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All sailors are rich

2009 January 7
When I was a boy in upstate New York, we'd sit on the front porch and watch the summer boat traffic on the Mohawk River, mostly tugs and barges or cabin cruisers, but occasionally a sailboat would come along with its mast lashed horizontally atop the deck.

Often tanned and handsome, the folks aboard would wave as they waited for the operator of Lift Lock 17 in Little Falls to raise or lower their vessel nearly 50 feet, a process that usually took about half an hour. Sometimes we'd go down to the lock and ask where they were headed, wondering the whole time how they had made such an adventure possible.

Just about every time we did this my mom, Aggie, would smile longingly and say, "Wouldn't it be nice to be rich and get on boat like that? Take us away somewhere."

"Yes, it would," I'd reply, though as a teenager I had no idea how to make it happen.

Although we were relatively landlocked, there were plenty of people sailing in other parts of New York. My future wife, Christine, was skittering across Long Island's Hempstead Harbor on a Sunfish. Her father raced Star boats. Other sailors were plying the expansive waters of Erie and Ontario, the two Great Lakes that border New York and Canada. Even the Finger Lakes were alive with sails, especially Cayuga, which is nearly 25 miles long. But we lived too far from any of these to know what joy they could provide.

During college I briefly dated a girl whose father was a sailor. He towed a small sloop to Cayuga Lake and we clambered aboard. The halyards and sheets were solid colors, each different, because the skipper disliked having to explain their specific use to landlubbers like me. Instead, he said, "When I say pull the red one, just do it, and you'll be raising the sail."

It wasn't a positive experience. Unfortunately, the next opportunity didn't come until I was almost 30 and sailed aboard a friend's rickety Barnegat sloop. It was obvious he was enjoying himself immensely aboard the wooden wreck and when he called one day to say there was a 19-foot Cape Dory Typhoon for sale in a nearby town, I snatched it up for $2,000. I also bought a book entitled Learn to Sail, because most of those giving me advice would blurt out mind-numbing nomenclature, forgetting that I hadn't a clue about wind direction or sailing terminology.

The boat was named Persistence and it seemed appropriate. She was perched precariously on a rotted wooden cradle in the owner's driveway. I hired a flatbed ramp truck to haul her to my home in Nahant, just north of Boston. Problem was, she wouldn't budge from the flatbed. We had to smear liquid detergent on the metal surface and use a come-along until the cradle surrendered, slid down and came to rest on the concrete boat slip.

At high tide, the cradle literally fell apart and Persistence drifted free. I laughed, thinking to myself, yes, this is exactly how the rich launch their boats.

We eventually bought a bigger sloop and did plenty of bareboat chartering in exotic places. During those trips, my son, Zack, and daughter, Julie, embraced the magic of how to harness the wind. People often ask how old you have to be to start sailing. I tell them my kids were in car seats, strapped to the cockpit, breathing in the salt air and feeling the rhythmic vibrations pulsing through the hull.

Today, both Zack and I are sailing instructors, and Julie is working on her US Sailing Level I. So the answer to the age question is simple: You can never be too young or too old to start sailing, which brings me back to sitting on the porch with my mom so many years ago, watching the yachts go by on the river.

My mom turned 82 this year. She never traveled farther than the Mohawk Valley, unless it was to visit me in Massachusetts, so when my dad died last year, she was understandably blue. They'd been married 60 years.

One day we got talking about Florida, which to her geographically might as well be Borneo. Would she like to go there?
She was thrilled by the idea, even though she'd never been on an airplane. So we rented a beachfront condo on Sanibel Island, and I called Vic and Barb Hansen who own Southwest Florida Yachts in Punta Gorda, a popular charter business about 25 miles north. When I told them about my mom and how she dreamed of sailing, the Hansens generously provided a Catalina 32 for the day.

Driving through Punta Gorda and the marina village that surrounds it, my mom nearly dislocated her neck, craning side to side in awe of the opulence. Beautiful houses. Beautiful people. Beautiful boats. We hadn't told her we were going sailing until we arrived at the dock. She's very trusting. Always has been.

Once aboard Manana, my mom sat in the cockpit and marveled at the manatees swimming goofily beneath the docks. We putted out into Charlotte Harbor, escorted by dolphins and shore birds. It was 85 degrees, blue skies, 18-20 knot winds.
On the plane ride down, she had looked out the window at 30,000 feet and said, simply, "Everything looks so small."
Here, she was amazed that the boat moved fast but quietly over the water, without the need of an engine. There was just the sound of the hull pushing through the surface.

We convinced her to take the helm, guiding her to and fro whenever the sails fluttered. She never stopped smiling. "I feel like Rockefeller," she said. "This is really heaven."

I nodded and returned her smile, thinking, you're absolutely right.