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Reflections on a life afloat: My first night at sea

by David Schmidt 24 Mar 10:00 PDT March 24, 2020
Puget Sound on a rare sunny winter morning, as seen from Sunset Hill Park © Coreen Schmidt

Given that the racing landscape has been dramatically changed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Sail-World has decided to do a few things differently with this newsletter for the next few weeks and months. Rather than covering regattas and happenings in the sailboat-racing world and adding our own editorial musings, we are instead going to focus on happier times.

Call it a stroll down memory lane, but in the coming weeks and months we are going to unfurl a series of stories that remind us of why we love to sail, and of the significant meaning that it holds in our lives. Some of these stories will come from my pen; others, dear readers, we hope will come from yours (see below).

Here goes:

The year was 1987, and I was a ten-year-old boy who was absolutely infatuated with sailing (some things never change) and specifically with wanting to join my dad on his yearly offshore deliveries with "the boys" from our Connecticut homeport to DownEast locales where my mom and brother and I would join him (sans his pals) for a few weeks of cruising. While our cruises were always fun, my dad's voice always rose a notch or two when describing the offshore passages. I might have been young, but I knew that adventure lay over the horizon, an unknown place to me where seamanship, teamwork and a pinch of good fortune mattered most.

After years of hearing tales of whales, dolphins and other charismatic megafauna, not to mention some cracking good sailing, I finally convinced my mom to let me join my dad and a few of his friends for a delivery aboard my family's old C&C 37 from Bar Harbor, Maine, back to Long Island Sound. I can still remember the feeling, not unlike the one that a quickly descending elevator can produce, as we untied our dock lines and waved goodbye to my mom and little brother, who remained ashore.

Suddenly, I found myself in the company of men, of new words (ahem), and of a decidedly unvarnished lifestyle. I also quickly discovered that with these newfound freedoms also came a lack of mollycoddling. Evening fell as land disappeared astern. That elevator-ride feeling returned as my dad stationed me on a watch schedule, and as I first heard the words "manning-up".

All was fine as we clawed our way out into the vast Gulf of Maine, but the inky black night sky was soon striated with lightning and the not-so-distant clap of thunder. My fear rose, but as I looked to my dad, a veteran of many of these passages, I saw nothing but unflinching confidence.

I clearly remember sitting in the cockpit, likely around 2100 hours, as the rains arrived, harnessed in, my oversized (adult) lifejacket pressing against my neck, as my dad started handing out cups of strong black coffee. Mine came with the words: "Don't tell your mother." Instantly, I was hooked. The smell from that steaming mug was that of manhood, of confidence in the face of adversity, of adventure and of self-sufficiency. The taste took some getting used to, but I swore to myself that I would love the beverage, irrespective of my taste buds.

Two hours later I woke with a start from my quarter-berth bunk and barely (OK, not really) made it to the leeward rail before re-tasting that oh-so-adult beverage. Wind Dancer's bow was now heaving and plunging into the steep swell, and the storm was dragging staccato fingers of light across the inky August sky. I quickly learned two more uses for the word "green": greenhorn (me!), and green water over the bow as I battled my first (of many) bouts with serious seasickness.

Despite my cries, my mother wasn't going to magically appear, nor was there a quick way off this boat.

Instead, I saw my dad successfully skipper his vessel through the wildest sailing that I had seen (to date). More importantly, I also saw a vision for the kind of leader-and man-that I wanted to become.

While these were heady thoughts for a ten-year-old boy, the adults kept their composure and ensured our safety. Looking back, some 33 years later, the storm was lumpy but nothing serious. But to my eyes, it felt like we were battling a low-pressure system somewhere near Point Nemo.

Many more trips to the leeward rail ensued, but, some 36 hours after leaving Bar Harbor, Nantucket hove into view. My initiation to offshore sailing wasn't exactly love at first tack, but then a curious thing happened.

After showering up and getting a real meal into our systems, Mike and Richard disappeared into a chandlery while my dad took me for an ice cream and some kindhearted words. Slowly, I started to feel better, but my shame at having been seasick in front of the men—not to mention crying for a flat horizon and my mom—evaporated when Mike handed me a brown paper bag. Inside were a pair of sailing gloves and a knit watch cap. My eyes filled with tears of gratitude: While I might have failed my own acid test, the crew accepted me as one of their own.

I'll never forget the curious looks that I got from my fellow junior sailors when I showed up at the YC for sailing lessons wearing my watch cap and sailing gloves on a hot, windless day a week later. While my fellow juniors didn't get it, my instructors, upon hearing my story, understood that I had taken a step that many sailors don't get to experience until much later in life, if at all.

My final lesson from that first offshore experience involved time. While I swore that I'd never sail offshore again during the worst bouts of my mal de mer, I quickly found myself remembering that first sunrise at sea, the smell of the open ocean, and the camaraderie that formed through a mutually experienced hardship. Within a week or two of our return I began pestering my dad about next summer's trip, begging for a berth.

And so began an almost 30 year spell of sailing offshore every year with my dad. The C&C 37 was upgraded for a J/44, and the cruises became offshore races, but—to this day—I still own and treasure those sailing gloves and watch cap, not to mention the lessons of offshore sailing and manhood that I began to learn in earnest on that storm-tossed night in the Gulf of Maine, many years ago.

If you've got a story that you'd like to share with the Sail-World community, please email me at ds@sail-world.com. We'll pick the most compelling stories and work with their authors to create an edited version that's ready for prime-time publication. The topics are wide open, so long as the words come from the heart.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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