(“Sh-Boom”, sometimes referred to as “Life Could Be a Dream”, a doo-wop song published in 1954)
It is often said that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. I’ve been lucky enough to experience several moments like that. This particular moment lasted all night.
My first job after college was writing software at the Zion nuclear plant in the northeast corner of Illinois. My desk was squeezed into a corner of the computer room, just a few feet from the control room. I was responsible for providing nearly instantaneous data and assistance to the people generating megawatts of electricity for the company.
One afternoon, an engineer in a white hard hat entered and said, “I was told you know how to sail.” It was an abrupt statement, but I was happy to answer in the affirmative. The man (whose name I forget) owned a small sailboat in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just a few miles north of the generating station. The sailing club hosted a race every Saturday, and he was hoping I would be his crew for these nautical events. How could I say no?
I would drive north before daybreak on Saturday, and we would wolf down some coffee and a few donuts before heading out to “sea”. Lake Michigan is fresh water, but it qualifies as ocean sailing because the weather can change in an instant. It is not wise to underestimate the power of wind and waves. Our weekly adventures were lots of fun, but we consistently finished the race dead last. The boat was clean and beautiful, but my Captain was not good at trimming our sails, and not very knowledgeable about regatta strategy.
The only fly in my weekend ointment was the fact that after the boat was carefully cleaned and all the hatches were battened down, my Captain felt the need to discuss racing strategy with the other boat owners for two, and sometimes three hours after the race. All I wanted to do was go home. One evening, when it was clear we were going to be there awhile, I went to the yacht club and ordered a beer at the bar. I sat down on a bar stool next to The Old Man of the Sea. He looked like he should be whittling a piece of whale bone, while quietly humming a sea chantey.
We started to talk, and he informed me that he had recently retired. He and his wife were planning to relocate his boat to Sturgeon Bay further north. He was looking for crew to assist in the transit, so I asked, “When are you planning to do that?” He looked at his watch and said, “Oh, in about twenty minutes.” What?! I told him I had to go to work Monday morning. He assured me that he had a car waiting in Sturgeon Bay, and that we would be back early enough on Monday for me to be at work on time.
This old man was a complete stranger, and I am proud to say that do not generally go off half-cocked, without knowing the details of the adventure I’m about to embark on. GENERALLY don’t go off half-cocked. I walked down the dock to where my Captain was still stressing over tacking rules when I asked if I could borrow a PFD (personal flotation device). When? Now. Good-bye!
The crusty Old Man and I walked down the dock, and he jumped aboard a gorgeous fifty-foot boat with a wooden mast and teak decks. As he stepped behind the helm he commanded, “Cast off fore, then aft!” I tossed my PFD aboard and untied the mooring line at the bow, and tossed it on deck. I made a mental note that the line would have to be coiled and stowed at the earliest opportunity. A good sailor exhibits meticulous attention to detail. I untied the mooring line at the stern, and carefully walked the boat out of the slip. I jumped aboard at the last possible moment and found a seat.
I was introduced to his wife, son, and his son’s girlfriend, all of whom stared at me wondering who the heck I was. It was about that time my brain finally asked, “What the hell have you gotten yourself into?” I considered my options. We were less than five miles from shore, and as an Olympic-class swimmer, that would be nothing more than a warm-up swim for me. If things got really crazy, I could simply abandon ship.
The more I studied the boat, the more beautiful I realized it was. Teak wood is valued for its durability and water resistance. There wasn’t a thing out of place, or any sign of damage that would indicate the boat had been mishandled in anyway. No “dents in the fender”, so to speak. After a short while, Mom made sandwiches, and gave us bottles of soft drink. After we ate, the Old Man asked me if I would like to take the helm. I was stunned. Sitting in First Class on a 747 is royal treatment, but this was like the pilot coming out of the cockpit and asking you if you’d like to fly the plane for awhile. Now… I knew I was dreaming.
As I carefully watched the compass to keep the boat on a proper heading, everyone headed below to get some sleep. Mom told me to wake someone when I got tired, and I would be relieved at the helm. This is normal sailing protocol. An official watch schedule has six four-hour watches, where someone is responsible for the safety of the ship around the clock.
I sat at the helm as night fell and the crescent-moon disappeared below the horizon. Far from any city lights, the number of visible stars seems to increase exponentially, making it more difficult to recognize the ones you have already memorized. The boat was being chased by a following sea, and I was so in awe of the experience that I had to remind myself to breathe. If it was possible to stop time by throwing the calendar overboard, I would still be sitting at that helm today.
At six o’clock the next morning, Mom stuck her head out of the companionway and asked, “Are you still here?” I said, “Shhhhh! Don’t wake the others. I don’t want them to take the helm away from me.” Within an hour, the Old Man came back on deck and took the helm for the rest of our trip. We stopped in Whitefish Bay (of Edmund Fitzgerald fame) for breakfast, then continued our journey north to make the boat ready for winter on its new mooring. We had the most delicious fish dinner at the Sheboygan yacht club, and then we piled into a small sedan and drove back to Kenosha for most of the morning.
The Old Man was right. I made to work on time Monday morning. And when my friends asked, “What did you do this weekend?” I had a long and salty story to tell. Working a 9 to 5 job every day can become monotonous and boring, but every once in awhile, Life can be a dream, Sweetheart!