right. But there wasn’t anything else we could do. I was starting to get angry at her for arguing – after all, I had more experience than her. I needed her to do what I told her, quickly and without discussion.

“Kate!” I shouted over the wind with forceful authority. “Move the rudder to the right. Now!”  I pointed at her and in the direction she was to move. “I’m going to push the sail into the wind and swing us around.”

“You’ll do no such thing!” She pushed her hands, palms down, on the bench for emphasis. She knew exactly how to deal with ego-driven megalomaniacs. “What we’re going to do is put our life vests on and figure out, together, how to deal with this.” She grabbed a life vest from under the bench for herself and tossed one at me.

I stood up, defiantly, masking my panic with arrogance. The life vest bounced off my thigh and I glared at her as if she had thrown it at me. I let it fall. I began pushing the sail into the wind to turn us around. I felt the boat begin to turn. If Kate didn’t do as I said and take control of the rudder, we’d be in even more trouble.

Suddenly, she was there. Kate had come to the front of the boat. She took my wrists in her hands. I felt a surge of anger. I was about to shake her off, possibly knocking her down, when I looked into her eyes.

The panic was gone. The fear was gone. Her eyes captured mine with calm, deeply connecting love. The anger and fear washed from me as well as I remembered that I was with my life’s partner.

“Remember,” she said quietly. I heard her clearly over the wind and waves. It was as if there was nothing else to hear but her voice, nothing to see but her face – wet with salt water or salty tears. “Remember what really matters.”

There was a buzzing sound behind me. It was either the resort’s Rescue motor boat coming to collect another wannabe sailor or it was the pre-alarm buzz of the hotel alarm clock.

“Remember what really matters.”