Sea Fever – by John Masefield
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying
I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
I love the ocean like a mistress. She makes me feel young again, so I never tire of seeing her.
My love affair began when I was four years old and learned to swim. I made my first scuba dive when I was ten, and earned my scuba certification when I was fifteen. My goal in life was to sail the oceans with Jacques Cousteau so we could save the world together. That dream lasted until I learned that I couldn’t make any money doing it. Clearly there is a practical limit to my romantic idealism.
My friend’s father taught me how to sail when I was fourteen using an eleven-foot styrofoam “Sea Snark” that advertised Kool cigarettes on the sail. The learning process was very straightforward for me. Point the boat in the direction you want to go, and pull the sail toward you until you start moving. Naturally, pointing the boat into the wind didn’t work very well, however I quickly learned how to tack upwind to compensate for that obvious limitation. Later, we would charter small boats on Green Bay in Wisconsin – a small offshoot of Lake Michigan. Eventually we graduated to larger boats and sailed on Lake Michigan itself – the place where I experienced my first storm at sea.
We were teaching a man to sail the twenty-seven foot boat he had purchased when a thunderstorm magically appeared from nowhere. These rapid weather changes are what makes sailing the Great Lakes as dangerous as the open ocean. Refer to The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald if you don’t understand what I’m talking about. I’ve addressed my friend’s father as “the Captain” most of my life. He and I were in the cockpit – he dressed in a yellow “Nor’easter” raincoat, and I dressed in a windbreaker and Speedo swimsuit. (I used to be buff enough to make that look good, ladies.) The rest of the crew was huddled below, worried sick that we would capsize and be lost at sea. The Captain and I were loving life, quietly quoting the late Captain Ahab with his cries for “More sail! More sail!”. We felt slightly guilty for enjoying ourselves so much while others were in fear of their lives.
I share these details with you so you’ll have some idea of how excited I was when a lady I know in California asked if I would be willing to teach her how to sail. Is the Pope Catholic?! As long as I have a pulse, there will be an affirmative response to a question like that. We originally searched for a boat to rent or borrow, but eventually my friend decided to purchase a sailboat. She managed to find an incredible deal on a thirty-foot boat that was professionally cared for by someone as obsessive about sailing as I am. (Hard to believe, I know.) So I threw my dufflebag over my shoulder and headed to Long Beach, California.
On Wednesday we took the boat into the harbor using only the diesel engine. In order for her to experience the mass and momentum of a boat that size I had her motor past a remote bouy and then put the engine in neutral as it came alongside. I wanted her to see that the boat will coast five or six boat lengths just on inertia. Then I had her play “sailboat shuffleboard” telling her to put the boat in neutral when she thought we would coast to the bouy and stop. Finally, since boats do not travel in reverse as easily as automobiles, I had her zigzagging back and forth past the bouy in reverse. If anyone had been keeping track we both might be held for psychological observation.
On Thursday we returned to the harbor, this time with the sails raised. We systematically experimented with every point of sail, and practiced the art of tacking back and forth through the eye of the wind. For someone like me, with forty years of sailing experience, knowing where the wind is coming from is as easy as knowing which way is down. Believe it or not, this is one of the more difficult things for people to learn, even when their nose is pointed into a twenty-knot breeze. I had her face the bow as I rotated the boat through each angle of wind, instructing her to memorize how the wind felt on her face, her ears, and her hair. Then I blindfolded her and tested her senses on each point of sail. I’m pleased to report that my unusual training methods produced exactly the results I was hoping for.
On Friday we bought provisions and then set our course for Avalon harbor on the southern end of Santa Catalina Island. King Neptune smiled on us (probably because I’m his nephew) and a strong breeze came up from the southwest allowing us to sail the entire twenty-four nautical miles without changing our sail angle. On Saturday we ventured in the direction of Two Harbors farther north, but this time we had to tack upwind until we realized we would never finish the trip before nightfall. Heading back to Avalon was easy now that the wind was behind us. Our only delay was caused by a failed radiator hose that took me twenty minutes to repair. On Sunday Neptune smiled on us again and the wind put us on a beautiful near reach all the way back to Long Beach.
I am back in Indiana with a sunburned face, a little salt in my hair, and another story to tell around the campfire if there’s a lull in the conversation. I may get misty-eyed when I tell the story, because I love the ocean like a mistress.