Robert Downes 7/6/09
I bought an old sailboat a few years ago and have since been soaked with the thrill of discovering the other side of Northern Michigan that starts at the waterline.
Missbehavin is a 31-year-old junker with an appalling number of broken, missing, loose or frayed parts. Since I dont know enough about sailboats to know exactly what should go where or how, Ive taken to patching Missbehavin up with bungee cords, the greatest invention known to man this side of duct tape.
Built in 1978, Missbehavin is a CL-16 dinghy, meaning a Canadian version of the 16-foot Wayfarer, which was a popular racing boat prior to the invention of the catamaran and the Laser. I bought it used from the Traverse Area Community Sailing club; apparently the dinghy once belonged to a well-loved sailor who used to ply it up and down Lake Leelanau. Since it‘s bad luck to rename a boat, Ive kept the original name, even though shes been behaving pretty good so far.
Since Ive only had a couple of lessons from my much braver brother Mike, I approach the idea of sailing with a healthy sense of cowardice. Forget racing. The truth is, Im mostly a self-taught sailor, and when the boat heels way over with the wind, Im more likely to be filled with the terror of tipping over, than the exhilaration of ripping through the waves.
Especially since I sail out on East Grand Traverse Bay, where you seldom see another sailboat. And since no one is crazy enough to go with me, Im generally testing the waters alone.
But that mix of terror and exhilaration is what gives sailing its edge -- otherwise known as fun -- and you always feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment after an hour or two of bouncing on the surging back of the world.
Thats the other thrill of it: feeling the power of nature in a very primal way. The shock of the waves pound at the hull, through your feet and up your spine.Out on the bay, you get the sense that the earth is a wild, mysterious living creature that could gobble you down in a twinkle if you fail to respect its power. You get the feeling that despite all of the bad things we do to the earth -- overpopulation, global warming, polluting the seas, fouling the groundwater -- the goddess Gaia could shrug our effects off in an instant of geologic time, if and when she ever decides to get rid of us.
Like sailing itself, that raw feeling of being a part of nature is something you cant learn from a book. Ive puzzled over how to books and can never remember a lick of advice; youve just got to get out on the water and learn first-hand how to dump the wind from the sail when the boat is going over, or how to tack your way back to port when it seems hopeless that youll reach home.
There are many hoary, cliche-filled books and articles on sailing as a metaphor for life. I saw a new one at a bookstore just the other day. So I wont disappoint you by not including some here:
Always turn into the wind; if you luft and turn against it, you risk flipping over. Meaning, what seems to be the easy way out is often the worst direction you can take in life.
Know your knots to keep yourself and your boat safe and secure. The same is true of your relationships with family, friends, work and spouse.
Beware of tangled lines: they cause distractions and accidents. The same as in your personal life.
Dont be a slacker and count on bungee cords to get by. Unless you pack a bunch of extra bungee cords in case one breaks.
(I threw that last one in, hoping to add to the store of nautical wisdom.)
My genes have always been hardwired to the land, so Im amazed by people who have sailing in their blood. You hear of people who decide on a whim to build their own sailboats and cross the Atlantic Ocean to England; or teenagers who sail around the world alone.I know of one local sailor whose dream is to pilot a small boat up towards Greenland.
Then you think of the Vikings who made their way to our shores in 50-foot longboats, or the Irish monks who supposedly made it to South America back in the Middle Ages in round boats covered with animal skins. Or the Polynesians, following the smoke of distant volcanoes across the seas in their outriggers.Or the Ojibwa, who made epic crossings of Lake Superior in birch bark canoes. Surely, true sailors must be among the bravest of the brave.
On that score, Ive yet to become a true sailor, or to pass the test of flipping my boat, which is a rite of passage. While mooring my boat the other day, a passing teenager assured me that turning turtle is loads of fun.
Im not so sure. So if you ever see some guy hanging onto an upside-down boat out on East Bay, please be sure to stop by and say hello.
And for you landlubbers, give some thought to getting out on one of our local sailboats this summer: the tall ship Malabar and Nauti-Cat in Traverse City come to mind, as do Sunshine and Bay Breeze Charters in Charlevoix, among others.With the wind in your hair, the sun in your eyes, a wave in your face, and a beer in your hand, youre sure to experience the best that the other side of Northern Michigan has to offer.