I have been waiting for this trip, manipulating my moves to keep me close and available, anxious for the chance to cross another ocean, to experience Tiger again, to learn more about sailing and boat maintenance from the man who instilled in me my addiction to the ocean.
As I said goodbye to my mother in Eugene I laughed at my 49 pound duffel bag, grateful that my dad was picking me up from JFK and I wouldn’t have to train through the city and then up to Cold Spring. Otherwise I would have opted for the duffel bag with wheels.
A delayed flight, a missed red-eye, and a free night in a Seattle hotel landed me in New York at 4:00 pm instead of 5:30 am. My father couldn’t miss a day of working on the boat, and so I found myself saddled with a pack on my back, another on my front, and a ukelele slung from my neck, heaving my wheel-less monster of a duffel from air-train to subway, to subway, to Grand Central, to the Amtrak Hudson line. At 8:00 pm I stepped off the last car to see my dad leaning against the rail of the platform.
“Come get a bag!” I demanded, and he slowly walked over, taking the backpack from my belly before leading me up a rocky forest path to his waiting truck, back to a house in full swing preparation for the sailing trip.
Two years ago I hitched a ride on a sailboat from Panama to Hawaii. My goal for that trip was to write my life story, which began on a sailboat and had now returned, full circle, I thought. That journey of low winds and long Pacific swells took a total of 57 days, including a 10-day stopover in the Galapagos. I filled an entire journal during my 10-1 am night watches, inspired by the moon, stars, and bioluminescent trails in the dark water.
But I was on a strange boat, with a crew of strangers, and all the strange trinkets and gadgets of modern navigating. I wrote and wrote, and then arrived in Hawaii and got carried away with a whole other important adventure. The life story went on hold.
It just wasn’t time. There was more to learn, more perspective to gain. That passage across the Pacific was what I needed to feel strong and confident with the sea, to know that sailing could be as much for me as it is my father’s passion. But that trip wasn’t the full circle I thought it was. It was the wrong boat, and the wrong captain.
My father, Julien; skilled woodworker, innovative problem solver, cynical sailor, crass New Yorker, grumbly Welshman. He was raised on Long Island, around boats and sailing and Yacht Clubs. Self-accepted outsider of the social elite and school-yard hierarchy, he walked home with his head down, perhaps lost in thought of whichever boat he was building. Sailing was his refuge and escape from the dysfunction of drunk parents and a culture of kids running wild, learning the boundaries of their world by throwing themselves wildly against them.
The boat, Tiger Maru; mahogany ribs and planking, teak decks, spruce mast. My father salivated over her when he first saw her, 35 years ago in a St. John harbor. At the time I was not yet born and my mother, brother, and he were living on Ishtar, the 28-foot wooden boat he had built from the keel up. Two years later, Tiger sat neglected and tropic-ravished, and my family bought her for $4,000 and resuscitated her.
The plan was to fix it up and sell it, but then I popped into the womb, and they decided a 37-foot boat would better fit a family of four than a 28-foot boat that my dad could hardly stand up in.
So I grew up on Tiger Maru. She was my house, my schoolroom, my playground, my adventure, my travel. My mother, brother and I moved off the boat 20 years ago, but my father has loyally, if not begrudgingly, maintained her. Twelve years ago he met Dana, his current girlfriend, herself a sailor, and a finish painter, who has toiled to keep Tiger’s sensitive wood varnished and protected from the elements.
Now Tiger is destined for Europe, a plan years in the making. A dream to make her worth all the years of work.
“She is too much maintenance to just sail a few weeks a year,” says Dana. “And I’m sick of sailing around here.”
Their plan is to leave her in Europe, returning each year to explore and sail. The departure date has been pushed back for a couple of years. First this spring, then the next, until finally, last week I got the call to fly out from the West coast, to come help with final preparations.
It is getting late, nudging the edges of the Atlantic Hurricane season, but so go sailing trips. We will sail down the Hudson River, past New York City, through the great South Bay, and then out into the northern Gulf Stream for a 3-4 week crossing to the British isles.
I have been waiting for this trip, arranging my moves to keep me close and available, anxious for the chance to cross another ocean, to experience Tiger again, to learn more about sailing and boat maintenance from the man who instilled in me an addiction to the ocean.
I will share here a very beginner perspective of boat life and boat travel. It is already apparent in this first week how much planning a trip like this takes. The list is longer and more obscure than I can even imagine.
Safety gear, rigging, licenses, food, water, batteries, life boats, life lines, gps, satellite phone, extra sails, engine maintenance, bottom paint, varnish, routes, charts, customs, and so much that I am most likely unaware of. If I was aware of it all, I probably wouldn’t be feeling so calm.
But between moments of infuriating diesel spills, and slopping toxic bottom paint, I find myself patting the hulking hull of my familiar childhood home, all at once happy and overwhelmed to be back in a boatyard, proud that I am now old enough to contribute and learn. I always wonder too if Tiger remembers me, and the years I spent filling her wooden planks with whispered child dreams and rambunctious sibling laughter.
I fantasize about quiet moments out at sea, returning in earnest to my life story, surrounded by a boat full of memories, returning to where it all started, to tie up some loose lines. I guess sailing for me will always be about reclaiming my childhood.
Two years ago as I crossed the Pacific on my own sailing adventure, I thought that my cathartic loop was closing, but there were still some pieces missing in myself, still some things to learn. And out there there wasn’t my father, and there wasn’t Tiger.