My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
(“O Captain! My Captain!” is an extended metaphor poem written in 1865
by Walt Whitman, about the death of American president Abraham Lincoln.)
The man who taught me how to sail when I was fourteen years old has died.
I met my best friend Dan in Boy Scouts. He had a friend named Sean. We were like the Three Musketeers, spending much of our young lives together. Sean’s dad, Ernest, was the man who taught Sean and me to sail in a small, styrofoam boat called a Sea Snark. Soon we were chartering sailboats on Green Bay, and eventually we sailed on mighty Lake Michigan itself. Because Sean’s dad was the adult, and therefore the ruling opinion, I came to refer to him most of my life simply as “the Captain”. However, he was actually more like a second father to me, acting as a role model for integrity, independence, and self-sufficiency. You don’t realize these things when you’re a young boy. At the time, you’re just out having fun pursuing adventure. It is only much later in life, assuming you learn to become introspective, that you begin to appreciate how much certain adult males have influenced the man you yourself have become.
(Michael, Sean, & Dan at my mother’s funeral) (The Captain wearing a ball cap and sunglasses)
I have already shared two stories of my adventures with the Captain. Feel free to re-read “A tall ship and a star to sail her by” and “Adventures and Misadventures”. It seems fitting that today I should share another of my fond memories of a man whom I loved and respected.
After college, Sean had gone to Saudi Arabia to volunteer with the Peace Corps. I got a phone call from the Captain asking if I’d like to go sailing. I thought the idea was a little awkward. Mentally, I had always imagined that I was friends with Sean, and I was merely invited to join him when he did things with his father. Doing something with the Captain while Sean was away seemed somehow… unusual. It meant that I would have to be friends directly with the Captain. Referring to Sean, he told me he had “already lost one of his crew”, and he didn’t want to lose another. It didn’t take long for our friendship to seem perfectly normal. As I said, he was very much like a second father to me.
Rest assured, I used to dream up plenty of stupid ideas on my own. One of the reasons I loved the Captain was because he would occasionally suggest others I hadn’t yet considered. It was mid-February when he called to invite me to go sailing. Mid-February… just a few miles from Chicago. There was still snow on the ground in places, and while I didn’t express it verbally, I wondered to myself… “Are you NUTS?!” It may be obvious in retrospect that this plan was not very well thought out, but it didn’t take too much persuasion before I was putting on my jacket and gloves and driving to his home to help him lift his boat to the top of his truck.
The Captain was an engineer, and he had built his own wooden boat. It was a surf dory, with a very high bow and stern that is useful for crossing through the waves that form as the water moves closer to the beach. It was not well suited to moving under sail power, however he had fashioned a mast, rigging, and had even sewn his own sails for this vessel. I admit, the boat was not very pretty, but it was solid and sturdy. We took it to a small inland lake only a few acres in size to practice our sailing techniques, even though there was still ice around the edges of the lake.
Once we began criss-crossing the lake, sailing in February didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. We were doing what we loved, and we were fairly comfortable while doing it. One of the qualities a sailor is most proud of is his ability and willingness to overcome adversity without complaint. It didn’t matter that others were still indoors, huddled around the warmth of a fire. We were sailors, eager to be on the water in any kind of weather. Not like those sissies at home who were never brave enough to face the elements. My arrogance would turn out to be short-lived and premature.
The angle of the sail in controlled by the mainsheet. Sometimes the sail is close to the center of the boat, and sometimes in needs to swing out far over the water. It depends on where the wind is coming from at the moment. The Captain and I were laying down in the bottom of the boat to avoid the frozen air that propelled us back and forth across the lake. The Captain gave the command to “Come about! Helm a-lee”, which meant that we were about to change direction to avoid running aground on the far edge of the lake. Unfortunately, the Captain was laying on top of the mainsheet which was coiled underneath him. As the boat changed direction, the sail remained near the center of the boat instead of swinging outboard as needed. The wind, now able to push against the sail, began to heel the boat over. The sides of a surf dory tend to be very low, and much to my horror, we started to take water over the side. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as the boat tipped over, rolling the Captain and I into the frigid water. Oh, crap!
Because of the frigid water, my muscles were unresponsive to my will. I found it impossible to move. My waterlogged clothing seemed eager to drag me to the bottom of the lake. I remember – vividly – holding my life preserver with my chin so I wouldn’t drown. In a few moments, the adrenaline and will to live allowed me to control my body again, as the Captain and I clung to the wooden boat, floating just below the water’s surface. We managed to climb back into the boat, but the tall ends and low sides of the boat made bailing water impossible. Our only choice was to sail the boat directly downwind until we came to shore. We were able to spill the water out of the boat, making her seaworthy again. Our wet clothes freezing solid in the cold wind. All we wanted to do was return to the truck and get home before hypothermia could incapacitate us any further.
As we sailed upwind towards the truck, we were once again laying in the bottom of the boat avoiding the wind. And as the fear of freezing to death diminished, we felt a need to reassure ourselves that we were “real sailors”. So we zig-zagged back and forth two more times to demonstrate our dogged resilience. I doubt that you can comprehend the depth of our love of sailing, but no level of adversity is likely to keep us on dry land. We lifted the boat back on top of the truck, and as we began driving home, we both started to laugh out loud. We vowed to keep our experience a secret, since there is no honor in giving people evidence that justifies their conclusion that we are certifiably crazy. After putting the boat in the garage, we quickly ran downstairs so we could dry our clothes in the dryer before joining the party that was already underway upstairs. Someone shouted, “Are you guys OK down there?”, and we assured them that were were fine. We were just practicing our knots like the dedicated sailors that we were.
Once our clothes were dry and comfortable again, we casually joined the people who gathered frequently to visit’s Sean’s family. The Captain and I nonchalantly poured ourselves coffee as people asked us how our sailing adventure had progressed. We regaled them with stories of tacking and beating to windward, deliberately using nautical terms that they probably didn’t understand. Our excursion had gone exactly as planned. At least, that was the story were were telling. Soon, everyone started laughing because they knew about our little misfortune. Someone driving to the party looked across the lake and only saw the sail of our boat. They came to a stop on the shoulder of the road to confirm that – the boat itself was underwater. Everyone knew that we were drying our clothes downstairs to cover up our failure as mariners. Our charade had been pointless, so the Captain and I retold our story as it had actually happened. Our audience was confident that we were crazy, but somehow they were still able to admire our persistence to follow our nautical dreams.
The Captain certainly followed his dreams. He signed up as a merchant mariner and sailed around the world on a cargo ship. We would call each other periodically to find out what was new in our lives. I would mail him copies of the sailing magazines that had piled up since our last conversation so he could enjoy the stories of other sailors who had survived a storm, or the near sinking of their sailboat. The Captain and I shared a love of the ocean that is difficult to explain to rational people. He will be greatly missed.
I strongly encourage you to follow your dreams, in spite of what others may think. Life is finite. Enjoy it while you can.