Skip to content

Sail On, Sweet Boat

July 11, 2012

July 11

Day 21


In the night sails whisper in my ear that the wind has changed. I wake at three to find we are heading northwest. Northwest, I think, is fine, and set the alarm for another hour. On deck at four the day is bright; cloud we have, but thin; the sun is clear and already two fists (20 degrees) above the horizon. I work to reset our course to northeast. I take down the jib pole, shake out reefs, and then we are close hauled for Sitka on a light breeze from the southsoutheast. Murre slips along on an easy sea.

Sixty miles to go.

Sail on, sweet boat.

I have one cup of coffee while watching the ocean and the boat from the hatch. And then another. I am thinking of my father. For several days now I’ve known he is in hospital. His legs have failed; he has fallen and can’t get up. He is 91. I think how once he must have thought his legs could carry the world. His son on his shoulders, the boy riding a giant and giggling, he felt the promise of forever. How could he not?

At nine-thirty, cloud is too dense for a morning sun shot. I decide to stow the storm jib, lashed to the lifelines at the bow this last 1500 miles and unused. Instead I raise it and am pleased. It is perfectly flat, a good little forestaysail. Why didn’t I think this before? Its contribution in thrust is small, but it adds beauty.

Sail on, sweet boat.

At ten-thirty our first diving bird. As we approach I dig out the binoculars, but it dives before I can focus. Go figure! I resume my watch.

I’ve wanted nothing more than to fly home immediately since learning of the situation. To help, to fix. To be the father to my father. But what is the fix? We grow up and we grow old, and we have known this always. Yet still, the surprise, the feeling of helplessness. I would give anything to restore him.

The noon sun shot for latitude is at eleven-fourteen and I almost miss it. Then as I am carrying the sextant below, I look up and… ho! A craggy peak, nearly indistinguishable from cloud, its dark flanks and its white streaks of snow a shade too dark and too light to be a part of the surrounding gray. Then I can make out its cone shape. Mount Edgecumbe, a retired volcano of just over 3000 feet that defines the entrance to Sitka Sound.

Sail on Sweet boat. Sail! Sail!

Why bound for Sitka, you ask?

I might answer, and why not? Or that the mileage is shorter than a run to Vancouver or Seattle. But the reason is that I lived here for a time when I was young and adored it. Our family didn’t stay long. After only two years we moved back to the lower forty eight for better work. I was crushed, vowed to return, never did.

In Sitka I got my first taste of the wild. Mount Edgecumbe was visible from our front room, the ocean’s rocky coast at the end of our yard. Fishing trout or, at other times of year, salmon from a nearby stream was as easy as pulling socks from a hamper. Bald Eagles were our pigeons. We carried a rifle on hikes as protection from bear.

Once after a storm I saw a small skiff being swept out to sea on the tide. I borrowed my best friend’s boat, and together we rowed out to retrieve it. But on the tow in we too were caught in the tide. Now we were being swept out to sea. But I was too dumb to cut loose the rescued skiff. Someone called the Coast Guard who arrived in a large power boat. A crewman tossed me a line and I whipped a bowline into our own bow so fast he made comment of approval. I beamed with pride, forgetting utterly the shame of needing rescue.

Things like this happened all the time.

At noon I note our position and course. The bar is 1030. The cabin is 55 degrees–and the sea is 49.5–I am amazed at such warmth.

Fifty-two miles to Sitka.

Sail on, sweet boat.

I prepare for port by cleaning up. I boil fresh water and wash face, head and beard. I sweep up the cabin, fold and stow extra warm clothes no longer needed, hang foulies in their locker, scrub the galley counter, clean the stove top.

Lunch is a can of vegetable soup to which I add a can of what Walmart calls Vienna Sausages, but which taste like beef fat whipped with air and salt. A bad buy, but it must be eaten.

Molly needs constant tending. Winds continue light and she lets Murre wander. Thinking it is time to switch on the engine, I begin to dig out the autopilot from its locker, and then winds freshen. Our speed is back up to four knots. I close the locker door and admire the set of sails and that we move well on next to nothing.

Sail on, sweet boat.

This passage has been rough in ways I did not anticipate. I knew it would be cold, cloudy, rainy, and that I would be stuck in the cabin for days. Yet knowing of these difficulties did not make them less difficult. I resented giving up the comfort of Kauai, taking on the fear of big-weather sailing in the north. But today it is all changed. Today there is wind and sun, and today there is nothing else in the world for me but this.

I do not sail for my father. Merchant Mariners tend to think that anyone who sets out upon the sea in anything less than a full grown ship is a lunatic. He would not wish for himself this adventure. Nor do I sail to make him proud. I doubt it makes him proud, though knowing of it may give him pleasure. But I do sail because of him. Without my father the sailor to admire in youth, I never would have learned to admire the graceful curve of a set of sail or the curl of a great wave. My father did not wish this for me; he had left the sea by the time I was born. We give gifts we did not intend; we receive gifts unexpected.

At three in the afternoon I hear the first radio call on channel 16 since leaving Kauai, though the radio has been switched on the entire passage. It’s for a boat called My Escape, not for us. A Tufted Puffin flies around and around Murre, and our approach to a Black Footed Albatross resting on the water causes it to take flight, but it collapses back after just a few flaps, privacy not being worth the effort after all.

Again we stall. I move to adjust sail, adjust Molly. Again we resume our four knots, though I notice no change in the wind.

Sail on, sweet boat.

At three-thirty cloud that has veiled the coast begins to clear and reveals mountains, mountains upon mountains, whole ranges entirely covered in snow. I know from my charts that behind these lie a near infinity of fjords and passes–waterfalls, hot springs, glaciers; forests and more mountains, almost forever. It is hard to believe I have sailed HERE!

Five o’clock. Cloud has now almost vanished from the sea, from the land, and has taken with it our light wind. The sea that has been shifting all day from sapphire blue to emerald green is unruffled and glassy. Here and there the surface is marked with rafts of kelp. Below the surface a riot of pale jelly fish. Tiny silvery fry swim between them.

I sit in the cockpit thinking of boyhood, of this place, of my father. And Murre glides upon on her course without wind, her propulsion nothing more than the power of memories.

Thirty-five miles to Sitka.

Sail on, sweet boat.

  1. carwin867 permalink
    July 12, 2012 9:14 am

    Thank you,

  2. Unintended permalink
    July 12, 2012 9:55 am


  3. July 12, 2012 11:27 am

    You’ve reached new heights with this post. if i knew an ’emoticon’ for awe-struck, gape-jawed, I’d put it here. Welcome home to the place where the sea first left a bite-mark on your soul’s arse!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: