Thirty-five years ago, when I was 15, my uncle bought me a 23-foot sloop with a bright deck, blue hull, canvas cuddy and 1,200 pounds of leaded keel. She had two suits of sails plus spinnaker, and she cost $1,250 firm. "Some hunk of machinery," my uncle said as he inspected her on the shipyard ways, near where we lived in Bay Shore, N.Y., on the south shore of Long Island. "First time out, you'd better take somebody along who knows how to handle a boat that size."
First time out, I sailed alone. The wind came up at 10 knots and surpassed 15 that summer day. By the time I had tacked out of the mile-long Bright-waters Canal, the Great South Bay was a mass of whitecaps from shore to shore. I sailed close-hauled, pointing toward the Fire Island light where I knew Captain Harrison Watts had anchored his charter boat Nimrod with my aunt and uncle aboard.
I sat well up on the windward deck; each time the sloop heeled, the weather helm brought the tiller so far to leeward that it slipped beyond my grasp. As the boat righted herself I would grab the tiller again, only to lose it when she heeled once more. I crossed the Bay, yawing and luffing, afraid that if I moved off the windward deck the boat would capsize.
When I was about five miles off the mainland I saw the stubby Nimrod. I judged the tide was running high enough so that I could cross the shoals without running aground. I sailed below the Nimrod's stern on a reach, then headed up into the wind on her port side, leaving 10 feet between the two hulls. It seemed a safe distance, but I was wrong. I threw a line to the waiting captain and then dropped the mainsail, my second error. The strong wind filled my jib and turned my bow into the Nimrod's gunwale, gouging out a hefty chunk of planking. The captain let out a wail.
"It was your jib that done that! Always lower your jib first and let your mainsail luff!" He seemed more vexed by my indiscretion than by the damage to his hull.
With that, the captain fetched a saw from Nimrod's toolbox and stepped aboard my sloop, seizing a shroud for balance. He was a portly man of 60 with a cherubic face and a gimpy gait, but he moved across the heaving deck with catlike agility. When he reached the cockpit he promptly sawed my six-foot-long tiller in half without permission or ado. 'Too damn long," he said by way of explanation, then indicating the rolling waters, added. "In this light breeze you want to sit down here on the leeward side."
He positioned himself in the corner of the cockpit and ordered me to raise the sails and cast off. He sat with the truncated tiller over his right shoulder, extending beyond his ear. He didn't seize the stick but held it lightly between his thumb and forefinger as if listening to the sound of the water rising through the rudder post into his fingers.
"You've got to climb the wind." he said. "When you sail a boat, you've got to climb the wind all the time."
He told me that by sitting on the lee side I could see the peak of the jib. "Sail with the jib," he said. "Watch the jib way up high. Let the boat climb the wind until the jib luffs ever so lightly, then ease off a hair. Then, as the boat gains momentum, climb the wind some more."
Years later I read technical explanations in sailing texts about "real" and "apparent" wind. The able skipper sails the breeze the boat creates as she surges ahead. But it was from the captain's vivid imagery—"Climb the wind!"—that I first perceived that delicate balance between boat, sail and sea.
When we sailed back to Nimrod he said, "You want to always lay her up close enough to crack an egg"—and crack an egg he could have. He left barely inches between his boat and mine. This time I let down the jib at once. I threw a bow line to my uncle, and we lay nose up to the wind, mainsail pretty as you please. The captain had been aboard just 10 minutes, yet he had already taught me the two most valuable lessons of my sailing life: how to "climb the wind" and how to "crack an egg."
In summer the prevailing breeze along the Great South Bay is from the south-west. It picks up at midmorning as the sun heats the land, and it gathers force through the long afternoon. In the evening the wind drops off again, as if it were saving itself for a stiffer blow the next day.
