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The key to family sailing is weathering the storms

2016 November 1

At the port I call home on the shores of Lake Michigan many local sailors opt for a night crossing, since the conditions are predominantly light. Weather systems around here usually relax when the sun sets and the temperatures settle.

Our young families were betting on it. We left the slip at 7 p.m. to catch the sunset over the shore as we sailed away, babes onboard. Mario, the 9-month-old son of sailing friends, settled into his car-turned-boat-seat with a warm bottle, and our 18-month-old Kate fumbled and tumbled in a berth held in by a leeboard and occupied with a picture book and a blankie. We were destined for a summer weekend on sandy Michigan beaches, 90 miles east. 

A light, cool northerly breeze sent us happily reaching for hours. We enjoyed a starry-night snack and listened to the Muppets album, and then a top 10 list of lullabies. The kids fell asleep. It was family sailing perfection, until an unforecasted clocking breeze came on sharply, pushing the sea surface into the nasty short chop that predicts the coming commotion of a northeaster. We were in for it.

Roxanne and Angela committed to the cabin and its motion in order to keep watchful eyes on the kids.

Steve and I kept big sails up as long as reasonable in order to minimize time to arrival. We reduced to the No. 2 at about 1 a.m., the No. 3 at 2 a.m., and threw in a reef an hour after that.

When the autopilot groaned heavily and the boat spun out on a wave, we elected for hands-on, upwind, up-wave driving and trimming. We needed the directional stability of both a jib and main and the reflexes of active driving and trimming to de-power and keep the boat flat. The driver’s goal was to try to prevent pounding or the crew down below would be thrown around. We traded the helm every hour to try to stay fresh.

Our attempts at comfort would prove somewhat futile. Spray and sloshing had forced most hatches closed.

We didn’t see our wives for many hours. Car seats held the kids for a time but are not designed as beds. I’m told it became a battle to hold bodies down. Roxanne rolled herself and her son into a blanket cocoon in a pipe berth and Angela wedged two feet against the narrows of the V-berth and hugged Kate to her chest. Sometime about 4 a.m., the smell of vomit wafted from a slot between the hatchboards. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Fast forward 12 hours. A 4-knot southerly nudged us north along the sunny sandy Michigan shore under spinnaker. We’d plugged the scuppers and pumped an inch of cool water into the cockpit so kids in swimsuits could splash while adults took turns being gently towed behind the boat. We snacked on fresh apples and cheese, took turns napping and laughed about the prior night.

That trip was nearly two decades ago, but the point is that there is a giant trade-off with family sailing; bad with the good and good with the bad. Let’s explore something else under the surface.

If you’ve ever sailed with family, you are familiar with the vividness of the memories that these times create. You may be able to see, in your mind’s eye, every moment in sharpest technicolor. I’m guessing that you retain snapshots of the anchorages and diaries of the conversations had at them. You may also store moving pictures, like animated dreams, of many of the hours underway. Some could be your best memories. Some may seem more like nightmares.

I met a woman in her 40s (we’ll call her Jane) a few years ago who told me that her father forced her onto his crew from the time she was 12 until she was about 18. They would tow their Lightning around the Midwest to regattas every weekend. “Dad was obsessed,” Jane said. “I made few friends, because we were always gone. He wanted to win so badly that he’d sit back there, white knuckling the tiller, driving like a lunatic, screaming and swearing at me. He wasn’t his best, and I wasn’t ever good enough for him.” She abruptly stopped sailing and has not returned.

Like sailing, families and the people in them aren’t perfect. Some can be stormy. Some storms, like the one that our families faced that night, seem as if they’ll never end. But in sailing, the storms always end; you just have to wait them out. So this is where the similarities end.


Weather isn’t in our control. We can only survive it. Relationships are made, but only when we are empathetic. (When we’re not, then relationships are something to survive, too.) A seasoned sailor’s strategy to handle heavy weather is to defend and hunker down. The tools to navigate relationship conflict are in the mirror. We can’t change another person, but we can adapt to become more compatible with them.

Consider if Jane’s dad had shifted his family sailing goals. What if, when his daughter was 12, he had set new expectations that were less about winning and more about the quality of the time? What if he had let go of his grip on the helm and let his daughter drive? What if he’d not removed her from her friends, but brought them along on their trips? What if he had shouted less and listened more? I think she’d still be sailing, but unfortunately not with dad. He’s now a memory.

So as not to leave you on a total downer, I can report a fantastic new trend in sailing: At sailing centers and schools nationwide, more families than ever are learning to sail together, in programs designed to share the helm, teach intergenerational teamwork, leadership skills, and cooperative self-reliance via the adventure. Call it the perfect storm, only this one is all good.