So where did it all start?
Maybe it was growing up under the wide open skies of Western Kansas where you can see the curvature of the Earth on clear mornings. Somehow I knew there was a lot out there, past that curve, that I wanted to see. I just didn't know how to go about it. The thought that I might actually go somewhere never entered my mind. Travel for us consisted of long automobile trips to Missouri to visit relatives. Great for kids reading comics in the back seat, but that didn't ignite the spark of exploration. A place like Australia might as well have been on the moon for all it mattered to me. My hometown was a small farming community embedded in the fertile topsoil of western Kansas, a great place to grow up, a place to learn small town values and the value of hard work and determination. But it was a blip in the desert, cut off from the rest of the world by hundreds and hundreds of miles of flat empty farm ground. The nearest open water, a small man-made lake, was eighty miles away. Not the kind of place conducive to planting the seeds of cruising. I could swing a giant four wheel drive tractor as big as a house with a 45 foot plow behind it in a tight circle and drop the plow back into the earth exactly where I'd left off by the time I was 17. But of the world and of boats I knew nothing. So how did I make the trip from small town country boy to sailor? I've thought about it some, and there were several things that led me here.
One time was the night I rode my motorcycle across the dam of a small lake. I was in a new city, having moved, for the first time, away from the small town I grew up in. A divorce and a job change and I was looking at the world with new eyes. College beckoned, along with the rest of the world. That night I shut the motor off and coasted to a stop to look at the moonlight on the water. A tinkle of glasses and the murmur of conversation, like birds rustling in the brush, made me look carefully into the blackness where I spied lights reflecting on the water. The green and red glow made no sense to me but the warm lamplight emanating from the cabin windows meant a boat. After a bit I could discern it was a sailboat, gliding by just off the dam in the night. Aboard a happy group was laughing and talking in the soft lantern light. “Wow, that is cool.” I thought. The next day I rode back and looked for the boat. It was gone but in the distance I could see masts sticking up like a sprout of aluminum cottontails at the edge of the lake. A marina! Walking around the boats, observing the people who worked on them and sailing them I could see this was it. This was the way to travel. I had to have one of these! Not an RV, which I'd considered; RV's were traffic, and traffic was something I wanted to get away from. Not a powerboat either, years of motorcycles and cars had taught me I'd had enough of loud, smelly and fuel-thirsty engines. I wanted to glide along in silence like those people on the sailboat.
A trip to the bookstore rewarded me with a copy of a how-to sail book. Reading it was fascinating; I had no idea what half the terms meant. But that just piqued my curiosity, so back to the bookstore I went. There I discovered sailing magazines! Amazing, I thought, this is huge! In my desert-bound small-town naivety I had no idea there were people who actually lived on sailboats or raced them around the world. The realization was no less staggering than if I'd discovered there were people living on the far side of the moon. I was in heaven.
Soon I talked my cousin into selling me his 15 foot West Wight Potter, a jaunty thing with an salty look and attitude, bright yellow in color and named, appropriately, “Top Banana”. Hitched to the rear of my Jeep Cherokee this loud yellow boat was huge! How would I ever learn to sail it? It didn't have a steering wheel, no brakes, nothing that looked at all familiar to me. Just a simple stick called a tiller and a tangled mess of ropes lying in the cockpit. Little did I know then I had lucked into one the most forgiving and easy to sail small boats on the water.
With Top Banana parked proudly in my driveway I went around and around the boat, instruction book in hand, learning the names and locations of all the neat looking chrome-plated gizmos, parts, and do-dads that made up the rigging and controls. My cousin, in his wisdom, had given me a simple backyard lesson in how to get the sails up and how the tiller worked and then said “Just take her out and you'll figure it out. That's the fun part. You can learn how to sail in an afternoon and spend the rest of your life getting better at it.”
Truer words have rarely been spoken.
One fine summer day shortly thereafter I was ready. A girlfriend of mine who had some sailing experience had agreed to go out with me and try this bright yellow boat out. With a lump in my throat that felt just like the one I experienced at the start of a car race we found a ramp and rigged the sails. Unsure of how this was done I started the little two-horse Johnson and putt-putted us well out into the lake, partly to get out in the wind but partly to get away from the curious eyes of the guys in the fishing boats who were also launching from the same ramp. I also wanted a lot of room in case I got her going and couldn't get stopped. I still wasn't sure about that part. We shut off the motor and pulled up the main with a rope called the “main halyard”. The bright yellow sail fluttered madly in the wind like a shirt on a clothesline as I fumbled with the other control line, one called a “main sheet”. As I hauled in the line the boat leaned over sharply and took off. I will remember that moment until I die. Like Einstein must have felt when he worked out E=Mc squared, I suddenly understood sailing. (I believe they call that moment an “epiphany”.) Not only the technical aspect but there was something more, something that gave it a deep richness unlike anything else. Like biting into a slice of pie and finding it much more tart that you expect. It took me a few more years to fully understand everything I learned that afternoon.
What I remember is the elation of suddenly understanding that I could, indeed, sail to Australia now, or anywhere else on the planet. Wide open freedom beckoned. Who needs motors and roads and gas? To wedge apart the balance between ocean and sky and ride that balance anywhere was intoxicating. Laughing out loud we careened across that lake as if we'd discovered the fountain of youth.
Years have passed since that day but I still get the same thrill when the sails fill. I've had many wonderful night sails, just like those people at the dam. The journey continues and the boats have grown; Gretchen and I just purchased our cruising boat, a thirty-eight foot Island Packet named “Lucidity” with which, someday, we could in fact sail to Australia.