Each morning I would catch the breeze on the rise and tack to Fire Island, where the surface was calm. When I reached the lee shore the wind was brisk and the Bay flat—ideal sailing conditions for the novice I now admitted I was. I practiced tacking and jibbing until I felt I was part of the boat and she was part of me. Then, late in the day, I would sail home against the setting sun with a following sea.
In the days that followed I found out something fundamental about myself; I was a lazy sailor at heart. I had no yen to cross the ocean; I merely wanted to cruise this precious jewel, the Great South Bay, with my sheets cleated, while the sea swirled over the rail. I wanted to venture into hidden creeks and harbors, to explore islands, to watch for the wading heron or the sudden flight of a kingfisher from a reedy shore.
And yet, as the summer waned I felt an urge to test my skills against other sailors on the Bay. In truth, I probably never would have raced if I had not been wheedled into it by my good friend Al Blackman, who often sailed with me. I would rather have sailed alone than with someone who broke the spell of the moving sloop by chattering away, but Al and I could sail for hours without violating our covenant of silence.
Once ashore, however, Al jabbered about racing, and he finally convinced me it was the thing to do. We joined the Islip Boat Club, which sponsored handicap races for a variety of sailing craft. My prime rival was Frank Gulden Sr., the mustard tycoon, who was the only other member of the club with a Timber Point class sloop like my own. I had supposed, in my innocence, that tycoons were people who spent their spare time cruising luxury yachts in exotic seas. But here was old man Gulden, sailing a modest sloop like mine, under a broad-brimmed straw hat and with his two young grandchildren aboard as crew.
Our big test came on Labor Day, when the club staged a race from Bayberry Point off Islip to the state boat channel off Babylon and back. It was a two-legged, race, 10 miles out to windward and a run for home. The wind rose from the southwest, brisk but not stiff enough to raise a Bay chop that would pound the boats.
There were perhaps 30 sloops entered, and we hit the starting line with Gulden seconds after the gun went off. I glanced to leeward; there was the Nimrod, following the race with the jaunty captain and my aunt and uncle aboard. Gulden held the favorable windward position, and he tacked at once to clear the fleet. We continued for another 100 yards, inching up the wind, before we came about. Then Gulden made his second tack, heading straight for us, but he couldn't clear our bow.
"Starboard! Starboard!" Al shrieked, as if he had been waiting his whole life to tell off a millionaire. But Gulden was aware that we had the right of way, and he crossed behind us through our wake. As he did, we came about and blanketed him, taking the wind from his sails.
I settled on the lee side of the boat, the way the captain had taught me, with the tiller over my shoulder, holding it gently between forefinger and thumb. I let the sloop climb the wind of her own volition; when the jib luffed slightly I eased off and then let her climb again. Within a few minutes we were positioned favorably, well to windward of the other sloops. Every time the mustard tycoon came about, Al would tell me, and we would come about, too.
I didn't see the other boats on that windward leg; I wasn't aware of the passage of time. Every now and then Al would tell me we were "pulling ahead, pulling ahead," but I didn't really care. I was exhilarated, not by the race but by the mystical link between me and the sloop as she sliced through the sea. I was sailing now with a sense of grace I had never known before.
As we rounded the first mark ahead of the others I heard the captain's voice boom across the water. "Raise the spinnaker, ya darn fool!" Al sprang to the forward deck; soon the great sail billowed before us as we boiled along with the wind behind. We crossed the finish line first and won the race by seconds on corrected time.
For that feat we received a trophy which I lost in a house fire years ago. After my children were born, I sold the sloop and moved inland to the hills, where the liberating breeze comes not from the ocean but from the mountains, after a rain. It's a sweet-smelling breeze, filled with the scent of honeysuckle, but it can't compare with the pungent aroma of the marsh when the tide turns.
On summer nights, before I sleep, I often recollect the day I raced my sloop upwind in a brisk breeze. I can see Nimrod to leeward and Al Blackman, faithful friend, prone on the windward deck. But I am aware only of the tiller between my fingers and thumb and the surge of the blue sloop as she climbs the wind.